Following Donald Moss’ article in the American Psychoanalytic Association’s in-house journal JAPA, claiming that white babies are born racist and are afflicted with “a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which ‘white’ people have a particular susceptibility,” the newest scandal to hit the field involves Lara Sheehi, assistant professor of clinical psychology at The George Washington University (GWU) and President of Division 39 of the Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology, which is part of the American Psychological Association. Sheehi is being accused of antisemitism, discrimination, harassment and hate speech. A non-profit, pro-Israel organization called StandWithUs (SWU) has filed a federal civil rights complaint with the Department of Education against Sheehi’s university under Title VI of the education act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds.” They claim that the university failed to properly investigate numerous complaints against Sheehi by Jewish and Israeli graduate students, who allege that she subjected them to targeted harassment.
After the story made the international news, GWU opened an investigation into Sheehi’s behaviour. Sheehi is being legally represented by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), who allege that SWU is a racist, anti-Arab organization and that the investigation is motivated by anti-Arab sentiment. Here we witness the familiar politics of division that pits Jews against Arabs.
Sheehi, who is Lebanese, supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement and does not think that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state. Her husband Stephen Sheehi, an endowed Chair and Professor of Arabic Studies at The College of William and Mary, endorses the terrorist group Hamas and she appears to share this view.
The StandWithUs Title VI Complaint cites Sheehi’s public Twitter account (@blackflaghag), which she has since deleted, and in which she has allegedly condoned lethal violence against Israeli citizens and frequently berates Israelis for Israel’s Zionist policies.
Professor Sheehi should not be cancelled for her tweets. That would be an affront to free speech. She was exercising her legitimate and protected right to freedom of expression on a personal social media account. But it seems like unbecoming language from a representative of the APA. Sheehi also appears to be speaking about all Israelis, not just Zionists. And while it is within one’s rights to oppose Zionism, to hear a professional psychologist claim that all Zionists suffer from mental illness and are psychotic seems to indicate that she will not treat patients or students fairly if they disagree with her political views. And to pathologize political adversaries arguably falls under misuse of influence, which is explicitly prohibited by the APA Code of Ethics. In addition, Sheehi refers to herself online as a psychoanalyst although she does not have this qualification, which is also a direct violation of APA ethics.
Her APA Division has issued a statement in support of Sheehi on free speech grounds (they confusingly refer to this as “free association,” which they seem to define as the freedom to think aloud):
Psychoanalysis … is grounded in the ethical conviction that free association is the bedrock of all freedom. We must be free to think, to speak, to write, to follow our minds where they lead as part of the work of pursuing the truth.
These would be strong arguments, if they were consistently followed. But it seems unlikely that a white professor who tweeted profanities about Muslims, trans people or people of colour would be exonerated by the association in this way. Klaus Fiedler, for example, was recently asked to resign his post as editor-in-chief of the prestigious journal Perspectives on Psychological Science after a black psychologist claimed that he was racist for inviting white reviewers to evaluate his article. His organisation did not come to his support in that case.
Carter Carter, the President of the Section on Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility and a board member of Sheehi’s APA division, has come out in support of Sheehi in a statement in which he blames Jews for becoming “white.” Referring to Jews who emigrated to America from Europe, he writes, “It was all about Whiteness, and passing as white. Having fled a White Supremacist movement in Nazism, they had to find a place for themselves in the American version that had inspired it.” His depiction of what has happened in Sheehi’s case verges on conspiracy theory and paranoia and completely disregards the substance of the complaints against her:
what has transpired is a large-scale effort by white people to doxx, hobble, humiliate, and banish the first woman of color to run Division 39, one of the largest psychoanalytic organizations in the world. This is a mob of white people seeking to destroy a person of color and get away with it.
This is irresponsible language from the president of the Section on Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility. Carter’s generalisations about his profession itself are equally vague and even more divisive and inflammatory:
The Whiteness of professional psychoanalysis is absolutely noxious to us. We might be the new life blood of this field, if Whiteness does not insist on segregating us out of the profession by being unsurvivably hostile to us. We should be watching closely what happens to Lara to see if psychoanalysis might be capable of seeing the errors of its white ways and making room for the rest of us.
This is propaganda, not scholarship. Carter offers no specifics, no arguments or evidence for this view. It is left-wing identity politics: an illiberal double standard that opposes debasing rhetoric aimed at any group—except white people, the hegemonic imperialist oppressors who are the cause of all injustice in the world.
Sheehi has, predictably, also accused SWU and GWU of racist motives. She claims that the Jewish and Israeli students in her class who filed complaints against her used “racist language against black people and Arabs” and that she filed formal DEI bias incident complaints for “discriminatory and isolating tactics toward me by some colleagues.” She frames the entire incident in racial terms—a common, but unhelpful tactic:
I categorically reject the civilizational and sexist discourse whereby language on my personal social media accounts is under paternalistic scrutiny … The disciplining of language is an old misogynist cudgel by which Black, Indigenous, and women of color, especially, are expected to, at best, reply to racism, sexism, and xenophobia with a gentile [sic] and “civil” reply. If we do not, we are actively punished … The discourse of “professionalism” is also used as a civilizational technique to imperiously shame women and people of color and is intentionally deployed as a disciplinary tactic to stabilize patriarchy and whiteness.
This seems to indicate that she is in radical disagreement with the professional standards of her own organisation. It ignores the inflammatory nature of her own rhetoric and the fact that she belongs to a regulated public health profession. Sheehi’s response boils down to if you criticize me, you are a racist. It seems that it is acceptable to make derogatory generalisations about some groups—white people, men, Israelis, etc.—but not about others.
Sheehi should receive a fair hearing. But she should refrain from attempting to insulate herself from legitimate criticism by playing the race card. And, out of respect for the organisations she serves, I think she should recuse herself from her professional roles in these organisations until the investigation is over.