Author: Esther Krohner

How we see the world: Politics through a Brief Therapy Lense. 

People often say everything is connected, when referring to interwoven events, people and movements. It’s because we cannot avoid looking at the world through a lens, through a particular window. We have chosen the Problem-Solving Brief Therapy lens because we find it useful and we wanted to share a perspective that even applies to everyday politics.

This lens which we have chosen allows us to recognize broader themes. It  becomes impossible to talk about the relevant themes of everyday life and thus  our current political stage without referencing Gregory Bateson. Specifically, the theory he developed about schismogenesis. He documented his development of the term while observing group behavior between two  groups of people, originally in the 1930’s in Bali, while working there with his wife Margaret Mead. Zoom forward in time and our government’s major parties are exhibiting schismogenesis. When we look at current events, a family or any news; our brain plugs into the interactions and the features that are defining the system beyond the content of the “fight”.  

It is no secret that many party members denounce the extreme behaviors of other party members, yet the parties are divisive and continue to polarize one another. The term schismogenesis describes the ongoing cumulative interactions between the groups that are differentiating, in both complementary and symmetrical ways . By this we mean, that the reactionary modes of interaction get out of control and can turn a group into bulldozing and or sheepish perpetrators of “tribal” differentiation, rather than focused on other important things, like damage control of an economy. 

Paul Krugman wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on May 16th which asserts our view on things, with on point examples, of this behavior. His paraphrased words follow. “It is hard to look at the debt ceiling without looking at the way conflict and holding patterns are being maintained in the U.S. government. It is important to note that the current system is that  Congress enacts legislation that determines money spent and earned for the budget. However, if there is a deficit then the Congress needs to vote again  to authorize borrowing, if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling, then the government will go into default.This system gives a party power that could never be enacted through normal legislative processes.”

This arrangement describes how power over the budget is determined. It allows for an initial agreement to be made, and then to be undermined later. This is built into the legislation around our debt, which determines a fundamental part of our economy. This allows for the power dynamic and cumulative interactions between the parties to polarize in an assortment of ways which fit into both of the patterns of schismogenesis (symmetrical and complementary). When the decision is up for vote regarding its implementation, the party which disagrees on how the funds should be used, utilizes tactics that further divide the possibility of agreement or compromise. Instead they resort to the predictable behaviors of schismogenesis. Pushing, threatening, coercing, belittling, sabotaging each other and playing victim, submitting, ignoring etc. This works particularly well, when one of the parties at the table believes they can negotiate in good faith – Biden in Krugman’s piece– but the other party is willing to blow up the whole process because they can as a destructive tactic. In this interaction, everyone loses in the long run but appears to win in the short run. Similar to what we see in families: the angry party is willing to blow everything up to obtain short term gains, which threatens the existence of the family itself. 

In the political scenario, the possibility to find a window to compromise before things get worse  is typically an afterthought, when the interactions of the schismogenesis go unchecked. For those interactions to be modified, it takes doing something unusual or “out of the box” to temper those patterns. The fight becomes the power struggle  not about the thing the polarized groups claim is important to them. This is when the Attempted Solutions backfire and holding patterns spur systems into loops that negate the outcome they prefer for the family unit or the country in this discussion.

In his article Paul Krugman references how there is a refusal to try unorthodox measures to resolve the escalation around the debt ceiling. Instead there is an extreme position and agreement of not extending funds. There is then a chaotic effort to get funds approved and the eventual caving. This undermines the possible reasonable compromise that is the consequence of parties retaining polarized symmetrical escalation and then launching into the complimentary approach which undermines the authority of both parties. It is the epitome of ‘out of control system’ and out of check schismogenesis. 

What is more puzzling, but also predictable, is that from the outside, many people are able to see this. However on the inside, the parties are blind and or so power greedy that they prefer the destruction of the out of control schismogenesis, than to try something unorthodox or even worse (from their point of view), a compromise that makes both parties sacrifice something but is beneficial for the greater good.

We wanted to share our point of view, the principles of Brief Therapy and problem formation and resolution are in everything- not just problems pegged as mental health. The escalation and the attempted solutions to solve it in our government’s extremist context prove our points about how ongoing escalation is established and positive change is undermined. It is sad, but predictable.

Esther Krohner

Master en Psic.
I have 14 years of experience working in mental health settings. I am and LMFT and RYT. I have been training and practicing  family therapy with Karin Schlanger for 5 years at the Mental Research Institute. I help couples, families, kids and teens  to make the changes they want to. When faced wit...

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