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Professional News
Psychiatrists Disagree Over Choice of Tutu as Convocation Speaker
Psychiatric News
Volume 46 Number 10 page 6-36

In an open letter to APA, the Black Psychiatrists of America (BPA) registered support for the choice of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as this year's Convocation speaker at APA's 2011 annual meeting, which was occurring at press time.

Moreover, the BPA denounced some accusations leveled against Tutu by a group of psychiatrists angry over comments Tutu made about the Israeli-Arab conflict in the Middle East.

"Archbishop Tutu was not invited to speak about his personal political stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the BPA stated. "He was invited to share his story of facing a great societal evil at a time when most of the Western world gave only lip service and passive support to the cause —€¦ . Like other great people throughout history who have held unpopular views on the important issues of their day, —€¦ he is an important part of the historical record of speaking truth to power, and his views or alleged views on one issue must not diminish his great accomplishments in other areas."

The April 7 letter from the BPA was in response to a paid advertisement in the February Psychiatric Times by 27 APA members protesting the choice of Tutu. The ad drew attention to what the group called Tutu's "persistent vituperative stance regarding the State of Israel and those who support it," as well as the archbishop's support for divestment and boycott of certain Israeli institutions.

The ad noted that some of the 27 would not be attending the meeting because of the choice of Tutu, others would be planning various forms of protest, and a few were "seriously considering whether [they] want to continue to belong" to APA. Also, they urged APA to rescind the invitation to Tutu.

In its letter, the BPA urged APA President Carol Bernstein, M.D., not to rescind the offer and said it hoped APA would resolve differences of opinion among its membership through "civil discourse."

"[The] BPA in the spirit of —€˜truth and reconciliation—€™ seeks to encourage the APA and its membership to listen to —€˜better angels—€™ in order to resolve any differences that may exist within its membership and utilize the skills of conflict resolution and address this issue through civil discourse. When the dust settles, what would have been accomplished by this entire process if it fails to seek understanding and resolution in a healthy and productive way?"

In an interview with Psychiatric News before the meeting, Bernstein said Tutu would indeed be speaking at the annual meeting in Honolulu. She said that charismatic leaders and social reformers, however revered they may be by history or in their own time by some of their contemporaries, have typically been despised, at least by some.

And Tutu is among those, she said. At the meeting, Tutu will be speaking about his human-rights work in South Africa—€”work that earned him enemies among the white establishment there—€”and the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which has helped to heal the wounds of apartheid.

Bernstein commented that Tutu has also spoken out about issues and conflicts outside South Africa, including human rights abuses in other parts of Africa; the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo; gay rights and women's rights within the Episcopal Church and in society in general; and about poverty and HIV disease. And since the end of apartheid, Tutu has not hesitated to be critical of corruption within the black leadership of South Africa.

Tutu also has spoken out periodically about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. For instance, a speech by Tutu in Boston almost 10 years ago in which the archbishop angrily denounced Israeli policies toward Palestinian Arabs and American support for those policies, especially angered the 27 psychiatrists who placed the ad in Psychiatric Times; that speech, which took place during the second intifada (or uprising, in which some 1,400 Israelis and 3,400 Palestinians were killed) drew analogies to the policies of Hitler, Mussolini, and Milosevic.

In more recent comments, Tutu has drawn on the legacy of Old Testament teachings in urging reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. And he has stated his support for Israel's security and has denounced suicide bombings against Israelis.

Bernstein, who invited Tutu to speak, said that in e-mails and phone calls she has been personally vilified and excoriated by some, which, she said, has caused her both shock and hurt. But she reports that she has also spoken to at least a few of the 27 signers and found them to be conciliatory and reasonable, and she has received much support from many other APA members.

Bernstein said she hopes the controversy—€”which has engaged a relatively small portion of the membership—€”will be a "teachable moment" for both sides about being willing to disagree without being disagreeable.

"The more important conversation we should be having as a psychiatric organization is how to listen to and interact with each other even when we have very strong emotional opinions about issues that are divisive," Bernstein said.

She added that she chose to invite Tutu after hearing him speak at last year's meeting of the American College of Psychiatrists—€”a deeply inspiring address, Bernstein said, which merited no protests whatsoever despite the fact that the great majority of the college membership is also among APA's membership.

"I hope ultimately that this is an opportunity for us all to think about how to be respectful of each other even when we have extremely strong, divergent opinions," she said. "It's easy for things to spiral out of control, but we have to maintain our decency and civil dialogue, even when we disagree."

The BPA's open letter to APA is posted at <www.blackpsych.org/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/bpatutu.pdf>.6_1.inline-graphic-1.gif

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