Why I no longer wish to be associated with the BPS
Ex-member Kirsty Miller wrote a letter; here, we explain what happened next.
25 August 2020
On 25 August, we published a letter here from Dr Kirsty Miller, a psychologist based in Scotland [not, I must add, the Kirsty Miller who is Head of School at the University of Lincoln]. In it, Dr Miller described becoming "increasingly aware of the politicisation of the British Psychological Society, a shift that I feel is inappropriate for what is ultimately a governing body". She went on to discuss "a social justice agenda", "based on the notion that the way to address the historical suffering of certain groups is to give them preferential treatment in the here and now."
The decision to publish the letter was mine, made after consultation with the British Psychological Society's Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce and The Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee. I explained the thinking behind that decision in the 'Editor's note' below, which I added not long after posting the letter online.
It was a mistake to not have provided some editorial framing to the piece at the time of publication. For that, I have apologised and I do so again. Since publication, I have engaged with as many people as possible, by email/Twitter/phone, and I have been seeking to learn and understand.
The element of the feedback which troubled me most was that The Psychologist was providing a platform, the oxygen of publicity for racism and an author who, through her interactions on social media, was adding to the pain that Black and people of colour were already experiencing on a daily basis. Having observed these interactions on Twitter, and the author tweeting graphs of her personal website traffic with 'Nothing like a bit of outrage for your stats - thanks @psychmag', I have decided to delete Dr Miller's letter.
Again, this decision is taken by me personally, after consultation with the Taskforce, Committee and other Society members. Again, it is not an easy one: it does not sit comfortably with a 20-year career of seeking to provide a forum for communication, discussion and controversy. Dr Miller has not been censored or silenced; we published the letter, she had her say, and no doubt will continue to do so. But we cannot stand by and therefore become complicit in such behaviour. People's life experiences are not 'outrage' to be stoked. Freedom of speech cannot mean freedom of reach.
Just as I believed it was right to publish the letter, I now believe it is right to remove it. I have no doubt that some members of the Society and beyond will disagree with my course of action. As ever, I am available on [email protected] to listen and engage.
The comments posted by members in response to the original letter will remain towards the bottom of this page, and all Society members are welcome to log in and add theirs.
Dr Jon Sutton
Editor’s note [the original]: As expected, this letter has sparked a significant reaction on Twitter. I therefore felt it worth adding a few notes of explanation.
Firstly, Dr Miller’s letter is not in response to our September edition [with its cover linked to this interview with Nasreen Fazal-Short, Chair of the Society's Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce]. Dr Miller and I have had exchanges regarding our content in the past, on Twitter and over email, and this was submitted before the September issue was produced.
Secondly, Dr Miller was until relatively recently a member of the Society. If that were not the case, I would have rejected the letter out of hand. As it is, I saw value in bringing these views out into the light, to emphasise that they are out there in our profession, on the edges of membership and, judging by my email inbox, within the membership too. They are not uncommon; Dr Miller is one of few willing to put her name to them.
I reject the argument that publishing the letter in any way provides the views with legitimacy. We are a stated forum for ‘discussion, communication and controversy’ among all members of the Society and beyond, and publication in no way represents endorsement of it. Readers are always encouraged to call out bigotry, and there is no responsibility on anyone to engage with debate over it. We were categorically not looking to encourage a 'debate' on the existence of racism. Racism has no place in civilised society, yet it is everywhere, and we must take a stand against it.
One reader suggested that this letter, and its publication, represents a step back. I agree. Perhaps that is one reason I was keen to publish: after our September issue outlined small steps in standing against racism, I think it’s worth showing a wide audience where that journey is starting from. As Nasreen Fazal-Short has suggested, this is going to involve challenging conversations, featuring a real range of voices, on inclusion and values more broadly.
Publishing was not an easy decision – the editorial team was split, and I sought advice from the Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce. Some members of the Taskforce advised me to publish, at this stage without response. That's not, as has been suggested on Twitter, a 'get out of jail free card'. The final decision is mine as Editor.
Since publishing, I have sought to engage with every tweet and email we have received. Nothing has appeared in print yet, and your feedback helps to inform our decision over whether to publish in the October edition. It pains me to see that some have found the publication of the letter traumatising, invalidating or discouraging. I know that I am in no position to fully understand that experience. We are trying to do the right thing, and considering all the reaction so far on balance, I remain confident that we have.
In closing, I can only repeat my possibly naïve and increasingly folorn hope from the September editorial: that the Society can be the heat and light that draws us together. Twitter tends to reinforce heat over light, so anybody who wishes to continue the discussion with me is very welcome to do so via [email protected]
Dr Jon Sutton
Nasreen Fazal-Short, Chair of the British Psychological Society's Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce, responds following Twitter discussion:
The British Psychological Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce were consulted on, and supported, the online publication of Dr Kirsty Miller’s letter. Alongside the Editor Dr Jon Sutton, and The Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee, we have been reading the reactions on Twitter, engaging and learning. All of us, as Psychologists, need to be truly open to changing our minds by nurturing the capacity to keep thinking and reflecting.
Members of the Taskforce and the editorial team do not share the views expressed in the letter. Many people in society, many of them Psychologists, do… and they are mostly hidden, rather than on display for others to comment on. We need to understand these ideas and where they come from if we are ever going to change humanity, to be less divisive and value everyone. Given the values we all hold in the taskforce, we cannot stop freedom to think and believe what you like. If we do, chaos has come to humanity.
We must truly embrace those we dislike and allow them to speak – even if it is hard to do so, we want them to stop and notice their impact on others. We know that our beliefs not being discussed openly can happen in many, many other contexts where Psychologists have power over vulnerable people in their care, and can damage people. There is no-one on Twitter, or The Psychologist, or the Taskforce, in those rooms to challenge these beliefs when they impact negatively on those most vulnerable in society.
We understand that for many of our readers, this is not news to them; it is not an academic debate; it is not a learning opportunity. It is their lives; and there is significant trauma and emotional labour involved in reading and responding to such views. Airing them risks allowing racism the oxygen to breathe. But we cannot escape the reality that the profession, like society, is already on fire. Our job is massive, and only an open and collective response can douse the flames.
To those of you who form the next generation of Psychologists, who have reported being discouraged by this letter and the decision to publish it: We need you to be part of the discussion. To collectively think, debate and reflect. We know that humanity has the capacity to cause pain, by our beliefs, actions and even how we discuss these issues on social media. But remember that psychology has the power to do so much good for all humanity. Join in, keep talking to those who are different. We are all just scared humans, and we have so many more important things to do than fight each other. The Society can be the heat and light that draws us together in standing against racism, and in fighting for inclusion in its broadest sense.
Following further correspondence with Dr Kirsty Miller, we would like to take this opportunity to add further clarity to our previous comments.
We were responding rapidly during a period when we and the society were receiving a high volume of communications from concerned parties. When Jon wrote of receiving feedback that ‘The Psychologist was providing a platform, the oxygen of publicity for racism’, it is demonstrably the case that such feedback was received. However, it was not our role or intention to imply that Dr Miller’s letter contained racist and bigoted beliefs, and we’re sorry if that was not clear.
Our membership, and the wider psychology community, consists of people who hold a wide range of views on sensitive and potentially controversial issues. Achieving a balance where all voices are heard is often hard to achieve. Dr Miller has written elsewhere that she is opposed to the legitimisation of hatred, that she sees the dangers of an ‘us and them’ mentality, and that ultimately she wants to make the world a better place. The British Psychological Society is equally and increasingly committed to such aims, and remains open to engaging with differing opinions and challenging conversations on that journey.