What Psychology Today magazine did not want posted on the web

Orangutans have a natural sense of fairness which my former human editors at Psychology Today magazine might do well to heed...Photo by Shawn Thompson
Note: This is the original blog I wrote for Psychology Today magazine that offended the editors in a dispute we had about their treatment of bloggers. The column was taken offline by the editors without explanation or warning, then put back when I protested. Several months later I continued to post comments internally for editors and other bloggers, raising the issue of how Psychology Today treats its bloggers and my blog was terminated because the comments were said to be "unwelcome."   Professional bloggers and bloggers in general are easy to exploit by commercial enterprises, partly because they are unorganized, although it is worth taking note of The Media Bloggers Association.

One thing I learned from my friends the apes is not to be intimated when you feel powerless. Apes are much better at that than I am. I would not make a good ape.

What happened was that I was on the phone doing an interview about apes that gave me real goose bumps, the kind you get when something uncanny happens. (I will slap that column together in a week or so, when I have gathered more material. Please don’t rush me. These things take time.)

In the midst of my goosebumpsiness I got a message from a nameless automated editor of this magazine that my privileges were being suspended to be listed in the index for readers because, naughty me, I hadn’t written a blog about apes for 90 days. If I wrote something fast, I could have my privileges back... hmmmm. You see where I am going, don’t you?

I enjoy writing about apes very much. It is my Achilles heel. I would do anything for the privilege of writing about apes. I have a deep need to reach an audience about matters close to my heart. And an editor knows these things. Editors are shrewd judges of character. They know how to rattle our cages and yank our chains.

As a blogger for this magazine, I get paid five U.S. dollars for every thousand hits online, which is about one tropical fruit parfait at the small Red Mango outlet four or five blocks away from me in Seattle – for my girlfriend, Wendy, of course. I have to wait for the next thousand hits for my tropical fruit parfait. I am a gentleman, although I do like a little extra mango when I can get it.

But, according to the quota system for we Psychology Today "experts," if we don't post three blogs for each quarter of the year, no fruit parfait. The editors say this is not punitive; it is a "friendly reminder" to stay "fresh."

I don't think it is a good idea to take fruit away from an ape. We just don't get subtle arguments.

For someone who thinks too much about apes, I can’t distinguish between the word “guerrilla” and the word “gorilla,” which are two of the most popular words in the English language, way ahead of “chimpanzee” and “orangutan,” if you care to Google them, as I have. The word “gorilla” appears 100 million times online, followed by “chimpanzee” at 20 million and then “orangutan” taking a diminished last position in cyber consciousness at 6.7 million references, which is one reason why I wrote a book about orangutans, the underdog ape -- although the sweet bonobo of the Congo is an underdog too, as one reader has rightly reminded me. I am still trying to solve the puzzle of why human culture is more interested in gorillas than chimpanzees and more interested in chimpanzees than orangutans. You figure that one out. I want to continue my tale uninterrupted, please.

I have to say about my friends the guerrillas, the chimpanzees, the orangutans -- and the sweet bonobos -- that they have a natural sense of justice and fair play, and will back me up on this point. That natural sense of justice is not unique to us. We didn’t invent it out of “the blue.” It is not something that comes from our ability to use language or to reason philosophically, which we think makes us unique. The apes have it.

I have heard from scientists and seen in research that an ape will refuse food if he feels his share is too small or an insult to his position and dignity. I have heard from zoo keepers that an ape will be hard to manage if he thinks he has been treated unfairly. One ape will sometimes come to the defence of another, if he or she feels something unfair is happening. I have even heard tales of them helping an animal or a human being in distress.

It is the kind of rudimentary ethics that Frans de Waal reminds us about in his book The Age of Empathy, which I have on my ipod so that I can feel wiser and more empathetic at the gym. I am no wheezy, out-of-shape blogger. Not me.

It is also ingenious how apes in captivity, in situations like zoos, with virtually no power themselves, turn the situation against their captors. I have heard repeatedly from orangutan keepers that it does not matter who holds the keys to the cage, orangutans can find a way to frustrate a keeper who does not treat them with the consideration and respect they think they deserve. The same issues of power and respect that preoccupy us as human beings are part of the ape world too. The apes set a fine example for the defiance of the underdog.

I thank my friends the apes for reminding me that fairness is more than just a human abstraction and that it is worth preserving. It was part of the primate constitution long before human beings thought they knew what it meant.

The aftermath of all this is that I posted the original draft of this column, it drew some comments from readers and was pulled off the website by the editors. Then, half a day later -- whew -- it was returned intact, criticism and all, nothing cut.

And so, after we yanked the chain back and forth for a while as we human apes are apt to do, there is peace in the cage once more and I can feel free to contemplate whatever gives me goosebumps.

What kind of psychology is this?
Postscript: After this online column, the editors at Psychology Today instructed me not to comment this way in public, but to post comments to a private area of the magazine reserved for only editors and bloggers, which I did. I occasionally was bold enough to talk about the quota system and the way that bloggers were punished for not writing enough blogs by being taken off the online index so that readers could not find them. The magazine also punishes bloggers by not paying the $5 fee for columns posted if at least one column a month is not posted. I saw a power imbalance between writers wanting to reach an audience and a magazine getting cheap labor which, in turn, was used to sell ads online and draw readers to the magazine, without a reciprocal sense of responsibility towards the writers. I also criticized internally the December 2010 cover of Psychology Today magazine with a photo of a shapely fantasy woman in a bikini for a cover story that the writer of the story told me was intended to be "anti-feminist."  I didn't think the cover suited what the magazine should be. All this led to my column on apes being cut without warning or discussion. I regret the loss of an audience about an issue close to my heart, orangutans and other apes, and I had to start from scratch again on this blog site without the thousands of followers I had accumulated, but fair play for writers is also important. and you can only compromise so much before it damages you personally. I felt it would be making a bargain with the devil for me to refrain from commenting because the editors might terminate my column. You shouldn't aim for partial integrity. We writers have to protect our rights and our freedom to speak honestly.