Responsibility and Relationships: From You and Me to Society

Over the past eight months or so, my wife and I have been renting a house after moving from a different city. Several weeks ago we found a house to buy. We approached our landlord, who lives out of state, and proposed that if he can let us out of our lease we could help him find a new tenant and fix up the place to move-in ready condition before the new tenant moves in. To us, this seemed like a perfectly normal proposition and apparently so did our landlord.

So, for the past two weeks we have been advertising the house, letting people view the house, and handing out applications and landlord contact information. But, what has been surprising about this whole process is that the people who call and come to see the house cannot figure out why we are doing this. They can’t make sense out of why we would be advertising the house, why we would be showing the house, and why we would be discussing the terms of the lease. When they ask “why?” I want to just say, because we’re responsible adults. But, I just give them a rather lengthy rationale instead.

I don’t think people have any models for how to develop straightforward relationships with people and how to assume responsibility for situations. The relationships they encounter with housing are all adversarial and based on distrust. Gregory Bateson’s complementary (dominant–submissive) and symmetrical (competitive or adversarial) types of relationships seem to characterize the vast majority of relationships encountered in the business of everyday life. As for “responsibility,” schools don’t really address it, even though they talk about teaching it all of the time. Their parents have been caught up in the same messy relationships and have lacked any experience in responsibility. And, most workplaces are based on the same dysfunctional sorts of relationships and lack of trust.

We live in a society where the relationships are out of whack. In such contexts, a number of the social characteristics we all discuss and say that we value are just not supported. These social characteristics include responsibility, ethics, empathy, moral reasoning/judgment, and so forth. We’ve created a social context where these sorts of positive personal and social characteristics are not supported, encouraged, or developed. There are few positive models for others to emulate. The vast majority of relationships are problematic at best. What we see in the media are dysfunctional relationships. The vast majority of our politicians do not model functional (reciprocal, negotiable) relationships or any of the positive social characteristics. I’d like to say that looking at the Republican debates is clear evidence of dysfunctionality, but the same holds true for almost all politicians. It’s just that the Republicans seem have taken the bar to a whole new low point. However, the point is that the predominant model of behavior as represented in film, TV, news, and everyday encounters is one that does not value reciprocal relationships and the values and behaviors that are intertwined in such relationships. Reciprocal relationships (Bateson’s third type) are those that are based on some sense of trust, and where terms and issues are negotiated rather than becoming the source of conflict and resentment. This sort of relationship should be what we strive to achieve with our partners, our friends, our families, and our adversaries. What would Congress look like if reciprocity was the basis for interactions. Instead of blockages and other childish games, we may see adults sitting down together in serious conversation. Disagreements would be a source of negotiation, change, and growth. But, instead we are left with childish, self-centered antics that only serve to prevent growth and destabilize the whole of society.

As The Turtles said, “You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.” But, here we are and not quite in the way The Turtles saw it.

We can step back from this precipice and change our ways of thinking and acting, but that will take an overwhelming desire from a vast majority of people to just say “NO MORE” to this nonsense.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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