A forum today co-sponsored by the American Association of Social Psychiatry (AASP) and the World Association for Social Psychiatry will analyze several historic events and their impact on the human psyche.
“Witness to an Extreme Century” will begin at 11 a.m. in Room 103A, Level 1, Pennsylvania Convention Center. During the hour and a half session, three speakers will share the expertise they’ve gained from studying these life-altering events. Following their presentations, the AASP Humanist Award will be presented to Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., Lecturer in Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the City University of New York.
Dr. Lifton is a prolific author noted for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence, and for his theory of thought reform. He will discuss the major studies described in his memoir, Witness to an Extreme Century. These include his work on Chinese thought reform or brainwashing, his study of atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima, his work with anti-war Vietnam veterans, and his study of Nazi doctors.
“I’ll suggest ways in which my findings in each of these studies have relevance for our country today,” Dr. Lifton said. “I’ll describe what I have come to call an ‘atrocity-producing situation’ which existed in the war in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Dr. Lifton became interested in the world’s destructive possibilities after he was drafted into the military in the 1950s at the end of the Korean War in what he describes as a “liberating experience.” Following his stint as an Air Force psychiatrist, he developed a method of studying the destructive events of humanity that involves extensive interviewing combined with an immersion into the cultural and historical issues surrounding a particular event.
During his lecture, Dr. Lifton will discuss the ways that extreme environments can influence the behavior of people from different backgrounds. He’ll also introduce his work on the protean self, a concept that describes the individual as many-sided, changeable, and more fluid than earlier concepts of the nature of the self.
Dr. Lifton’s work has led him into activism. His lecture will stress his commitment to social activism in combating destructive events, including his opposition to stockpiling nuclear weapons and their potential use.
“I would hope that people could recognize the constructive potential interaction of scholarship and activism. Sometimes they are considered antithetical to each other but I believe each requires the other; that scholarship is given purpose by activism and activism directed by scholarship,” Dr. Lifton said.
“I would also hope that people, whether they are clinicians or whatever their relation to psychiatry is, would see the relevance of these historical events that define our era for their own work and their own lives,” he said. “And I would hope psychiatrists come to recognize the enormous power of extreme environments that can take over from childhood influences.”
Dr. Lifton will be joined in the session by Steven S. Sharfstein, M.D., M.P.A., and Henri Parens, M.D. Dr. Sharfstein, who is President and Chief Executive Officer of Sheppard Pratt Health System, will discuss human rights in the ongoing war on terrorism. Dr. Parens, who is a child survivor of the Holocaust and author of Renewal of Life: Healing from the Holocaust, will describe how survivors are perpetually suspended between concealment and disclosure, how the emotional scars from their wounds are always in the healing process, and how those scars will always impact their lives even if they are invisible to others.