Ethics, Gender, Identity Politics

Gender: Cass, GIDS and BPS Guidelines

Is the BPS able to tolerate controversy and step up to the current debates?

Pat Harvey posts…

Background

In 2020, I became aware of some of the extensive issues involved in this case:

“The tangled case of the brothers who became girls, aged seven and three. A couple’s own son transitioned – and within months they were given a baby to foster, who became a girl too.” (https://archive.ph/3rEQw)

The details of the discussion of psychological considerations presented in this court case are very disquieting. Accordingly, I went to the current 2019 British Psychological Society Guidelines (currently downloadable at https://www.bps.org.uk/guideline/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity ). I was naively hoping that my professional body could offer a position statement which would fairly represent  a weighing of the dilemmas that would help a court case such as this one.

The document resembled no professional guidelines or policy guidance that I had ever seen during a long NHS clinical, service manager and trainer career, or as a member of the Mental Health Act Commission (precursor to the CQC) or as a panel member of an independent inquiry.

The content of the guidelines was very brief, sketchy yet dogmatic. There was no proper respectful recognition of current controversial clinical issues or social and political context. One approach only appeared to be acceptable, that of non-questioning “affirmation”. Consent issues were not considered. Sexuality and lifestyle issues such as kink and BDSM were lumped together with gender. There were hugely important omissions, such as the dilemmas of working with people who have a sexual interest in children. The limits of the research base were ignored.

I made a very detailed formal complaint about the form, the content and what I had discovered about the process of generating these guidelines. This served to illustrate and to confirm the experience of others – that the BPS complaints procedure was neither adequate, nor was it even followed. The complaint dragged on for months, deadlines were missed, I had to deal with different individuals at different times and important points in my complaint were missed.  Unacceptable assertions about the status of evidence were dismissed with “we are a broad church”. The irony of this in the context of an “affirmation only” approach in the guidelines was lost. Only my persistence in the face of these failures got the complaint to Stage 2.

The complaint was closed with little by way of any positive outcomes. There were formal apologies for procedural failing. There was an evasive reply to the assertion I made that the members of the group which generated the guidelines had not all signed off on them. The crucial matter of their woeful inadequacy in the matter of providing responsible guidance for distressed gender questioning children was evaded by a retrospective formal addition, stating “For adults and young people (aged 18 and over)”. This was unaccompanied by any formal public announcement to members, many of who might still be working from the original, unamended version. The contents however, remained ambiguous with respect to age as with the implications that the following paragraph was applicable to minors: 

“Assistive reproductive options may be needed and should be discussed openly and frankly, perhaps especially in the case of trans youth who are seeking treatments which will remove reproductive options at an age below that which people commonly consider becoming a parent”.

Hence, since 2020 until the present time, the professional guidance for psychology practitioners and non- psychologists, provided by the British Psychological Society are still held out on their website as follows:

‘These guidelines are aimed at applied psychologists working with mental distress, but may also be applied in associated psychological fields.

The principles they are based upon are derived from both the literature and best practice agreement of experts in the field and may also be applied to other disciplines, such as counselling, psychotherapy, psychiatry, medicine, nursing and social work.”

In my view this is nothing short of a scandal, a failed responsibility to the public. The national Gender Identity Disorder Service was, after all, psychologist led.

Events since 2022, further actions

In August 2022, after the Cass interim report and the subsequent announced closure of the GIDS, I wrote to the Practice Board of the BPS. 

I am reproducing the letter in its entirety, followed by the response I finally received in November 2022, after a number of email prompts from myself.  I make no further comment beyond my letter and the response in order that the reader might make their own judgement.

********************

Letter to British Psychological Society Practice Board

From Pat Harvey AFBPsS., C Psychol.

16 August 2022

Re BPS 2019 GSRD Guidelines

I am writing to you as a BPS member and an interested party in the process and development of BPS policy statements and the publication of guidelines for psychologists and other professionals working with clients who access services for problems relating to questioning their gender identity. 

My interest has developed sequentially from

  • Experience during 30 years of clinical practice in adult mental health services with Male-to-Female clients, then termed Transsexuals and Transvestites.
  • Experience directly related to certain high profile and media reported cases of individual families in court.
  • Engagement with the BPS complaints procedure (August 2020 – April 2021) in respect of the 2019 GSRD Guidelines and the public statements of the Chair of the Task and Finish group responsible for producing those guidelines. There are detailed responses from Karen Beamish which should be available on file. 
  • Responsibility for public content of the critical Twitter account @psychsocwatchuk
  • Articles published under my authorship on BPSWatch.com.
  • A chapter authored by me on the 2019 GSRD Guidelines in the forthcoming book British Psychology In Crisis: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction edited by David Pilgrim. Phoenix publishers (2022 in press).

I believe that the British Psychological Society has a duty to develop policy and best practice relating to matters central to psychology in the interests of the public and to assist its practitioner members. It also has a duty to keep its members properly informed, but the BPS has a recent history of lack of openness and transparency which operates to the detriment of that those duties.  Accordingly, I am writing to you with a series of questions which I believe members have the right to have answered and to be updated on as soon as possible, even if merely to be told that a process of consideration is ongoing.

Are the GSRD Guidelines being reviewed?

I understand that the 2019 GSRD Guidelines may be in the process of revision. I make this assumption on the basis of the twitter exchange below and because the 2019 Guidelines themselves have disappeared from the webpage https://www.bps.org.uk/guideline/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity  without explanation. 

Why is there no explanation or clarification? 

There have been several ambiguous undertakings made to myself, to others and on the webpage to review the 2019 Guidelines over a two year period:

  • “in the light of the outcome of the Bell vs Tavistock Judicial Review”, November 2020.
  • “These guidelines will be reviewed following the outcome of the Bell v Tavistock appeal process” https://www.bps.org.uk/guideline/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity  
  •  “In the meantime the Chair of the Practice Board has already put in place plans to commence a review of the gender guidelines upon the conclusion of the appeal.” (Karen Beamish to me 9 April 2021)  
  • On Twitter to an individual (see above) “following the Cass review” 1 August 2022.

This is a completely unacceptable way to keep members updated. It is also extremely confusing since the 2019 GSRD Guidelines had a retrospective caveat added as a direct result of my complaint (“we have offered to put a statement on the front of our guidelines, on our website and all points/places where the guidelines are referenced to confirm that the BPS guidelines for psychologists working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity are for adults. We will implement this urgently”) in April 2021. However, the Tavistock cases related to issues of consent of minors under 18. The remit of the Cass review is that it is the Independent Review by a paediatrician of “gender identity services for children and young people”. So, rhetorically – to emphasis the confusion of the BPS – how are those external drivers central to the decision to review guidelines explicitly stated since 2021 as applying only to adults?

Will the supposed review result in guidelines for children and young people?

It is clear that there has been a “moving picture” with regard to external events, first legal, then with the Cass Review and now the planned closure (in the wake of criticism about service accessibility failures, failures of service integration, ideology, data collection and research evidence base) of Tavistock GIDS. That moving picture, which will undoubtedly develop, cannot preclude the provision of guidelines for practising psychologists in the meantime. The BPS has provided nothing useable for its members to date: there is not any set of psychological principles that support ethical and reflective psychological practice, principles that would weather a changing legal social and political milieu. 

The BPS should seek confidently to espouse key psychological principles in this contested area and take a lead. These principles include

  • Psychological understandings of the formation of identity within a developmental context.
  • Psychological understandings of the issues of informed and valid consent, especially in minors.
  • Heterogeneity of factors bearing down upon gender questioning in individuals, complexities and persistence or otherwise of their clinical presentations.
  • Importance of family dynamics, peer pressure, social contagion and the problem of psychological reductionism within a wider social context.
  • The pitfalls of biological and medical reductionism, e.g. “transgenderism is innate”.

None of this was addressed in the 2019 “affirmation only” Guidelines.

In recent service delivery for gender questioning and distressed children and young people, the foremost service, GIDS, has been psychologist-led. It is therefore astonishing that there have been no effective guidelines for psychology practitioners forthcoming from the BPS as our professional body. The BPS must grasp this situation and take a lead.

Should revised Guidelines separate Gender from Sexuality and Relationship Diversity?

I raised this in my complaint. The independent investigator brought in at stage 2  did not supply a definite answer;  nevertheless he agreed this was an important question for any future revision to consider. He stated the following, reported to me in the letter concluding the complaint investigation from Karen Beamish dated 9 April 2021:

“In a future review, there should be further consideration of the issues to validate their inclusion or alternatively to provide any clarification needed…… it should be something for the Practice Board to consider under its remit to lead on the development of the guidelines.”

There are good reasons for separating the topics. Some are as follows:

  • Gender guidelines should firmly be covering the whole life span.  Sexuality and relationship diversity is largely applicable to adults with some references to adolescent development.
  • It is strongly argued by many that gender questioning should be conceptually separated from sexuality in order to allow for more complex understandings.  These understandings would allow for the very different principles of consent to be satisfactorily unpicked. Legal issues are also very different: for example, in the case of minor attracted persons (MAPS) who present commonly with very difficult challenges for practitioners where borderline illegal behaviour is involved.
  • The respective research and evidence bases are addressing different issues.
  • For political and social context reasons, gender has overshadowed sexuality in the 2019 Guidelines despite the demographics of numbers presenting in a clinical and counselling context and the differing expertise required of practitioners
  • BDSM and Kink should not receive consideration when other more prevalent clinical problems of sexuality and lifestyle such as MAPS require attention. This should not have been inserted via an inane caveat “these Guidelines do not, however, relate to anything non-consensual”.  As indicated above, consent in sexual relationships is a complex matter, not a binary “consents vs does not consent”. When clients present in a clinical setting it is highly likely that consent will be one concern in the distress or in the perpetration of abusive behaviour. A quick inspection of “Consent” on forums for BDSM/Kink indicates a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding than the throwaway approach of the 2019 Guidelines.

Has the BPS reflected upon better process and outcome for reviewing the guidelines?

My forthcoming critical review of the 2019 GSRD Guidelines leads me to suggest

  • Appointment of a Chair who is not an activist or campaigner, who can allow debate about conflicting views, and where consensus cannot be achieved can allow the conflict and current uncertainty to be ethically and helpfully represented in the text to help others navigate the difficult cultural climate. The need for a less aligned chair than the chair of the 2019 Guidelines can be seen from problematic statements made in a public academic forum on outcomes of body altering surgery: “sometimes people think there is a debate about that and hopefully I have included enough references for you to think that debate is shut. There is not a debate about this anymore” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usyYi3Cevdo (@40mins 27 secs in). In an interview about a specialist post, she stated : ”The details of Gender Diversity can be learned, but an open and inquiring mind cannot. Bigots and exploitative theoreticians need not apply! Clever, open people who are interested in clinical practice, research, truly multidisciplinary working, and developing this emerging field are most welcome.”
  • Appointment of members with differing views including from amongst those psychologists with experience and expertise who felt they had to leave their work in services committed to “affirmation only approach” (See Cass Interim report 4.17, 4.20).
  • A more lengthy, detailed and critically reflective tone and content, akin to that of the BPS Autism Guidelines (https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/working-autism ). In the less than 11 full pages that comprise the body of text of the 2019 GSRD Guidelines, the phrase “Psychologists should” appears 15 times in the 27 headings and an additional 42 times beneath the headings! This is self-evidently not advisory.
  • Full discussion and critique of the current evidence and research base and inclusion of methodological problems and criticisms which can allow for readers’ insight into the current situation. This cannot wait for the longer-term findings that may come from the Cass research programme. It is needed now by those tasked to provide services.
  • Balanced consultation with users and user groups representing differing perspectives, not, as previously, just Stonewall and LGBT Foundation. Consultation should also be made with “de-transitioners”.
  • Sufficient time allowed for well-publicised member consultation, engagement and subsequent amendments.
  • All task force members should be expected to either sign off the final revision or be recorded as dissenters with “minority report”. This would indicate a move away from what is perceived as an intimidatory climate where differing views are not permitted (see Cass).

I hope you will be able to answer my questions, inform members of the current situation and produce a very much more helpful set of guidelines for the psychological work within the field of gender questioning.

To quote Cass directly:

“4.19 Speaking to professionals outside GIDS, we have heard widespread concern about the lack of guidance and evidence on how to manage this group of young people. 

4.20. Some secondary care providers told us that their training and professional standards dictate that when working with a child or young person they should be taking a mental health approach to formulating a differential diagnosis of the child or young person’s problems. However, they are afraid of the consequences of doing so in relation to gender distress because of the pressure to take a purely affirmative approach. Some clinicians feel that they are not supported by their professional body on this matter.”

This is most definitely applies to members of the British Psychological Society. It will, if not addressed, continue to deplete the pool of psychologists prepared to use their expertise to work with and help gender questioning children and adults.

Reply from BPS

Regarding: BPS 2019 GSRD Letter (August 16th 2022) 

3rd November 2022 

Dear Pat 

Thank you for your letter, we welcome the views of our members. The guidelines are designed to support and enable psychologists to work with people of diverse genders, sexualities and relationships (e.g. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) in a way that is respectful, inclusive and upholds psychologists’ duties under the Equality Act (2010). 

Below is a response to your questions regarding the Guidelines for Psychologists working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity. 

Are the GSRD Guidelines being reviewed? 

Yes, the 2019 GSRD Guidelines are being reviewed. All guidance documents are routinely subject to a review at regular intervals to ensure they remain appropriate given the possibility of changing contexts, legislation and evolving evidence. They may also be reviewed at any point in the case of a major change in legislation, evidence or context. As this is a scheduled interim review of the document, the original authors are leading the review process. The Practice Board will ensure the document is externally peer reviewed before publication. 

Will the supposed review result in guidelines for children and young people? 

This will be considered by the review group and peer reviewers as part of the review process. The review group will take into account the recent NHS review of The Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust in London and the public consultation on a new service delivery model. 

The Practice Board will consider any recommendations from the review regarding additional evidence-based guidance for children and young people. 

Should revised Guidelines separate Gender from Sexuality and Relationship Diversity? 

This will be considered by the review group and peer reviewers as part of the review. 

Has the BPS reflected upon better process and outcome for reviewing the guidelines? 

We continually reflect on our guidance writing and consultation processes and welcome feedback from members and the public. We conduct all of our work in a context of continuous improvement and in that spirit we are grateful for your comments. 

Yours sincerely, 

Diversity and Inclusion Team 

British Psychological Society 

e: inclusion@bps.org.uk w: http://www.bps.org.uk

"The Psychologist", 'False Memory Syndrome', Academic freedom and censorship, Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Gender, Governance, Identity Politics, Memory and the Law Group, Prescribing Rights

Legal storm clouds over the BPS

David Pilgrim posts….

For those new to the chaos in the BPS, its organisational vulnerability today is multi-layered. The Charity Commission has, until very recently, been ‘engaged’ with the Society about lack of compliance concerning governance arrangements. Slowly, maybe resentfully, the leadership in Leicester has tinkered around the edges. 

The Society’s ‘Board of Trustees’ has been a phoney structure since the 1960s, but now a few public invites are to be issued, to appoint nominally independent members. All trustees in a charity should have no conflicts of interest, not just a couple of tokens. As with other matters, the BPS leadership seems to lack insight about even the most basic principles of organisational probity (see below).

But compliance with charity law is the least of the problems for the current BPS leadership or, note, past leaders with their ongoing legacy liability. We were told via YouTube, when Nigel MacLennan was expelled kangaroo-court-style, that this has been a ‘challenging year’. This of course was special pleading from those running the Society. The wider membership had been kept completely in the dark about the corruption and misgovernance, so they experienced the lock down, oblivious to any personal pain suffered by the leadership, with its ‘challenges’.  

This glib ‘challenging year’ trope in BPS propaganda has persisted, both vague in its detail and directed at sympathy from anyone taking it seriously. Covid-19 had been a safe cover story of collective bad luck and victimhood. Whichever way the challenges in Leicester are spun to the outside world, the reality is that the BPS is in serious legal trouble.

Three imminent legal threats to the reputation of the BPS

Here are three points to consider seriously:

Nigel MacLennan’s Employment Tribunal will require that the BPS must now take the dirty washing it has stuffed in a bin bag and put in a cupboard somewhere, and empty it out on to the floor of the courtroom for all the world to see. The evasions and snail-pace adjustments, which might have worked in response to the Charity Commission, will not be tolerated in a court (which is the formal status of an Employment Tribunal). Much more could be said on this, but a sub judice caution comes into play here, so I am just reporting the material fact of what is about to happen in 2023.

Post-Cass Review and Post-GIDS closure, the BPS guidance on gender has now been withdrawn. The leadership are not responding, in a timely manner, to a dilemma shockingly new to them. In the autumn of 2019 criticisms I made of Tavistock Clinic GIDS were censored by the BPS. In the summer of 2020, representations from many BPS members about the serious inadequacies of the 2019 guidelines on gender were simply ignored. In the autumn of 2020, a detailed formal complaint concerning the form, content and context of 2019 revision of the gender guidelines was made but not upheld. Also in autumn 2020, further representations about the risks of extending prescribing rights to psychologists (which would have included hormones) were ignored by BPS leaders. In the spring of 2022, yet another multi-signed letter to BPS leaders about the risks posed to the public by the gender guidelines was simply ignored. This did not even receive an acknowledgment, let alone a considered response.

Only when the world outside was telling Leicester in stereo, and at full volume, that the game was up on the ‘affirmative model’, was action triggered. Over the recent years, its own members had been treated with total contempt, when lobbying for the withdrawal of the trans-captured gender document. The wise have kept a copy of the policy document now removed. It cannot be deleted from history, no matter how convenient that would be for all of those, from the Board of Trustees and the Practice Board to the ‘Comms Team’ and The Psychologist, who were complicit actors in a flawed policy.  

The credibility of their group-think will now fracture in the full public glare of legal scrutiny. Recently The Times reported an incipient class action, involving up to a thousand ex-patients of the Tavistock Clinic (in truth that figure may be larger or smaller). Whatever their number, the legal bill will be picked up by the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA). Its work is supported by top-sliced money from constituent local Trusts, so it is supplied ultimately by the tax payer. 

The Tavistock Clinic will survive, albeit embarrassed. It will be rid of a capricious historical deviation, which held the proven tradition of cautious exploratory psychological therapy in complete contempt, confusing a passing and modish social trend with a genuine ‘social revolution’. The medical sterilisation of healthy children is shaping up to be yet another ‘great and desperate cure’ in the murky biomedical history of psychiatry (and now, more importantly, psychology) (Valenstein, 1986). These children, who cannot vote, give consent to sex, buy alcohol or even have a piercing or tattoo at their own request, has been put forward by adult identity politics activists as a harbinger of social progress. 

In the censored exchange in 2019 and noted above, between me and Dr Bernadette Wren, that assumption of political and ethical worthiness was debated. As a champion of the now discredited GIDS, Wren actually described the explosion in referrals as reflecting a ‘social revolution’ (sic). I am sure she believed that, but history will surely not vindicate her position, given that her claim is already unravelling and there is a service policy push back, here and in other countries, about the ‘affirmative model’. Social contagion, yes. Social revolution, very doubtful. A passing postmodern phase of anti-realist madness, most probable.

Many liberal and left leaning people (this is not just a Daily Mail editorial frothing at the mouth) simply never bought the GIDS progressive claims. Nor did they fail to spot the trans-capture in the BPS and elsewhere, including in the Royal medical colleges, which should have known better. For example, a group have just written to The Observernoting how the leadership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists had fended off representations, similar to our own in the BPS (see under heading Trans Concerns) https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/commentisfree/2022/aug/14/why-surprise-when-wealthy-capitalist-makes-large-donation-to-oxford-college

This span of dissenting voices has now been vindicated.  Complex existential challenges, each with their unique biographical context, cannot be cured by crass interference with the body, but it seems that mental health professionals are still slow learners. Their organisational leaders, fawning for popular support in an age of identity politics, have for now often lost their rational capacity to assess evidence or accept material realities that are immutable (Pilgrim, 2022). 

Faced with this historical moment of reckoning, the BPS does not have the luxury of a legal fund, like the NHSLA, to fall back on. The grateful medical negligence lawyers, who are now welcoming ‘regretters and detransitioners’ through their shiny doors, will inevitably take an interest in the professional advice that supported the ‘affirmative model’, now defunct at the Tavistock. The cabal in Leicester would be wise to take their own legal advice about what is in the pipeline.  It will of course be paid for by members’ fees. It may well entail very large amounts of money.

3 And then there is the contentious memory and law group, which has been the other main arena of policy capture, afforded by weak governance. The enmeshment of the BPS and the British False Memory Society is now clear (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022). However, in 2014, the editor of The Psychologist made this definitive and untenable statement: “Neither The Psychologist nor The British Psychological Society has links with the British False Memory Society.” 

This denial was at odds with the fact that the Chair (now deceased) of the BPS Memory and the Law Group was on the Advisory Board of the British False Memory Society, during the time that Elizabeth Loftus was on the International Panel of Associate Editors of The Psychologist.  She was also an advisor to the US and British False Memory Societies (The first was closed down after the Jeffrey Epstein case.) Loftus testified in defence of both Ghislaine Maxwell in 2021 and Harvey Weinstein in 2020. In the first case she asserted, with no evidence, that the prospect of financial gain could distort the memories of complainants. This line of speculation in legal settings is not peculiar to Loftus. It has been used by convicted individual abusers, as well as those claiming that child sexual abuse is a moral panic.

In this context of the serious legal considerations of sexual abuse, the biases in the BPS policy to date are very important, as is the supportive role of The Psychologist.  In May 2014, its editor provided a short hagiographic account of his interview with Loftus (he met at a conference dinner), who had ‘been voted the most influential female psychologist of all time’. It goes on, ‘Her wit and creativity shone through as she rattled through real-life stories, wrongful convictions and ingenious research that all illuminate the faulty nature of memory…. One thing seems undeniable: whatever the future brings for memory research and practice, Professor Loftus will be at the forefront of it for many years to come.’  

Because the BPS is an organisation without a memory, others have to recall the origins of its partisan policy focus. The BPS line, from their highly biased report, considering only the matter of false positive decision making, has fed defence teams hired by those accused of sexual abuse. It has offered absolutely no balancing advice about false negatives, in order to support prosecution teams. Those in the BPS, who have been concerned to expand the policy on memory, to include evidence of the social epidemiology of child sexual abuse and its proven mental health impacts (e.g. Cutajar et al. 2010) have been systematically excluded from a new working group looking at the topic. 

This scandal of biased policy formation then is ongoing. It is not just a part of BPS history, now regretted. The group recently appointed to update the document remains shadowy and has only included (unnamed) so called ‘memory experts’, from the closed system world of experimental psychology. All attempts by those BPS members interested in the clinical and epidemiological evidence (an open system feature of the world outside of the laboratory) to join the group have been blocked repeatedly. Moreover, all attempts to ascertain who exactly is on this group have been met with refusals on grounds of data privacy. It seems that the older biases to consider false positive decision making may well remain. The implausible claim that the BPS is guided by the organisational principle of transparency is also obvious here. 

Meanwhile, the BPS, as with now withdrawn gender document, seems to have no capacity to reflect on the child protection implications entailed in a lop-sided and partisan, form of policy formation.  The only sop that excluded critics have been offered is to submit papers to a minor journal, which is under the editorial control of FMS supporters. As with the case of the gender document, the temporary capture of a weakly governed Society, by a particular interest group, has to await external scrutiny to expose its bias and the dangers this poses to the public. Once again, internal dissent has been quashed at the expense of both membership democracy and academic integrity.

As the evidence now accumulates from historical inquiries into child sexual abuse, both in the UK and Australia, the BPS policy is a new potential target for angry survivors, seeking personal justice. Their lawyers will have spotted that line of attack. The current BPS position, to date, has colluded with the idea that child sexual abuse has been a trivial moral panic. The truth of the matter is that its scale has been strongly under-estimated, as is now becoming clear, in both the statutory inquiries and clinical research (Pilgrim, 2018; Children’s Commissioner’s Report, 2016).

Conclusion

The BPS leaders are in for another ‘challenging year’. Hiding in the dark, under the security blanket of group-think, will not make the lawyers disappear by magic. They will still be there, rubbing their hands, when the blanket it whisked away. Critics of all the three forms of BPS failing, noted above, may have been easy to ignore by the cabal. The rule of law is a different matter. If those in Leicester are not worried by now about imminent legal threats to the reputation of the Society, then they clearly do not understand what is going on.

References 

Children’s Commissioner’s Report (2016) Barnahus: Improving The Response to Child Sex Abuse in EnglandLondon: UK Children’s Commissioner’s Office 

Conway, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2022) The policy alignment of the British False Memory Society and the British Psychological Society Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 23:2, 165-176, 

Cutajar, M. C., Mullen, P. E., Ogloff, J. R. P., Thomas, S. D., Wells, D. L., and Spataro, J. (2010). Psychopathology in a large cohort of sexually abused children followed up to 43 years. Child Abuse and Neglect 34(11), 813–22.

Pilgrim, D. (2022) Identity Politics: Where Did It All Go Wrong? Bicester: Phoenix Books.

Pilgrim, D. (2018) Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial? London: Routledge.

Sutton, J. (2014). BPS – obsessed with the false memory syndrome? Editor’s reply. The Psychologist 27, 5, 303.

Valenstein, E. (1986) Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness New York: Basic Books.

Administrator’s note

All of these topics have been subject to comments on the blog. By clicking on the category immediately above the title you will find the relevant posts.

"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Identity Politics

Class as a “Protected Characteristic”?

The current issue (a ‘…bumper edition…’ according to the managing editor) of The Psychologist[1] is promoting the idea of making social class a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act.  This campaign (surely running close to the wind as regards charity law?) is being promoted on the BPS Twitter account as well. Whether you think that this is a good idea or not, it looks to our eyes that it is feeding directly into the hotbed that is identity politics. As a consequence, the slant and positioning of the BPS cannot be said to reflect any sort of balance scientifically (or politically, for that matter). It also ignores or is ignorant about the considerable social scientific literature, which has informed debate on this contested and contentious issue over many years (I had the good fortune to have a two-year sociology subsidiary as part of my first degree).

Our own experience, as well as that of others, is that the BPS chooses to avoid debating different positions to its own ‘party line’ and either ignores or censors[2] contributions that challenge and offer reasoned critiques. For that reason we feel that the following piece from David Pilgrim deserves to see the light of day. We welcome your comments, especially from those within the BPS who are promulgating this campaign.

Peter Harvey,

Blog Administrator. 


[1]  https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/people-us

[2]  https://bpswatch.com/2021/02/07/david-pilgrims-disappearing-article/

Open commentary on the special issue on ‘Tackling Class-Based Inequalities’ (The PsychologistJuly/August 2022)

David Pilgrim

Introduction

The discipline of psychology is in trouble and so is the British Psychological Society (BPS). Ignoring that current reality in the face of the policy initiative being promoted in the special issue, would be an act of complicity. My response is offered as an invitation to debate the dire state we are in as a discipline, within a neoliberal context in which the authoritarian norms of identity politics are now suffocating freedom of expression.

The topic of inequality has been of professional interest to me for over forty years, during which time I have also been an ambivalent member of the BPS. I have a Masters in sociology, as well as a PhD in social psychology and have many years of experience researching and publishing from the interface between these disciplines. This is reflected in my split career (half the time as a clinical psychologist in the NHS and the other working in health policy research as a jobbing social scientist). My academic focus has largely been in relation to mental health and inequality (e.g. Rogers and Pilgrim, 2020; Rogers and Pilgrim, 2003).

With my interests and mandate duly declared, below I address three main matters: the legitimation crisis of British psychology; the risk of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work; and the particular risk of psychological reductionism, given the capture of organisations by versions of identity politics. All of these form the embedding context of the campaign to add social class to the list of protected characteristics.  

I finish with some ideas about the modest contribution that psychology might make to our understanding of social class, within the recent constraining norms of identity politics. I also caution against psychologists indulging in identity politics campaigns. In my view, they jeopardise both our individual intellectual curiosity and our collective disciplinary credibility. They close down curiosity and merely demand that we adhere to new moral strictures in an unquestioning manner.

1 The legitimation crisis of British psychology

A view from British psychologists about anything of public policy relevance is being expressed from a position of weak legitimacy for two additive reasons. First, the body claiming to uphold academic values (the BPS) has proved itself to be neither a learned nor a learning organisation. That legitimation crisis has been evidenced by the following:

1 In recent times the BPS has lost one after another elected President and some have tried and failed to correct the evident dysfunction they encountered after their election. In 2020 no less than three departed over a two month period, with two resigning and one being expelled before their period of office was up. The last of these is now taking his case to an Employment Tribunal, which will lead to the inner workings of the BPS being exposed to forensic public scrutiny for the first time. In advance of this case being heard, those of us who have been campaigning to open up the BPS to public scrutiny, will outline their conclusions presently (Pilgrim, 2022a). We have recorded the process of the campaign on a blog and on Twitter, and these can be accessed immediately (BPSWatch.com; FakeBPSCommentary @psychsocwatchuk).

2 In 2020 a major fraud came to light, implicating a former employee. In January 2022 she was sentenced to 28 months in prison for defrauding the Society of over £70,000. She had been imprisoned in the past for a similar offence in two other organization (a total of 17 offences). The BPS appointed her despite this past record noted very publicly in the press. Since the turn of this century, other ‘financial irregularities’ in the Society have been dealt with by internal investigations and staff departures. The BPS membership has been kept in the dark about these events, with no account being offered in The Psychologist of the unfolding drama of the past two years.

3 The Charity Commission has been ‘engaged’ with the Society about its broken complaints process and its lack of adequate governance. However, to date this engagement has not ensured any observable organizational reform of substance. The Commission has received many expressions of concern from BPS members, and this pattern continues as the crisis fails to resolve. A particular challenge we face at present is that the Charity Commission itself has been ineffectual.

4 Whilst fair charges of misgovernance and corruption can be made about the BPS, these accusations have not been addressed publicly, or fairly and squarely, by the leadership of the Society. Instead, legitimate criticisms and queries have been ignored and denied.

5 For a year (between November 2020 and November 2021) the Chief Executive Officer of the Society was suspended in the wake of the fraud investigation noted in 2 above. His Finance Director was also suspended at the same time (November, 2020) but within a month he left to take up a new position at the National Lottery, while still under investigation.

6 Despite all of the above shenanigans, the leadership of the Society has failed to keep its members informed of the crisis. The BPS is allegedly a membership organization, and good practice, according to the Charity Commission, requires transparency and accountability from the Board of Trustees and the Senior Management Team. They have clearly failed in that regard.

7 This organizational turbulence reflects longstanding structural and cultural difficulties in the Society in recent decades.  At the heart of the problem is that the Board of Trustees is riven with conflicts of interest and it has no truly independent members (though some minor tinkering of about this basic fault has now emerged). Since the 1960s it has been a sham of a proper Board of Trustees, expected reasonably under charity law.

Not only but also…..

Even if the BPS were not a case study in organisational dysfunction (which currently it patently is) there is a second source of the legitimation crisis in British psychology, viz: the rise of methodologism in the midst of epistemological incoherence. For the first half of the 20th century, psychologists followed the tradition of British empiricism announced by Ward and Rivers (1904). For the second half it then struggled to adapt to the modish postmodern turn (Kvale, 1992). 

Squaring this circle has been a challenge for the discipline. During the twentieth century, it lurched between a positivist confidence in fact building (from a mixture of experimentalism and the actuarial approach) and a rejection of facts in preference for unending perspectives, narratives, discourses and discourses about discourses in the tradition of Nietzsche (Pilgrim, 2020). This left the discipline in a confused and confusing state, with the BPS tending to describe itself vaguely, but understandably, as a ‘broad church’. It is no longer clear what psychology as a science actually means (e.g. Smedslund, 2016; Snoeyenbos and Putney, 1980).

Today in the corridors of any psychology department that incoherence is apparent and the only remaining rhetoric of justification for a coherent disciplinary character is methodological rigour, with the compatibility of quantitative and qualitative methods being far from self-evident. Beyond ‘methodologism’ or the ‘methodological imperative’ (Gao, 2014) are a legion of psychological theories, some of which are aligned and some of which are totally incommensurable. 

Given this legitimation crisis, why should British psychologists at present have any policy plausibility or inspire public confidence? How can we appeal for the need for participatory democracy, when our own professional and disciplinary body is the very opposite of democratic? Given that those in the BPS, reporting in this special issue class discrimination, are themselves now part of middle class life, what point is exactly being made, beyond virtue signalling and special pleading?  

The meritocratic discourse of equal opportunity is unremarkable across our current political spectrum: who is formally against it in any major political party? Given that doxa in our political class, we tend to find a self-serving trope. We are offered stories of success or exclusion, which tend to centre on the moral virtue of being from a poorer background. However, it is a clouded window into understanding the complexity of social inequality. 

Like many others in my age cohort I came from a working class background and am now middle class. However, my personal experience (or anyone else’s in the same boat) really contributes very little to an understanding of social inequality. To mention it at all brings with it legitimate suspicions of hypocrisy and narcissism. It can have marketing value for multi-millionaire rock stars, who dress the part for their audiences (Womack et al, 2012). Politicians of left and right appeal to our sympathies and votes, when alluding to their humble origins. That same pattern is repeating in professional (note) organisations like the BPS. 

Asking individuals to illuminate societal functioning from their experience generates highly partial, and possibly misleading, forms of sociological understanding (Archer, 2000). Moreover, a transition from working class to middle class life entails accruing cultural power in a new position of influence, even if the cultural field is less powerful than that of the economic sphere (Bourdieu, 1984). To allude to one’s past working class credentials for current ‘street credibility’, as an oppressed person, is a form of having one’s cake and eating it. 

2 The problem of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work

Even if British psychology were not characterised by the above legitimation crisis, it would still have a remaining challenge. Psychology, like other disciplines, will be prone to oversell its relevance and encourage psychological reductionism in its own ranks, as well as for the publics it appeals to and relies upon for employment and status. The very fact that a ‘special issue’ of The Psychologist about social class was published, indicates the weak a priori authority psychologists have about it, or any other topic which is partially or wholly social, not individual, in character. 

These social phenomena can then become a bolt on consideration, with psychologists looking hither and thither for their special contribution.  This is not to say that psychology has nothing to offer (below I indicate what that is) but the pastiche of knowledge in the discipline of old fashioned positivism (pace Ward and Rivers) and the postmodern preoccupation with perspectives and narratives has led to disciplinary incoherence. What exactly is, or would be, ‘the psychology’ of social class (or any other social topic)? To answer that question, the discipline must first start with a good dose of epistemic humility, about its inner philosophical turmoil, largely un-reflected upon, and its relative ignorance about contributions from other disciplines. 

Moreover, in the latter regard, the forms of psychological insight that have been offered, and importantly have giving due weight to social context, may be little known in the ranks of trained psychologists. After all, ipso facto they are not economists, political scientists or sociologists. Their awareness of the existing and considerable literature in these other disciplines is likely to be absent or incidental. Accordingly, when outside inspiration is conceded by psychologists, then even the basic facts may be sketchy. 

This problem of the sketchy knowledge of psychologists of social and political science, is amplified by the epistemic background of those outside who, have made major contributions already to our understanding of the psychosocial aspects of social class. This has put to shame what psychologists have developed in comparison to date (e.g.Sennett, 2003). 

Moreover, the post-positivist and post-Marxian work of the later Frankfurt School speaks directly to those writing in this special issue (Habermas 1973; Honneth, 2007), while being steeped in sociological sophistication. Broadly those psychosocial insights have been offered by the incorporation of ideas from Weber, Marx and Bourdieu; three key contributors to our understanding of social class, who are not on the undergraduate curriculum in British psychology departments (to my knowledge). Some psychologists may have been blessed already with a ‘sociological imagination’ (Mills, 1959) but if that is the case, their teachers will not typically recognise and encourage its development. 

This is the epistemological context of psychological reductionism and the risks of psychology overselling its relevance, about a topic which has been explored already and over many decades by non-psychologists (Atkinson, 2015). Psychologists are not only ‘late to the show’, there is a risk that the confidence of uni-disciplinary reasoning creates an inflated sense of their own relevance or importance. 

All disciplines are prone to some extent to this mixture of arrogance and ignorance; this is not an accusation about psychology alone. It reflects the self-reinforcing role of the sub-division of intellectual labour in the modern academy, which is now an abiding obstacle to the interdisciplinary cooperation, required pragmatically in order to solve humanity’s considerable current challenges.

3 Psychological reductionism and social phenomena

A focus on protected characteristics brings with it an inherent risk of psychological reductionism. The emphasis will on individual rights and prospective victimhood. That focus became evident in Western cultures after the postmodern turn and was influential beyond psychology as a discipline. For example, the concept of intersectionality developed in the USA, within its own very particular cultural context of individualism, national exceptionalism and the demands of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

Initially, intersectionality usefully illuminated complex social determinants of oppressions operating in synergy (Bell, 1973; Crenshaw, 1991). This was not reductionist about individuals but argued that overlapping social groupmembership placed some people at particular risk of oppression on average compared to those in other groups. Thus oppression was about supra-personal generative mechanisms in a shared social context and was thus a window into social determinants. 

However, individualism then crept in increasingly, with a shift away from intersecting socio-economic forces towards a kaleidoscope of subjectivities. Oppression then became more and more about individual victimhood and less and less about structural disparities of power and wealth. That alteration of focus, from objective complexity to subjective reporting, was encouraged by liberal third wave feminism and Queer Theory. These displaced the material focus of both old school social science and second wave feminism (Butler, 1990; Rubin, 1992).

From then on, social justice became defined by what individuals claimed about themselves. This culminated in our current context of identity politics (Pilgrim, 2022b). These have divided people against one another within an unending personalistic focus on epistemological privilege, self-righteous indignation, ‘calling out’, ‘cancel culture’, special pleading for particular groups and a morass of daily moralisations or ‘moral grandstanding’  (Tosi and Warmke, 2020).

Accordingly, our lives are increasingly governed now by what Loic Wacquant calls the ‘logic of the trial’, where we are all judge and jury but might find ourselves in the dock as well. With social media, this can lead to us being turned upon by the cyber-mob for saying the wrong thing, or even simply saying nothing (e.g. ‘white silence is violence’). Our careers can be ended and anonymous online death threats have become so prevalent that they are now unremarkable (e.g. ‘kill a TERF’).  

Equality and diversity training has become an industry on the back of this self-righteous civil chaos (Pluckrose and Lindsay, 2020; Williams, 2021) and people stopped talking calmly and analytically and began shouting at one another instead (Charles, 2020). Identity politics and their personalistic rationale have given comfort to the paedophile, the white supremacist and the feudal theocrat, not just those on the ‘woke’ left (François, and Godwin,2008; Belew, 2020; Hansen, 2021; O’Carroll, 1980; Sen 2006).

As Nancy Fraser noted in response to this unnerving scenario, there is little point in moralising angrily about what she called ‘parity of participation’ in relation to individuals, unless we also calmly consider and understand their conditions of possibility (i.e. their wider embedding social and economic divisions). This means shifting our focus from individuals to social, and even at times biological, material reality (Fraser, 1999; Flatschart, 2017; Benton, 1991). It also means returning to a supra-personal focus on capitalism, patriarchy and post-colonial legacies as social forces.  

With the emergence and new doxa of identity politics, the duality of social class as both an objective aspect of social ontology and a reported subjective experience explored by Marx, Weber and subsequently in deeper ways by Bourdieu was lost (Marx, 1859/1968; Weber, 1905/2001; Bourdieu, 1987). Suddenly the lop-sided priority was on personal experience and group membership. For identity politics this became the alpha and omega of understanding power. 

Psychological and cultural reductionism then awaits and this might cover up, not just expose, injustices, with policy makers exploiting the unending judgmental relativism of the postmodern era, with its appeal to linguistic variance.  Remember that under Thatcherism we had ‘health variations’ not ‘health inequalities’? Note how Rishi Sunak is being described as coming from a ‘humble background’ in his candidacy to replace Boris Johnson. Words alone are cheap and slippery, when we address social justice today and the postmodern turn is quite rightly also called the ‘linguistic turn’. Accordingly, here is the prescient insight of the humourist Jules Feiffer:

I used to think that I was poor. Then they told me that I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived. Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged. Then they told me under-privileged was over-used, I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a cent but I have a great vocabulary.  (Feiffer, cited in Pilger, 1989)

A narrow preoccupation with protected characteristics and the valorisation of subjective identities and discourse, have encouraged this problem of class being unanchored from its objective context. We can easily forget that although ideas might indeed be causally efficacious, power also resides in the non-discursive realm of material reality (Bhaskar, 1997). The latter refers to our relationship to both nature and social structures.

Policy capture, consumerism and neoliberalism

A loss, or lack, of sophistication about both biological and social ontology has at times left organisations captured by group special pleading. An example here is the controversial emergence of the gender document produced by the BPS, driven by transgender activism. This has fed into the febrile and contested field of policy development about transgender healthcare (Pilgrim, 2021). 

In a similar manner, those aligned with the False Memory Society took charge of the BPS working group on memory and the law (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022). This use of the BPS as a vehicle for policy lobbying is now obvious (including in this case, the use of a special edition of The Psychologist to promote a particular cause). This scenario reflects a combination of weak membership engagement and poor governance at the centre, covered in the first section above. 

Those able and willing to put the hours in to pursue a particular policy goal can readily exploit that unhealthy structure. I have been party to such a capture myself in relation to documents on psychosis and psychiatric diagnosis. So my point here is about process not content. We all may have various preferences and value-judgements in relation to the latter but it is the process of weak democracy and poor governance in the BPS, which is at issue here.

Poor governance has also allowed those leading the organisation to make ex cathedra decisions and statements with no consultation. For example, the President of the BPS announced on social media (Ukraine flag always for now dutifully provided) that ‘we’ had decided to vote to expel Russians from the EPA. Maybe some Russian psychologists were under threat at home and maybe a dialogue with them might have been illuminating. But why bother with that sensitive approach to international dialogue, cooperation and support, which might require the effort of considered negotiations, when virtue signalling online is prioritised? Rapid fire clictivism now dominates civil life replacing proper deliberation about a complex world. As Charles (ibid) says of clictivism, in the vernacular, “it wants to be activism, but it can’t be arsed”.

In our neoliberal context, organisations (such as the BPS) are concerned to appeal to their ‘customers’ in a way that does not damage their income generation but rather improves it. More widely in the market place, the ‘pink pound’, the ‘grey pound’ and the ‘black dollar’ are precious commodities (Goulding, 1999; Matthews and Besemer, 2015; Yewande et al, 2020).

Cable sports channels can safely endorse Black Lives Matter (BLM) and ‘taking the knee’ to ‘root out racism on or off the field’ is a safe piety, which requires no critical analysis of the global soccer industry. The latter has been a place for kleptocrats to launder their money. It is a vehicle for upward social mobility for poor Africans and working class European youngsters. It has been a commercial opportunity to expand the gambling industry, which ruins countless lives. 

None of that complexity, inviting socio-economic analysis, is touched by virtue signalling from the rich and powerful to keep their customers satisfied by the marketing endorsement of BLM. After all, who would be pro-racist or admit to it publicly? Neoliberalism and identity politics fit hand in glove. This context of neoliberalism is an important driver of personalistic reasoning, the displacement of participatory or deliberative democracy by identity politics and the shift to the protected characteristics approach to social justice (Arendt, 2005). 

Apples and oranges

And if we do endorse such a protected characteristic listing of potential victimhood, then more analysis is required, if for no other reason, than it contains apples and oranges, when viewed ontologically not merely epistemologically. Under the current nine point listing two of them are fixed by biological ontology. Our sex is described (not ‘ascribed’) at birth or prenatally and is locked from cradle to grave by our chromosomes. The disadvantage then created by patriarchy, when brought up as a girl, becomes part of social ontology. 

Similarly, when we are born defines immutably the limits of our existence in time. Our life span is limited and so age is a non-discursive matter: we grow older and eventually we die.  That is a biological fact for all living organisms-we cannot talk our way out of this (Callinicos, 1993). On my deathbed, self-identifying as being alive with my last breath will not save me. As with our sex, we cannot defy the material constraints of the natural world by merely making subjective declarations, of the ‘I identify as X’ type. At this point social constructionism becomes a form of social psychosis (Craib, 1997). (The anti-realism of strong social constructionism in British psychology has been explored by Cromby and Nightingale (1999).)

However, elsewhere on the list, biology is still present but it is far less relevant. Other mammals may pair for sexual reproduction but they do not get married. They have no rich view of themselves as having a sexual orientation and your pet dog will have no religious identity or ever become a jihadist (Bentall, 2018). Our capacity for meta-cognitions and meta-statements bequeathed by evolution, given our enlarged cerebrum, affords our capacity to be both moral agents and rule following interdependent beings. Normativity is complex and shifts over time and place but it always exists as a driver of human societies. It is the source of political ideologies, which argue for the retention of current inequalities in a social order, or seek to transform them (Savage, 2000).

Thus, this nine point list contains items which are not ontologically equivalent. Social class if added, like race, is ambiguous because it is both a social ascription experienced personally as a matter of standing, status, honour or self-respect and it is derived from supra-personal socio-economic disparities (Wacquant, 2022 a&b). Psychology potentially has something to say about the former but it might be wise to leave expertise about the latter to social and political scientists and rapidly learn from them about what they already have had to say. 

Does psychology have anything meaningful to say about protected characteristics?

Given my criticisms above, this question remains pertinent. The contributors to the special issue on the one hand confess the ‘scant evidence’ in psychology and yet there is a massive failure (wilful or from ignorance) to concede that other disciplines have already addressed the topic at length. The ambivalence about positivism and perspectivism also is evident. There is angst about being able to measure social class as a fixed variable (the old positivist’s dilemma) but also a discursive focus on the stories that people tell about their lives and their possible identity confusion over time (the postmodern norm). 

These tensions are there too in social and political science more widely, but the difference is that they are directly acknowledged as both a theoretical question and one of methodological options. This has led then to a higher order discussion in sociology about reflexivity (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992; Donati and Archer, 2015). Such a higher order discussion is surely now required in psychology. At present that has started in a very personalistic place, tinged heavily with special pleading, i.e. psychologists reflecting on their own class position over time and talking about access to the discipline. However, this is a start of sorts.

For now, with their angst about measurement on the one hand and story-telling on the other, psychologists still have something to offer, as the contributors to the special issue make clear.  I would add some other opportunities from within. Social psychology has provided some useful material on new social movements, group dynamics and prejudice (e.g. Leyens et al 2000; van Zomeren, 2014).

Evolutionary and cognitive psychology inform us about slow and fast thinking. The latter is part of the current problem of binary reasoning in the dead end of identity politics, with its moral grandstanding (Dutton, 2020). The sub-text of special pleading by the various fractions of identity politics is one of ‘inside good, outside bad’ binary logic: ‘My group and I are virtuous and vulnerable but those outside are bad and guilty, until proven innocent, of victimising me’. 

Binary reasoning begets moral absolutism, which could be a topic of interest for psychologists, as moral philosophers have already noted (Neiman, 2011). The splintering divisions of identity politics ensure hostility not solidarity and these invite psychological description, interpretation and possible explanation, as social psychological phenomena. This might augment, empirically, the arguments made by those such as Neiman cited.

Psychologists might also put their own house in order (from the undergraduate curriculum upwards) about construct clarification and validity, especially in relation to biological and social attributions. For example, in relation to my point about apples and oranges on the nine point list, disability subsumes biological impairment (affecting the functional capability of all animals, not just humans) but also the normative evaluation of those impairments. The ‘social model’ of disability, with its emphasis on enablement and stigma, tends to focus on the social construction of disability but this is a matter of contention. 

Its application to mental health is even more problematic and note that the elephant in the room about the list is that psychiatric patients have their citizenship habitually constrained lawfully and without trial under ‘mental health law’, so called (Pilgrim and Tomasini, 2012). How is the Equality Act relevant to, or compatible with this, routine authoritarian override from agents of the state? Transgender politics are fraught and unresolved, with advocates of sex-based rights complaining about those politics reflecting a patriarchal “men’s movement” (Brunskill-Evans, 2020). Black feminists did not take kindly to the excesses of secessionist black power in the USA, dominated by a form of religious patriarchy (Allen, 1996; Collins, 2006). 

These are some examples, amongst many, of the divisiveness of identity politics and the zero-sum game of competing claims of personal oppression or victimhood. Psychologists may wish to research the character of those claims and the people who are making them. Despite the risk of psychological reductionism, my view is that complex research task warrants more, not less, psychological understanding. However, the latter requires the co-presence of a moderating and genuine sociological imagination. Without that, psychological reductionism will inevitably follow. 

The wide differences of point of view in the current chaos of identity politics and our ‘culture wars’ warrant considered personal exploration. Also surveys by political psychologists might offer information on fluxing views of the popularity of sub-group opinions today. If psychologists are genuinely interested in the topic of living with inequalities then campaigning for one sub-group will overly narrow their intellectual responsibility. 

Class more than the other nine pre-existing protected characteristics is tautologically about inequality (the clue is in the name), though some feminists make a similar argument and designate sex as a class. If the term inherently signals discrepancies of power, wealth, ownership and standing, then surely psychologists should also be interested in the rich and those in the middle, not just the poor and the powerless. For example, the very rich experience and express personal insecurity (Frank, 2008) and even our royals, with or without cynicism, episodically signal their psychological vulnerability. (In Britain in recent times we have witnessed one prince selling the Big Issue and another campaigning about mental health problems.) 

The search for connectivity with others and the wish to be seen as ‘ordinary’ is common in the super-rich, which is psychologically intriguing and warrants more research. A good role model about being open-minded in our research curiosity was the early work of Marie Jahoda, who included Nazis in her social psychological studies of prejudice. Studying all-comers about living with inequalities is surely our academic duty, which might be clouded and diverted by single issue public policy lobbying. 

Thus there is plenty for psychologists to work with, while retaining their tenuous disciplinary unity with its compromises about methodology. My view though is that before that exercise, psychologists should take a peek into what other disciplines have already achieved in relation to psycho-social insights, so that wheels are not re-invented. More importantly, in this case they may wish to reflect carefully on the risks of being swept along by the current norms of their own wider context, with its confusing wrong turn into the conservative cul-de-sac of identity politics. 

Studying identity politics (or the psychological character of ‘protected characteristics’) on the one hand, and embracing a campaigning loyalty to them as citizens on the other, are different matters. If they become conflated then surely the latter will undermine the former. Empirical detachment is particularly challenging in human science, because we are part of our own embedding context. The task is not impossible but it is difficult. This is the very reason why we need to reflect upon the best way to maximise its limits, when producing knowledge claims and defending respectful free expression about their merits. 

Today self-censorship in the academy has mirrored the wider acceptance of the suppression of freedom of expression, which might create a sense of temporary virtue but is not healthy for either knowledge production or democracy. Reflexivity includes humility, not certainty, and requires us to respect those we do not particularly like, as a focus of our academic curiosity. By contrast, identity politics demands that traditional cautions about ad hominem reasoning are dismissed and then actually inverted, with epistemological privilege, ‘perspectivism’ and the ‘logic of the trial’ now defining legitimacy. If we wish, as citizens, to indulge in identity politics campaigns that is a personal option. However, we do so at our peril, if we also want to retain credibility as human scientists.

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