21st June, 2018

 I received a call from ‘Talk Radio’ asking if I was free to talk on air about the Donald Trump administration’s latest affront to humanity in the separation of children from their parents in American illegal immigrant detention camps. Although I have contributed to many TV and radio programmes in the past on a goodwill basis, i.e. for free, I recently decided that this basis for my professional input had to stop. I now ask, as a matter of course, about the fee for such work and generally if one is forthcoming, albeit frequently a very modest one I am happy to make the time available to research the topic and then offer some comments. Sadly, my question usually marks the end of the conversation, which is a pity, because I can usually contribute some interesting and often different points to the discussion from my perspective as a very experienced professional psychologist. However, there is a silver lining in that the requests almost always start me thinking, reading, researching and thinking some more and there is often a blog to be written on the back of all this.

In the case of the radio piece on Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy I was interested to read that five ‘first ladies’, including The President’s wife, Melania, were all stating their opposition very publically. The film clips of children whose parents had crossed illegally from Mexico to the US huddled together in what looked like wire-mesh cages in vast storage depots, overseen by uniformed border police and detention centre staff were harrowing. These clips alternated with footage of hard-faced, aggressive-voiced and suited men reciting Trump political rhetoric, referring to the illegal immigrants as wanting to “pour in and infest our country” and claiming that they were “bad people”.

I found myself thinking about the infamous animal studies of Harry Frederick Harlow (1905 -1981), an American psychologist who researched the effects of separating baby monkeys from their mothers and substituting wire and cloth dummy construction mothers. He undoubtedly demonstrated the importance of parental care and presence and showed the devastating psychological and physical health and development costs of the absence of such. However, his experiments, which involved baby monkeys being put in isolation chambers for up to two years and many of them becoming extremely disturbed and ill, were found by increasing numbers of people to be highly offensive, inhuman and unethical. The mounting criticism gathered to the point where Harlow’s work is now viewed by many as the trigger for the modern animal rights movement. If a code of conduct for the treatment of animals is now so established how did Trump’s administration ever think they could operate an anti-immigration policy that entails separating children from their parents, especially at a time of great stress and turmoil?

I know the vast majority of people, not just Americans but across the world, know at a gut level that the Trump administration’s policies and actions regarding separating children form the parents are wrong. Anyone who thinks otherwise must surely be asked to consider the one ethical test that really matters: “would I want this for myself or someone I loved?” When people stop asking this question of themselves it is more than likely that they are experiencing what psychologists know as alienation. R. D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist who wrote extensively on mental illness wrote:

“Alienation as our present destiny is achieved only by outrageous violence perpetrated by human beings on human beings.”

In lay terms, alienation is the state of mind in which a person feels cut off from others, cannot relate or empathise and is able to exercise, in their mind, complete rationality and objectivity. Presumably Donald Trump and his suited spokesmen justified their actions and the defense of these through a perception that they were acting in an objective and rational manner for the greater good. However, just yesterday news broke that Trump had done a 180 degree policy turn in response to the protests from his nearest and dearest and that the separate detention of children would cease. I was relieved and reassured as it seems that Trump’s personal connections do exist and that maybe love still has the power to change the world.

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