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Advances in social justice can only be achieved through research that challenges the status quo

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (n.d.), psychological violence includes “isolation from others, verbal aggression, threats, intimidation, control, harassment […] insults, humiliation and defamation”. This essay discusses how challenging the status quo is key to advancing global development and peace by extrapolating research conducted by Oates, Edgar and Edgar, and Custance (2012); to recent world events. “Forensic psychologists […] are well placed to challenge inappropriate policies and practices” (Towl and Crighton, 2015, p. 9). 

The idea that  psychology could be used to design better systems is not new (Edgar and Edgar, 2012). Many people choose to ignore the deep side of policy, and instead attend to more superficial aspects, why is that? This type of selective attention is considered to be a form of bias (Seguin, 2016). Research conducted by psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s as explored by Edgar and Edgar (2012), gave light to how difficult it can be for the human mind to attend to several stimuli simultaneously. This might explain why individuals choose to overlook complex signals such as “injustice”, especially since the definition of “justice” is socially constructed (Faulkner, 2015). The meaning people extract from media stories influences the importance they attribute to such events; and this is shaped by their expectations, political memory filters, and cognitive styles (Edgar and Edgar, 2012; Değirmenci and Kaya, 2018).  For instance, although media coverage of Brexit gained full attention from the UK public, it generated confusion at the status quo level; eliciting confounding variables such as division, conscious racial prejudice, and ideologically driven violence (OHCHR, 2018). It can be said that such unpredictable uncertainty hit the nervous system of the UK (Mohdin, 2019; Bailey and Budd, 2019; Ishkanian, 2019), causing interference and overwhelming the collective capacity to process the magnitude of the situation at hand. 

The two-process theories of attention describe: (1) controlled attention as being conscious; and (2) automatic processing as being subconscious (Edgar and Edgar, 2012). Allocating cognitive resources to select what to attend to functions in a similar way to economies, where governments must select and prioritise meaningful aspects that need attending to. For instance,  there are problems that do not make it to the priority list in governmental debates, and what is considered a priority is always at the discretion of the legislature (GOV.UK, n.d.a). It is often the resulting circumstances that speak about whether the allocation of resources was appropriate. Broadbent’s (1958) model as explained by Edgar and Edgar (2012) highlighted how information is absorbed and filtered through the limited capacity channel after the senses discriminate inputs based on the stimuli’s physical properties or meaning; and how the mind can become overwhelmed with too much data. This resembles the information processing system of the state apparatus.  Some stories get magnified by the media, and others become peripherally encoded (Smith et al., 2018). This has been criticised by human rights defenders (Maier, 2019) as it is clear that media content and representation, as well as spoken words have an effect on societal behaviour (Edgar and Edgar, 2012; Kennedy, 2007), and  the audience can either allocate attention to the local media,  the global media, or both (Beck, 2018).  “Words have consequences, and ill words that go unchallenged, are the first step on a continuum towards ill deeds” (Theresa May gives speech on the state of politics, 2019). 

Bandura et al. (1963) cited in Oates (2012) demonstrated through the famous Bobo doll studies how exposure to violence can lead to aggressive behaviours. Several aspects of social learning (observing and copying other people’s behaviour) were explored, among which were: (1) the replication of violent behaviour  (imitative aggression); and (2) the selective replication of specific forms of behaviour (partial imitative responses) (Oates, 2012). In light of such evidence,  more researchers have added that overexposure to media violence also elicits social disinhibition and desensatisation (Oates, 2012; Marris and Thornham, 2000); increasing tolerance towards aggressive conceptual systems, attitudes, and predispositions.  Milgram (1960; 1963; 1965) explored the psychology of destructive obedience in everyday life  and Adorno et al. (1950) explored the role of authoritarian prejudice in society. Almost 70 years later, such retrogressive manifestations are resurfacing and permeating the status quo. 

For example, The Guardian has been reporting the topic of xenophobia in the UK, which has two convergent strands of continuity. On one hand, more people are exhibiting antisemitic attitudes similar to WWII (Mason, 2019), and on the other hand more whistleblowers are handing in evidence to The Equality and Human Rights Commission about such insular attitudes (Stewart and Jacobson, 2019). Moreover, with the proliferation of social media, monitoring online activity (Oates, 2012)  and ideologies (Paul and Dredze, 2017) is easy. Allington (2018, pp. 130-135) posited how a new subculture of antisemitic nationalism is growing through Facebook groups in the UK where comments such as: “Hitler had a valid argument against some Jews” are being disseminated.  This all goes hand in hand with Bandura et al.’s theories of social learning and imitation, which posit that exposure to aggressive or emotionally intense role models does influence the extent to which maladaptive behaviour is replicated (Oates, 2012). A good question to ask is: Are there any current world leaders exhibiting prejudice, and promoting psychological violence through their verbal behaviours? The cycle of enquiry is eternal (Pike, 2017). 

Harlow’s (1960) approach to understanding mother-infant attachment was unethical. He also verbally admitted to hating animals, using them, and feeling nothing towards them as shown by Slater (2004) cited in (Custance, 2012, p. 212). Many baby monkeys were intentionally psychophysiologically tortured for two decades in the laboratory for research purposes (Custance, 2012). Nowadays, this type of profile would be classed as sadistic, psychopathic (Moul et al., 2012; Pemment, 2013) and/or machiavellian (Czibor et al, 2017). Nevertheless, he (Harlow, 1960) found that attachment in rhesus macaques was based on emotional warmth, and proposed that humans bond similarly, ratifying Bowlby’s claims which had been informing UNCRC (1959) policy. These and more ethological findings were extended to human psychology through experiments. Custance (2012), building on Ainsworth’s work illustrated the immediate and long-term distress children experience when separated from their parents. She also heavily criticised Harlow’s methods and attitudes, explaining that subjecting animals to such conditions would now be illegal. Based on the UK’s Animal Welfare Act 2006 (c.45), owners of domesticated animals have a duty of care when it comes to providing a suitable environment and diet for their pets;  ensuring wellbeing and welfare; and providing protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease, especially when it can be prevented  (GOV.UK, n.d.). 

 Harlow experimented on monkeys because psychologically harming humans was illegal in the 1960s (Custance, 2012). Furthermore, It is now recognised that human rights are crucial to the advancement of psychology, and vice versa (Söderström, 2019).  Nonetheless, migrants and asylum seekers in the UK have been facing a psychologically violent (ILPA, 2016) reality; being made susceptible to pain, injury, suffering, disease and long-term mental distress due to legislative measures such as the Immigration Acts 2014 (c.22) and 2016 (c.19). These hostile environment policies were a legal reflection of socio-psychological violence with concomitant schadenfreude, and targeted discrimination (Webber, 2019; Williams, 2019). This was initially designed with the intention of thwarting and precluding asylum seekers’ desire to remain in the jurisdiction through enforced discomfort and destitution (Global Justice Now, 2018). Although the policies have recently been adapted and improved to include free healthcare for all (GOV.UK, 2019), some services are still being (unlawfully) denied to migrants by British individuals (EHRC, 2018): From welfare, to security, and the enjoyment of human rights (Webber, 2019). Therefore, it can be argued that domesticated animals have a better quality of life than asylum seekers; resulting in an environmentally degraded, and disadvantaged subculture (Oyserman, 2017). Consequently, UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Tendayi Achiume rigorously challenged the UK for its incongruency with the Equality Act 2010 (c.15; OHCHR, 2018). 

All of the above studied phenomena can be further extrapolated and triangulated to analyse the recent media scandal from the US which has received global attention (Kabaservice, 2019)  due to border enforcement agents allegedly separating migrant children from their parents, detaining them in slavish conditions at El Paso; whilst also denying them “trauma support […] clean water […] nutritious food”; and engaging in indignities such as forcing women to drink water from toilets (House Hearing Featuring AOC on Child Separation and Detainment, 2019). A congresswoman described the situation as a “manufactured crisis”, and many consider these measures to be “unnecessary” and “callous”.  Parental deprivation for a prolonged period of time can cause great harm (Custance, 2012); and the violation of human rights (UDHR, 1948; ECHR, 1950), and of the rights of the child (UNCRC, 1989) does too. This situation, by definition, is a form of state-sponsored psychological violence. Either challenging or complying with such moral crimes is at the discretion of every person’s free will (Milgram, 1963; 1965) and serves as a reference to understand the impact that policy has on individual lives, and the importance of making informed decisions. 

To summarise, challenging the status quo is crucial to advancing global development (Williams, 2019), and to understanding how current world events impact on individual and social lives. The media and the attention given to it play a crucial role in socio-behavioural dynamics, whilst also shaping personal and collective attitudes. This is why psychology must iteratively scrutinise what is already established to comprehend the consequences that arise out of public policy.

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