David Pilgrim writes…..
The failure of the BPS to establish a Board of truly independent Trustees in 1988 has had a profoundly adverse impact on its culture of governance. This missed opportunity to ensure transparency and accountability triggered an oligarchy of recycled names. Their dominance was then disrupted by the incoming professional managers, with their variable understanding of, and commitment to, academic values aligned with a purported learned Society. Between them the oligarchy and the managers created a cabal, and one of its key requirements to retain power and credibility was a norm of concealment. Divided internally, they did agree on a policy of keeping outsiders in the dark, leaving blogs like this, or investigative journalists, to expose the inner workings of the BPS.
Philosophical concerns with concealment
As we are elaborate language-using social animals, reliant on mutual trust, personal credibility is an ongoing requirement for us all. For this reason, deception has been a recurring topic in Western philosophy. Pre-Socratic thinkers described the problem of concealment (of facts and intentions) as ‘lethe’. This referred to deception and forgetting or oblivion. A counter to it, in order to ensure human flourishing, was the pursuit of ‘alethic truth’.
Interest in the topic was re-animated in the 20th century. This was a period of unrelenting war, elaborated political and theocratic propaganda and new mass communication technologies. It prompted particular interest in concealment from key political novelists (e.g., Orwell, 1949; Zamyatin, 1924). ‘Doublethink’ and other Orwellian terms, such as ‘thoughtcrime’, are now a part of a lexicon of critique and cynicism in our recent post-truth culture, dominated by identity politics. Orwell no doubt is spinning in his grave.
This was an ‘age of extremes’ and ‘century of blood’ (Hobsbawm, 1992) and reflective thought about its consequences for honesty and decency abounded. From existential philosophers of the right (Heidegger, 1927) and the left (Sartre, 1943) we find an obsessive concern for authenticity. Sartre’s notion of ‘bad faith’ reminded us that deceit and self-deceit were joined at the hip in us all. To use the Sartrean-influenced phrase of Laing (1968), when discussing experience and communication, ‘we are all murderers and prostitutes’.
Away from Continental reflection, Anglo-American philosophers also had similar concerns. Williams (2002) argued that the truth has two defining features: accuracy and sincerity. Bhaskar (1993) was more elaborate. For him alethic truth had three aspects: the ontological (objective facticity), the epistemological (knowledge claims) and the axiological (value judgments). To illustrate these three aspects of alethic truth, consider the ‘Burt affair’.
1 Is it true empirically that Burt falsified some of his data and invented names of authors in papers under his own editorial control?
2 What theories or arguments were put forward to justify these accusations or defend or excuse his conduct?
3 Did the scandal undermine or support the credibility of British psychology and the political project of eugenics and why should these considerations matter to British society and its citizens?
Concealment in the vernacular
Another Anglo-American analytical philosopher of importance for our purposes was Frankfurt (1986/1988) who mapped ‘bullshit’ and its history in the 20th century. With alternative common descriptions (‘bull’ in military contexts and ‘bollocks’ in the British pub) bullshit grew in popularity as a dismissal from below of the rhetoric of those in power. While we are all capable of bullshit, elites (political, theocratic or managerial) have a vested interest in using it routinely to sustain their preferred version of reality, with a disregard for the truth.
For clarity, bullshit does not refer narrowly to lying (Hardy, 2021). The liar, inveterate or occasional, like the truly honest person, is part of the same game. They both know what the truth is, but for a range of contingent personal or social reasons they opt to adopt a different approach to veracity. In particular, the liar will risk shame or guilt and censure and punishment if exposed, and these may be emotional considerations for them in the act of lying (and ambivalence about it).
By contrast, bullshit is both a personal and social process, whereby those dissimulating or evading the truth are indifferent to it. Their concerns are elsewhere, such as careerism, financial gain or personal survival and acceptance. The truth or otherwise, about this or that matter, is not a primary consideration for them, only egotistical gain. Their verbal or written statements might be truthful sometimes and not at others; this is merely a matter of instrumentality about which works, when. If they are caught out, they will rationalise or be evasive (i.e., they will bullshit more). ‘Damage limitation’ is a key tactic in the game of bullshit. No swords are fallen on or shame expressed; survival is what matters for the individual and homeostasis for their supporting culture.
Bullshitting individuals and bullshitting cultures
At times bullshit becomes a group process, as people with common interests opt to cover one another’s backs or conspire to evade a shared threat from without. Organizational theorists now recognise it as being quite common (so the BPS cabal is in usual, if not in good, company), as Spicer (2020) outlines here:
Why is bullshit so common in some organizations? Existing explanations focus on the characteristics of bullshitters, the nature of the audience, and social structural factors which encourage bullshitting….I offer an alternative explanation: bullshitting is a social practice that organizational members engage with to become part of a speech community, to get things done in that community, and to reinforce their identity. When the practice of bullshitting works, it can gradually expand from a small group to take over an entire organization and industry. When bullshitting backfires, previously sacred concepts can become seen as empty and misleading talk.
Spicer lays out alternative explanations, with a favoured one, but of course in their own way they might all causally inflect different bullshitting organisations, case by case. Spicer distinguishes between bullshitting and lying (see above) and also emphasises that it is characterised by vacuous and misleading forms of communication. Deception is not necessarily a primary intention, but it is a frequent outcome. The primary intention is to maintain a version of reality that suits the bullshitter as an individual or as part of a group norm. As noted above, if the truth does that job, then that is fine. In the amoral pragmatic mindset of the bullshitter, either truth or lies might come in handy.
The relevance of Spicer’s point about bullshit as a permeating organisational process, to the crisis in the BPS, is obvious. If a management culture, which wants to take control of the organization (it could be any organization for careerist managers) without reference to its espoused and traditional values, as a putative learned Society, then its credibility will be lost. When those values are discarded and the rhetorical gap, between claims of openness and actual secrecy, or academic freedom and actual censorship, becomes a chasm, then a serious credibility problem emerges. This is now the case in the BPS.
Bullshit of its very own
If the concept is overarching but also now commonplace, then what particular form has it taken in the BPS? What has been in its very own version of ‘empty and misleading talk’? BPS bullshit is generated on an ongoing basis to maintain the following mystifying version of organisational reality. Those inside the cabal probably really believe this bullshit, but increasingly the rest of us do not. Here are some examples of this point.
1 The complaints system is used selectively. Its existence provides a cover story for justice in the BPS. Members or the public are given the impression that it is an orderly and fair opportunity to establish the truth or otherwise of a grievance from the complainant. This is not true. It is a rabbit hole. Some complaints are ignored and those processed rarely lead to the complainant considering that they have been treated fairly. The complaints process is full of bullshit.
2 Unresolved concerns to the cabal, which the complainant keeps pursuing because they are unresolved, are turned into an accusation of them harassing staff. This evasion of accountability is an example of bullshit.
3 The BPS does, and it does not, process complaints against individual members. It all depends on what suits the interests of the cabal. This convenient selective attention is a form of bullshit.
4 The BPS Board is a charade, as it has not contained independent trustees since 1988. Its decisions and strategies are therefore all of dubious legitimacy. They constantly produce bullshit to justify their false and untenable position.
5 The oligarchy this has created over decades has generated a rhetoric of virtuous long service from a slow-moving elite group of psychologists. This has been a cover for their CV building, occasional financial sinecures and pursuit of their particular cognitive or political interests. This is more bullshit.
6 Policy capture, in light of points 4 and 5, has been rife but unacknowledged. Bullshit is used to cover up this process.
7 The Psychologist is not peer reviewed and, when called upon, it acts as a propaganda wing for the BPS Board. It has the semblance of an academically governed magazine, shop fronting the best of British psychology, but this is a charade. This functions to ward off criticism of the organisational status quo and offers us more bullshit.
8 Financial misgovernance in the BPS has been present for the past 20 years but it has been covered up from the membership and the general public. In the past two years the bullshit generator in the BPS has been in overdrive.
9 The dysfunctional culture of the BPS was observed by consultants from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who were so anxious about its character that they rejected any further engagement. The membership was not made aware of this scenario, which required exposure by an investigative journalist. The silence of the cabal and a preference of a ‘problem what problem?’ approach to the matter of its toxic culture is form of bullshit (the latter can include what is not said as well as what is said).
10 Anyone attempting to rectify all of this mystification and misgovernance is vilified and scapegoated (see the treatment of the radically reforming and now expelled President Elect).
This is a cue for the next and final section.
Presidential smoothers and shakers
Given the culture of bullshit that has accrued in the BPS since 1988, how have those with Presidential aspirations responded? This seems to have been on a continuum from total complicity to one of explicit challenge. In the middle have been those who have tinkered and left in despair or perplexity, while trying to retain some personal dignity and credibility. Most recently this might be a description that fits David Murphy and Hazel McLaughlin, who bailed out. Others have pushed a little harder while in post and were punished by their peers on the Board. This was the case with Peter Kinderman and James Hacker-Hughes. The sticker on the windscreen of their particular stalled Presidencies still reads, ‘Charity Commission Aware’. We might all benefit from a fuller public account of their experience at some point. Eventually we might all be interested to find out what the Charity Commission rules on misgovernance and legal non-compliance in the BPS. This has been a long time coming, which for now favours the survival of the cabal.
The extreme anchors on the spectrum of complicity have been prominent very recently. Ray Miller was president of the Society in 2006. Apart from this role he has also at various points been Chair of the Division of Clinical Psychology and Chair of the Professional Practice Board. He was Honorary Treasurer of the BPS between 2013-2019 and was a Trustee for thirteen (sic) years. In conversation with the then CEO Tim Cornford in 2006 he described himself very honestly and fairly as being a ‘BPS junkie’ since 1984 (The Psychologist, 2006). He was called upon to Chair the rigged ‘appeal’ by the President-Elect Nigel MacLennan, after his expulsion.
Note well, this was in the wake of trumped-up charges about MacLennan allegedly bullying a person who he had never named, accused, had any communication with or knowingly met. The truth of this scandal will eventually be heard, but for now we have had to suffer the scurrilous video on YouTube, fronted on behalf of the cabal by Carol McGuinness. This disparaged MacLennan and closed down his professional career. Moreover, it oozed bullshit. It was broadcast very publicly and very deliberately before the appeal against the decision was even heard. It contained the vacuous phrases about it being a ‘challenging year’ (for whom and about what?) and the Society being ‘at a crossroads’ (the direction signs saying what – ‘heaven this way, hell that’ or maybe ‘new honesty in that direction versus more bullshit in the other’)?
Thus, Ray Miller, a stalwart and beneficiary of the BPS culture for over thirty years, was asked to be part of this charade offering the face validity of his ‘independence’. He graciously accepted the role, and the stitch up of MacLennan was completed. In what possible sense (logical or empirical) was he independent of the cabal and the long-standing culture of misgovernance it continued to defend? Only the wilfully blind could believe that this personal juxtaposition was anything but a stark contrast between one President who was, to use his own words a ‘BPS junkie’, and another who wanted to challenge openly the malfunctioning culture that was so addictive to a self-interested oligarchy. This whole scenario reflected bullshit not justice.
The coda to this story is that we have a replacement for Nigel MacLennan, Katherine Carpenter. She has a reputation of decency from those who know and like her. However, the early signs are not encouraging. She has issued a Pollyanna statement about the future (pinning our political confidence on the ‘New Strategic Framework’).
Any politician who wants to ‘draw a line under the past’ (another common bullshit cliché, like ‘wanting to make a difference’) and only look to the future should be held in suspicion. This is particularly the case given that the legacy of cultural failure since 1988 has undermined both public confidence and membership democracy. Given the gravity of the current crisis in the BPS, we have to go back honestly before we can go forwards confidently. Carpenter’s very existence in the Presidential position emerged because of a clear past cultural failure and its imperviousness to legitimate challenge. Systemic resistance has tended to outwit individual Presidents, who have bothered to tinker and challenge. Why should Carpenter be any different?
Readers may recall that the cabal decided to restrict who could stand in the Presidential election. From their control-freakery perspective this was a smart move. It pre-empted the risk of another radical reformer being elected. The tactic worked by declaring that only candidates who had already proven their active or passive complicity could stand (i.e., members of Senate and Trustees). Senate members had self-evidently and consistently failed to challenge or address the misgovernance that MacLennan, as a lone voice, was describing. Accordingly, anyone ‘elected’ from Senate (notably no Trustee put themselves forward) would already be a safe pair of hands for the cabal. The ‘election’ was not open to nominations from the general membership and the potential risk this might pose to the cabal: so much for democracy.
I will submit a longer version of this piece for consideration by the editor of History and Philosophy of Psychology. If it is accepted, it will probably be spiked by an anonymous apparatchik in the censorship department of the BPS. I have been there before and, as they say, ‘got the T-shirt’.
Bhaskar, R. (1993) Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom London: Routledge.
Frankfurt, H. (1986) On Bullshit Raritan Quarterly Review. 6, 2, 81–100.
Frankfurt, H. (1988) On Bullshit: The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988.
Hardy, N. (2021) Catcher in the lie: resisting bovine ordure in social epistemology Journal of Critical Realism 20, 2, 125-145
Heidegger, M. (1927) Sein und Zeit (trans J. Stanbaugh 1962 as Being and Time) New York: State University of New York Press.
Hobsbawm, E. (1992) The Age of Extremes London: Michael Joseph
Laing, R.D. (1968) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Orwell, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty Four London: Secker and Warburg.
Sartre, J-P. (1943) L’Être et le Néant (trans. H. Barnes 1956 as Being and Nothingness)London: Routledge.
Spicer, A. (2020) Playing the bullshit game: how empty and misleading communication takes over organizations Organization Theory 1, 1-26.
The Psychologist (2006) Double top – Ray Miller in discussion with Tim Cornford: The Society’s new President in discussion with the Chief Executive. How do their roles work together, and where do they see the Society going? April, 19, 20-21.
Williams, B. (2002) Truth and Truthfulness Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Zamyatin Y. (1924) We (trans. G. Zilboorg) New York: E.P. Dutton