When Things Go South — Schismogenesis

Have you ever noticed what happens when our life situations go south or when big global situations turn bad? It seems that much more often than not, we react with aggression, which can range from pushing someone away to outright physical aggression and violence. At least in contemporary Western societies, the only other ways of reacting to bad situations include (a) withdrawing or taking submissive position or (b) trying to seduce the other entity into some sort of relationship.

Buddhists call these reactions the three poisonous emotions or kleshas. The first is aggression, which can range from pushing something away to attacking it. The second is ignorance or avoidance, where one might withdraw or take a submissive position in order to avoid conflict. The third is passion, where one tries to seduce the other and take ownership. None of these emotional reactions or strategies is particularly helpful. They all result in further conflicts and confusion.

From the perspective of Gregory Bateson, there also are three basic strategies or types of relationships. These types of relationships don’t align with the Buddhist 3 poisons, but one can see how the three poisons come into play within these relationships. Gregory called the first of these types of relationship “symmetrical.” Such symmetrical relationships are characterized by the parties being at odds with one another. Such a relationship can manifest as two people or two groups vying for control. Both individuals or groups are similar in nature. The second type of relationship he called “complementary.” In these relationships, the individuals or entities take on the characteristics of opposites. In some cases these relationships consist of a dominant individual and a submissive individual. Both of these types of relationships tend to degenerate into schismogenesis or the pulling apart and disintegration of the relationships. The warfare of the symmetrical and the resentment of the complementary do not help bring relationships together. The only type of relationship that holds the potential to not lead into schismogenesis is reciprocal or a relationship based on negotiation and some sense of mutuality. However, most relationships, whether at the scale of two individuals or even one individual contending with some other thing (e.g., an alcoholic and alcohol) or at the scale of nations, relationships move from symmetrical to complementary to reciprocal. But, the ones that tend to default at reciprocal are those that hold the most potential for survival.

But, let’s go back to how our default patterns of reaction, especially in Western societies, seem to be those that are aggressive or retaliatory. Someone calls us a name and we are ready to punch them. Someone drives to slowly and we start cursing at them. We think some problem is the fault of a particular group (illegal immigrants, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, Christians, or whomever). We react with aggression. At the very least, we may spread the anger or hatred and poison those around us. The reaction to 9/11 was aggression. The reaction to anything we don’t like is one of aggression. Abortion doctors are killed. A murderer is executed. A person who looks different from us is pushed away, attacked, or killed. We do this every single day. The police do it. Everyday citizens do it. Corporations do it.

And, as our world begins to collapse under the weight of a burgeoning population, rising sea levels, scarcity of water, scarcity of food, and scarcity of almost all resources, people will act out through aggression. But, aggression is exactly what is NOT needed. We don’t need to disintegrate into the visions extreme schismogenesis as in Mad Max, Blade Runner, or Total Recall. What we need to do more than anything is to come together. And, the only way to do that is with reciprocity along with heavy doses of empathy, compassion, and a willingness to understand others. Of course, we also need to change our ways of thinking so that we can in fact move toward solutions to a global meltdown, which isn’t a problem of any one nation or group of people, but is a problem for all of humanity.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I’ll end with an excerpt from a poem (“It’s a Mistake to Think You’re Special”) by John Giorno (from Subduing Demons in America, 2008, Berkeley, CA: SoftSkull Press, pp. 341—342) – read this with rhythm and a lot of energy:

on the carcass
of a dead bird,
and your body
is being pulled down
into the world
as a king.

I feel most
at home
among the defiled
I feel most at
home among
the defiled
I feel most at home among
the defiled,
in the center
of a flower
under a deep

It’s a mistake
to think
you’re special.


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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