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Government and politics, Poverty

Intellectual gaslighting?

Ron Roberts responds to Professor Rusi Jaspal's article in the July/August issue.

03 August 2023

I read with considerable interest Professor Rusi Jaspal's article in the July/August issue of The Psychologist, where he discusses his presentation for the recent European Congress of Psychology around the theme of 'uniting communities for a sustainable world'. His article focuses on two threats which can be said to have emanated from the natural world – HIV and the coronavirus pandemic. In doing so, Professor Jaspal acknowledges that 'some marginalised subgroups are disproportionately affected by societal changes contingent on these natural events'. After reading the article I remain perplexed as why Professor Jaspal has bypassed any consideration of the more usual structural threats which people have been contending with for some time, and which emanate not from the natural world but the social and political one.  

For example, in recent years in the UK, we have seen massive increases in inequality, fuelling poverty, a huge growth in foodbanks, a government seeking to abolish legal protections for minority groups and refugees, a history of mistreatment of disabled people, a crisis in mental health both in our universities and beyond and, now a culture war waged against trans people, to say nothing of a severely degraded health service which now threatens the well-being of millions. Given that the sceptical response of some minority groups to vaccination has roots in the historical mistreatment of African Americans, in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, conducted over a 40-year period, I would have thought some critical reference to official Government actions would have been difficult to avoid. But avoided it was. In contrast, my old boss, Professor Michael Marmot has shown no reticence in placing responsibility where it is due, in writing in The Guardian last year that 'we are in danger of inflicting a humanitarian calamity in one of the richest countries in the world'. 

Reducing people's responses to threats to risk appraisal and coping strikes me as a form of intellectual gaslighting which detracts attention from the causes of threats in people's lives. The Power Threat Meaning Framework, developed in clinical psychology, seems a much more appropriate way to engage with these issues. 

When I wrote my 2007 book, Just war: Psychology and Terrorism, I posed the question, in response to the war in Iraq, whether the psychological perspectives of the time were serving elite interests. Reading Professor Jaspal's article I experienced a sense of déjà vu. I would be interested to hear from him if and how he feels his perspectives on identity have been shaped by his own political orientation – given he has stood as a candidate for the Conservative Party – and a desire to avoid discussion of the daily structural violence which is now endemic in this country.

Dr R.A. Roberts, CPsychol, AFBPsS 

Editor's note: I have approached Professor Jaspal for comment.