Sunday, July 19, 2015

Music, Torture, and the APA

Torture Chamber, Belgium. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
           Is any music not worth sustaining? Except in jest, I’ve never encountered an argument in favor of a language or a music going extinct; but what about harmful musical practices? Music used for torture, for instance? It’s true: the US military has tortured prisoners by playing recorded music, continuously and at ear-splitting volume. In conversation with a US Air Force Academy graduate this morning, I learned that Academy cadets were tortured by, among other things, music, to toughen them up psychologically as well as physically.
            I raise the issue because of the release, a couple of weeks ago, of an independent investigative report commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest professional association of psychologists in the United States. APA members are college and university professors, licensed psychologists in freelance practice, those working for various corporations and organizations (including the US military), and those engaged primarily in private, but funded, research. The APA officers commissioned the report to learn the extent, if any, of their organization’s complicity in Defense Department (DoD) activities during the war on terror under the Bush-Cheney Administration. As the report itself explains, “The specific question APA has asked us to consider and answer is whether APA officials colluded with DoD, CIA, or other government officials ‘to support torture.’ […] As a result of our investigation, we can report what happened and why. And as part of that description, we answer whether there was collusion between APA and government officials, and if so, what its purpose was.” This is an important story. First, of course, it shows that music is not always benign nor should it be sustained unquestioningly. Second, it reveals how a scholarly society and some of its members can become corrupted. For in an atmosphere of increasing professionalization, scholarly societies work to increase their power and influence, both in academia and in the public arena; and they work to advance the careers of their members. In this case, the APA advanced its profession’s importance by supporting US military torture, rewriting its own ethics rules to permit its members to advise the torturers, and in this way provided ethical cover for acts that are illegal as well as immoral when judged by international standards such as the Geneva Conventions. 
            Of course, it’s not news that psychologists advise military organizations on torture—how to do it, how to withstand it—and it shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows about the psychological operations of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Less well known, perhaps, is the US and its Allies’ psyops activities in programming US rock music on radio stations during the recovery period after the Balkan wars 20 years ago. Torture surfaced again with Abu Garaib in 2004, though music didn’t appear part of it. But not long after, I learned from progressive media sources that continuous, loud music was a part of the torture arsenal used by the US military on detainees held in secret places outside the US. I thought that my professional organization, the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), ought to take a stand against this. And so, as a member of the SEM Ethics Committee, in 2005 I proposed that we petition our SEM Executive Board to issue a position statement condemning the uses of music for torture and demanding that the US government stop doing it. The proposal was approved unanimously in the Ethics Committee and sent up to the Board for action. Meanwhile, other ethnomusicologists were at work on the topic. For example, in 2006 Susan Cusick published an important essay, "Music as Torture / Music as Weapon," which she described as an "attempt to understand the military and cultural logics on which the contemporary use of music as a weapon in torture and war is based."
In 2007 the Board approved our position statement and posted it on the SEM website, where it received attention from the media and from other scholarly societies.             
          The just-released investigative report on the APA confirms that the US military tortured detainees in the war on terror with music. New to me in the report was that the APA itself was implicated, as an organization. In other words, it wasn’t just that politically conservative psychologists advised the military on music and other kinds of torture, but that an academic society did so. The report concludes that officers of the American Psychological Association, and especially the head of their Ethics Committee (!), acting on its behalf and in its name, condoned torture and supported those psychologists who helped the US military engage in it. This may seem like a fine line to draw, between individuals and an organization, when torture is torture; but let’s recall that to this group, torture wasn’t torture. As someone who’s spent many decades as a card-carrying member of two other academic organizations, and now as an officer of one of them, I am troubled over how and why the officers of such an organization might have chosen to do what they did.
            I started talking to some non-academic friends who’d been following the story for several years. They hadn’t yet read the investigative report, but on the basis of previous revelations offered me some reasons why the APA might have done as it did. One said the psychologists were paid off, in grants and other favors; another, the former Air Force cadet, thought that they would have rationalized it on the grounds of “just war” doctrine. Certainly the Bush-Cheney Administration took pains to present US policy as a war (on terror) rather than as an initiative to prevent and contain terrorism. The investigative report confirms these explanations.  Besides, it adds what I also suspected: that the APA itself as an organization was implicated, and that they did it in order to enhance the power and importance of their profession. How could a scholarly society do something like that? And why? I was all the more disturbed because, as a scholar myself, I felt it as a blow to the high ideals of my chosen profession.
            Here, now, is the story of the APA and torture, according to the independent investigative report. In the years immediately following 911, the US Justice Department defined torture (for the CIA) in a much narrower way than it is usually understood, and in 2003, Defense Department lawyers concluded in a report that “a U.S. law barring torture by military personnel was inapplicable to interrogations of detainees, and that causing harm to an individual in U.S. custody abroad could be justified ‘in order to prevent further attacks’ on the United States by terrorists” (p. 3). They added, astonishingly, that the Geneva Conventions were not applicable either. By early 2005, most of the DoD report’s conclusions had been made public, along with stories in the media documenting instances of detainees having been tortured. There was pushback from the progressive media, along with charges that US psychologists were working for, and with, the military. Under the pressure of this ferment, the APA President created the so-called “PENS” task force (Presidential Task Force on Ethics and National Security), appointing a group of APA members, including the then APA Ethics Director, and charged it with formulating ethical guidelines for its members working with the Department of Defense (DoD). The task force published those guidelines in June of 2005. How were those guidelines determined? The independent investigation’s report found that “key APA officials, principally the APA Ethics Director, joined and supported at times by other APA officials, colluded with important DoD officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines. We concluded that APA’s principal motive in doing so was to align APA and curry favor with DoD. There were two other important motives: to create a good public-relations response, and to keep the growth of psychology unrestrained in this area” (p.9).
            That is a devastating conclusion: APA is guilty as charged. It confirms suspicions that it was done to protect and enhance the research opportunities of individual psychologists already working with the Defense Department. It points to the APA Ethics Director as the chief instigator, reporting that from 2005-2008, after manipulating the guidelines, he further “engaged in a pattern of secret collaboration with DoD officials” to defeat opposition within the APA, and that he also “formed an undisclosed joint venture with a small number of DoD officials to ensure that APA’s statements and actions fell squarely in line with DoD’s goals and preferences” (p. 9). That the Ethics Director—who of all people should have followed the Geneva Conventions—was the villain is worse than ironic.
            Insofar as blame can be laid on individuals working for personal gain, or on behalf of a misguided patriotism in which ends justify means, members of the APA (and those outside of it) can continue to oppose these practices directly. Procedures such as censure, new guidelines, and so forth can be formulated, debated and acted on; and they should. In fact, some already have. In the court of public opinion, the APA is shamed once again. More sinister, more diffuse, and well worth pondering is the report’s conclusion that the APA had two other motives: to align the psychology profession with forces of political and economic power, and to enhance its prestige. How could that happen, in an association of scholars, professors, and researchers whose chief motivation for their work is, presumably, the advancement of knowledge and the pursuit of objective truth independent of parochial considerations, subjective feelings, and political influence? We understand that doctors and health organizations engaged in eugenics research have perpetrated horrors on human beings, whether in Nazi Germany, or among African Americans in the US. But the APA, an association of scholars, researchers and practitioners whose stated “mission is to advance the creation, communication, and application of psychological knowledge,” would seem to have loftier goals. Indeed, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychiatric Association developed ethical guidelines that prevented their members from participating in US military torture. Why did the the psychologists do the opposite?
            Academic societies such as SEM were founded primarily to share research and understanding, and to add to the storehouse of knowledge about their subject. Certain other professional organizations, for at least as long as I can recall, developed an additional purpose: to help advance the careers of their members, and the reputation and stature of their profession in the public eye. The AMA is one. Fifty years ago, the AMA was a very vocal opponent of Medicare. They lost that battle, and Medicare became law. I don’t know the history of the APA, but one imagines they have a similar dual orientation. Career and reputation building has lately come, also, to scholarly organizations in the humanities, such as SEM. In the 1970s it was absent, but gradually it increased in the 1980s, until now the SEM Board believes that an important part of its mission is to promote ethnomusicology and to help its members in their careers. Graduate students are offered training, by SEM and at their graduate schools, in what is called professional development. Professional development now characterizes graduate training generally, no matter the field. And professional development is implicated among the causes of this corruption.
            I witnessed the change at my own university, beginning in the early 1990s. Until then, most professors advised graduate students individually, chiefly one-on-one in discussions that, until they were looking for jobs, were about their graduate school work and had little if anything to do with careers. I myself got no career advice and didn’t wish for it; I assumed that good work would be properly rewarded and any career would take care of itself. Naive, of course, but to me careers were things people had in the business world; teaching was a calling, not a career. Teaching assistants—those graduate students who worked with professors to help lead discussion, give an occasional lecture, and grade papers and exams under professorial supervision—were treated as interns in the best cases, and as merely paid labor in the worst. But in the last fifteen years of the past century, a change occurred. First, Brown developed a center for the advancement of college teaching, where graduate students and young professors could ask for advice on how to teach more effectively, and on how to think about a career in teaching. Next, the Graduate School began discussions with professors teaching in doctoral programs, suggesting that it would be wise to emphasize professional development along with the usual course work, qualifying exams, and dissertation research and writing. It was important for our graduates to compete well on the job market, for their own sakes and for the sake of the reputation of our program and the university. Our programs would be rewarded, in part, on how successful our graduates were in getting jobs at peer institutions—a high bar indeed. This was an early example of professional development to benefit programs, institutions, and professions as well as individuals. At the outset the impetus came from university administrators and also from young, newly-tenured professors who felt that career advice was important and who were eager to offer it to our students on a more formal basis. Soon the students themselves were asking for it, and expecting it, although some were critical of it. They wanted to know how to write grant proposals, but they did not want to engage in grantsmanship. If teaching was an art, teaching how to teach was difficult; there was no one way to do it, and while courses armed with procedures, explanations, and exercises in teaching techniques could be helpful, they might also reduce an art to a mere craft, like a model constructed from a standard blueprint.
            Besides noting the growing professionalization in graduate programs, I witnessed it in the scholarly associations I belong to. Until the late 1980s, these groups of humanists operated mostly as annual conferences and scholarly journals. They had had officers, collected dues, disbursed payments; the officers met once or twice a year to discuss the conference, the publications, and other business; but as entities they came together only at the annual conferences. The conferences and publications were for presenting research, and for sharing and debating ideas. They also were a convenient, if compromised, place to conduct job interviews—the meat market, as the larger societies called it. Toward the end of the 1980s, these groups began to establish themselves as more permanent, daily operating, non-profit organizations. They raised endowments to secure their futures. They established offices, and hired and paid executive directors to work in them. Boards composed of members now assumed responsibilities for good governance of the Societies, not just oversight of the conferences and publications. They initiated conference panels on professional development and careers, targeted at graduate students. They published, on their websites, statements meant to guide colleges and universities in understanding and rewarding the kinds of work their members did. They engaged in publicity and advertised themselves to the world on the Internet, while their sites became bulletin boards for their members. Finally, as non-profits they sought grants of their own, engaged in various projects, and attempted to raise the profile and prestige of their professions. These activities intensified in the first decades of the new century. As a current member of the AFS Executive Board, I witness this directly and am a part of it.
            Much can be said in favor of professional development. Of course it’s important for a professor to learn how to be a good teacher. Beginning professors, those who’ve just gotten their PhD degrees, often believe that their primary allegiance is to their profession, their discipline, their subject; devoted to that ideal, they present material with integrity in the classroom and are disappointed when students don’t share (or even understand) the same ideal and aren’t especially interested in the subject. Beginning professors don’t realize that they are the ones who must bridge the gulf between their subtle appreciation for their subject and the students’ puzzlement over it. Professors learn, sooner or later, that to teach is not merely to explain a subject, however well presented; to teach also means to learn to connect with the human beings who have agreed to study with their teacher. And, of course, a researcher must learn how to do research, how to write it up, how to bring it to the attention of others; how to apply for jobs, and what to expect in them; how to balance research with teaching and other activities, how to work with granting agencies in order to fund research; how to work with publishers; how to manage their careers and advance in them; how to obtain tenure if they are on a tenure track; and so on. Many promising careers have foundered, not because the research was insignificant or badly done, but because the researcher didn’t know how to treat it afterwards. It is easy to say to oneself that any research that has merit will automatically demonstrate that merit, as if it would emit such a bright light that everyone would recognize and reward it. But it seldom happens that way. Professional development, particularly in a highly competitive academic world, is helpful and today almost a necessity for a career that involves research, teaching, or a combination of the two.
            Yet professional development can sometimes devolve into careerism. In advancing their careers, professors might act selfishly, even ruthlessly. They may choose certain research topics not out of interest, nor the social benefit that might come out of it, nor as a place to make an original contribution to knowledge, but because grants to fund it are easier to get. And success in grants and funding gives an edge on the job market and career. Professors and researchers may seek out particular research topics, colleagues, and publication outlets because these are more prestigious. They may spend more time “networking” with colleagues in a position to do them favors, than with colleagues with whom they might share ideas. They might not share their ideas at all; they may be highly protective of field sites as well. They may try to make their teaching load easier (fewer students, fewer assignments, more repeat courses) in order to spend more time on research and publication, where most institutional rewards are. They may inflate student grades because they worry over negative student evaluations.
            Much can also be said in favor of professional development for scholarly societies. Putting them on a strong organizational footing benefits members as well as their disciplines. Raising their public profile helps bring their insights into the public sphere where they have something to contribute to the commonwealth of knowledge and practice. Better public relations; growth in numbers, prestige and power—whether these are worthy goals depends on the uses to which they are put. My point here about professional development is that in an atmosphere where scholarly societies are concerned about their sustainability, standing and influence, it becomes tempting to relax ethical standards while cooperating with the US military or other government or corporate entities, supposedly to advance the self-interest of the societies and some of their members. This is, to say the least, disquieting.
            For ethnomusicologists, much is at stake. While it might seem far-fetched for folklorists or ethnomusicologists to collaborate with the military on torture, recall that cultural anthropologists regularly consult on foreign policy, where their knowledge serves national goals, whether war, colonial rule, agricultural revolutions, modernization or foreign aid. Like the cultural anthropologists, folklorists and ethnomusicologists who are consulted may be held responsible for the bad as well as the good. In fact, this was the principal objection, among the founding generation of ethnomusicologists in the US (roughly from the 1950s through the 1970s) to applied ethnomusicology. In The Study of Ethnomusicology (1983), Bruno Nettl had little good to say about applied anthropologists, whose efforts were not always or even often appreciated by indigenous peoples; he classified applied ethnomusicologists in the same category. I raise these issues in the context of an ongoing (though today, not very public) critique of applied ethnomusicology; namely, that applied ethnomusicologists also “meddle” in political affairs (through music and cultural policy) where they have no business, because academics ought to be objective, neutral observers and interpreters. Of course, applied ethnomusicologists do meddle, and intervene, for what we hope will be social benefits; but then the academic psychologists who advised the US military in its war on terror also did so on the grounds of contributing to the social benefit of opposing terrorism, saving lives, and so on. It seems to me there are two ways of proceeding, and that we can learn from the example of the APA. One way is to withdraw completely from applied work; the other is to adhere to strict international standards of ethics and justice, and never assume that the end justifies the means. I will have more to say about this in future entries.


  1. Thanks for this salutary post.

    The final statement about two ways for ethnomusicologists to proceed raises questions in my mind. For instance, who defines "strict international standards of ethics and justice" and how would they be enforced.

    Looking forward to future posts.

  2. Good questions. I've been thinking about them. For now, the Geneva Conventions seem the best we've got. Enforcement hasn't been easy or always effective, as this case instantiates. Thanks as always for your perceptive comments and suggestions, Jeff

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