Trapped by Double Binds
By Anupam Saraph -March 24, 2021
Last week Nora Bateson engaged in a conversation with a few of us on the work of the International Bateson Institute. Nora is the President of the International Bateson Institute.
Her work asks the important question “How we can improve our perception of the complexity we live within, so we may improve our interaction with the world”.
“Pathology,” said Nora Bateson while explaining the importance of perception in systems, “is the inability of an organism to understand its world.”
“What world?” responded a someone I know when I shared the concept. For him, his world was about himself and his needs. He failed to recognise the others in the different systems he was a part of. He never saw the others that made up his family. He never recognized the others who were his colleagues. He never saw the others in the teachers that he interacted with. He never recognised those who he did business with, they were simply means to an end. He never saw the others that made up his community.
For him, therefore, all that mattered was his own aspirations, purposes, and needs. Not those of anyone else. He had been described by those who interacted with him as being self-centred, even narcissistic. He was an example of the pathology Nora referred to.
You know the kind of person I mean, right? Unfortunately there are too many in the world for whom the world is all about themselves, their aspirations, their purposes, and their needs. For them everyone else is just a means to their aspirations, needs, and ends.
They are systems illiterate. They do not recognize that our world is the result of the systems we are a part of.
They are blind to the fact that systems are a result of purposes for which its participants come together, not the private purposes of a participant. They do not understand that the behaviour of the system is a result of the interactions of its participants, not a result of their wishes.
Nora Bateson calls information about the interrelationships in a system as warm data. It is the basis of understanding our world. Without it we have pathology.
One of the ways in which this pathology expresses itself is through what Nora’s remarkable father, Systems Scientist Gregory Bateson, had described as double bind.
For instance we when we tell children to be free to do as they please, we create a double bind. Asking them to do as they please is inconsistent because if they are free to do as they please, they will not heed to the needs of others. They will not care, nor respect others.
While there are many different explanations for double binds, from a systems perspective, those who learn to drive their actions while ignoring the others in their systems, or those who ignore feedback that tells them about the consequence of their actions, will experience a double bind. Double binds are the result of creating exploitative systems or systems that allow feedback to fail.
When we block perception, ignore its feedback, chose to see only what we like, not what is, or we completely ignore the others and the common purposes that brought us together, we create double binds. The less perceptive we are of the others in our world, the more the double binds we create.
For instance those who get accustomed to drive their motorcycles on pavements while ignoring the others who came together to accept the pavement for our common purpose of walking will experience double bind. They create a situation where they believe they are being punished if they cannot drive on the pavement and they are being punished for driving on the pavement. This is not very different from a terrorist who feels punished for not doing the act of terror, and also for doing the act of terror.
Bateson had also surmised that children who get into double binds would have greater problems as they grow. By the time the child is old enough to have identified the double bind situation, it has already been internalized, and the child is unable to confront it. The child then creates an escape from the conflicting logical demands of the double bind, in the delusional world of a pathological system. Bateson demonstrated that the symptoms and etiology of schizophrenia could be formally described in terms of a double binds.
The COVID pandemic, and the climate crisis are also the result of this double bind. When we see social distancing, use of masks, and lockdowns as an affront on our freedom, as a punishment, we ensure the continuity of the pandemic. We feel we are punished by an unending pandemic.
When we view our restrictions on our consumption as a punishment, we move faster and faster toward a global rise in temperature and extreme weather conditions. We feel punished and helpless in the climate crisis.
Unless we learn to understand and share the warm data of our systems: the participating actors, the common purposes that brought them together, the feedback that drives their actions, the moral code that serves as the basis to evaluate the feedback of the consequences of their action, our systems will have pathology.
Without systems literacy, there is no path to free ourselves from the short-term and be able to address the Short-Now, or the lifetime of the systems we participate in.
Thankfully we have those like Nora Bateson to bring sanity in an increasingly insane world.
#All views expressed in this column are those of the author and/or individuals or institutions that may be quoted and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to the same.
Dr. Anupam Saraph grew up in a Pune that was possibly a tenth of its current expanse and every road was lined by 200 year old trees. He’s committed to the cause of de-addicting the short-termers.
He can be reached @AnupamSaraph