Nora Bateson, Filmmaker, writer, educator, lecturer and President of the International Bateson Institute, Sweden, USA
I am very honored to announce that this paper recently received the award for the ARTICLE OF THE YEAR by the Norwegian journal Fokus på Familien. It is now nominated for the larger award given by the group of 55 Scandinavian journals called: Universitetsforlaget. Thank you to all of the people who supported my work.
This is not the version that is in the Fokus På Familien, because that one is under copyright. But it is a close approximation. The exploration in this piece is around using a lens of transcontextual description to expand the way the public discussion is taking place. This subject is too important for binaries. It is, in my opinion, way passed time to open the scope of the conversation. I hope that this “transcontextual” form may bring breadth to the considerations placed on immigration, refugees, displaced people and every one on the move.
As I read through the news today, a year later, my heart breaks to think of the blast radius of dividing families. Each separation is a fissure, unsafe to the future of communities around the world.
As increasing numbers of people are displaced from their homes by war, poverty, and ecological necessity, immigration and the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ have become a heated political topic. The rhetoric has become dualistic and is fueling a polarity of discussion that is locking individuals and communities into stances of either “for” or “against,” pro or anti, incoming refugees. The discourse is consequently dividing communities around the world into ideological groupings of nationalistic or globalized visions of the future. This article seeks to go beyond the binary and expand the conversation by bringing a more complex picture of the issue into view. Introducing the notion of transcontextual description to the immigration and refugee discourse is an attempt to hold back the tendencies of us/them reductionism and reframe the conversation of what the possibilities are for responding. Using a transcontextual approach, this article zooms in on institutional contexts as they relate to immigration, and then zooms out to look at the larger interception of these contexts in a new light. The institutions that form societal and global structures are forming interdependency that is similar to an ecology. These institutions include economics, culture, politics, history, family and more. The implications of this process are not described in concrete instructions on how to solve the refugee crisis, but rather to offer a pattern through which to generate conversation that will lead to an entirely new set of questions. Collaborative inter-institutional research at the community level is suggested to generate possibilities as they are found within the natural complexity of the situation.
The way in which the public and political discourse is built around the narrative of refugee immigration is perhaps one of the most important issues of our time. The liberal argument for the “globalized community” that suggests we are all global citizens, as well as the opposing conservative argument for “entitlement to place,” which suggests the rights of multi-generational land inhabitants over refugees, are both unable to meet the aggregate of circumstances now facing humanity. Efforts to justify or prove “right” either of the arguments in this binary only detract from the more imperative questions of how humanity will fare in the coming decades of ecological, cultural and economic transformation. There are no simple solutions to this crisis and there is no way to rewind to a time when this situation could have been avoided. Now, in order to avert further socio-economic and cultural consequences, the question we need to ask is: “how can we develop and deliver information about this situation that is more respectful of its complexity?”
Right now, there are huge numbers of people relocating in emergency conditions … conditions they cannot stop or fix or rework. These conditions stem from forms of economic, ecological and political destruction that arguably are rooted in two centuries of “globalization measures.” Refugees have walked across continents with nothing but the grief in their hearts of having lost their lands, families, profession, traditions and language. Then, arriving somewhere else, many experience the humiliation of anti-immigrant sentiments. Though unintended, the label of refugee insinuates traumas that are not conducive to supporting people to start a new life in an unfamiliar culture. Yes, it is important to honor the local heritage and identity of the incumbent citizens on the land where refuge is sought, but not at the expense of other human beings and their health, sanity, even their survival. Our conversation must go beyond this polarity if we are to find productive ways to navigate the coming decades.
“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”- Wendell Berry
We are facing, simultaneously, ecological, economic, cultural, religious, and political transformation that includes the crucial questions of identity and humanitarianism. To address this complex problem, we must use a lens that can take complexity into account. The immigration issue highlights the importance of finding new ways of approaching complex problems. Specifically, this means that we must look across the board for context, understanding and solutions — to the ecological, economic, cultural, educational, political, and medical — because there is no single sector that we can turn to for a solution. The actions we need to take are ones that are considered across the spectrum of systems. Where is the political and social mandate for this inter-system, and cross-institutional form of interaction?
Language Contributes to Perception and Vice Versa.
The terms “refugee”, “immigrant”, “migration” and “crisis” are used in this paper, but I would encourage a dialogue about how to better describe the processes and people to which these terms refer. The term “emergency relocation” is perhaps an improvement, but the infrastructures in place still require particular language to conform with existing policy. A necessary response to changing situations is adapting communication to reflect more refined understanding.
Refugee: The term refugee, while necessary for governmental agencies to issue immigration rights and assign services, is a term that describes a particular form of victimhood. I would suggest that care be taken in the long-term use of this word and the way it may become an identifying terminology for large numbers of people trying to start new lives despite the weight of economic, physical, and cultural trauma. People need to be identified as people, first and foremost.
Immigrant/migrant: Framed in this terminology, the brunt of the ethical questions and pressure are faced by the immigration authorities. Given the complexity of the conditions both behind and in front of the incoming people, it is clear that immigration law is not broad enough to meet the medical, economic, psychological and intercultural dilemmas that are facing not only the incoming people, but the incumbent locals as well.
Crisis: Although press and governments refer to current movements and cultural upheaval as “The Refugee Crisis”, the multiple historical, economic, and cultural causalities that have combined over centuries to bring this about are more of a slow crash than a crisis. The temporal communication that locates this immediate acute need as a “crisis” dangerously omits the long development of conflicts that have brought this on.
How Can We Best Increase Possibilities for Future Community Life?
The future of social coexistence requires a conversation that includes systems thinking and an understanding of cybernetic patterns. The success of future community living is largely determined now by the tone of the communication with which media and professionals approach the complexity of this conjoinment. The USA, Sweden, France, the UK, Hungary and other countries have witnessed the rise of right-wing political groups that disavow hard-earned civil liberties for people of color, and those with non-hetero-normative lifestyles. Divisions in political ideology around the issue of immigration are growing wider, and more violent, as groups which support receiving refugees and groups which are becoming increasingly nationalistic justify their positions with information that is compartmentalized. Trying to reduce the complexity of the issue is not only distracting the public from the depth of the issue, but is also destructive. However difficult, the description of the refugee crisis must not shy from the rigor of addressing the cross-sector, contextual complexity of this situation. The way in which the refugee crisis is perceived matters, and the constraints on that perception should be taken seriously, especially when the fabric of society is being torn by the vitriol of opposing opinion.
Research data and other information about the refugee crisis is currently weakened by the fact that it is derived through various bodies of governmental, academic, and social service professionals that do not have a common watering hole at which to exchange and compare their findings. This separation reflects our demarcated, mechanistic socio-cultural process of making decisions and taking action. These departments, by definition, require information in streams of specific description, some concentrating on economics, human rights, history, politics, medicine, or culture. While each individuated data stream is vital, there is dangerously little study of the way in which this situation is forming through interdependent institutions.
Structures that run right through our culture contribute to the fragmentation of information, such as healthcare separated from a larger understanding of wellbeing, or banking and legal systems separated from a larger understanding of patterns of criminality in ecological destruction. Awareness of the limits that these structures place on our ability to respond to current crises is the first step toward better research and better solutions. A more comprehensive result will be possible with increased understanding of the knitted tangle of the interrelationship, comparison of patterns, and multiple contextual studies.
The term “Transcontextual” refers to the ways in which multiple contexts come together to form complex systems. It allows for a concentration on the interdependency between contexts that give resilience to both living and non-living systems. Transcontextual description offers insights into where contextual overlap is reinforcing the status quo and where it is loose enough to initiate shifts. In terms of the refugee crisis, I want to use the process of opening perception of the situation in transcontextual terms, so that the polarities now obscuring broader understanding may be reconfigured within another perspective.
The emergency relocation of millions of people into Europe from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq presents a complex collection of causations and ramifications that, when separated from their contextual overlap, spins into polarized ideological rhetoric. But this is a problem that has multi-contextual facets.
When searching for a root cause, or singular rhetorical angle on what has brought on these crises, it is tempting to cast a net around a particular institution and drill down. Some will point to economic causations, others to historical or cultural ones, but the crisis is actually developing and emerging at and between the boundaries of multiple institutions. The root cause is a collection of responses to combined institutional conditions. While it is true that the problem can be identified as either economic, or political, or cultural, or historical, or legal … none of those contexts can actually be disentangled from the others. Likewise, the future of Europe or the US cannot be separated from the rest of the global political upheaval, cultural revolutions or international markets. Our histories are bound together, as are our futures. Responsibility is everywhere, and is necessarily required within and between our institutional frameworks.
While it is challenging enough to require information that contextualizes the refugee crisis, even this exercise underestimates the complexity. One context is not enough: there are many. A listing of the contexts here will be incomplete, but may open the discussion to the multiple and interlocking formations of what is sometimes called a “wicked problem.” While each institution is contributing to the overarching narrative of the refugee crisis, the way in which these institutions mutually generate a container of cultural responses often goes unnoticed.
What follows is a limited, but transcontextual, description of the increasing crises that we face globally in terms of accommodating people who are in the process of emergency relocation. Due to a multi-causal perfect storm of global conditions, millions of people have no choice but to leave their homelands and seek life in other countries. While there are dedicated experts doing their best to assess and respond to the situation from their field of expertise, as of now there are no experts whose job it is to address societal crises with transcontextual responses.
Ecology of Institutions:
Below is a cursory and incomplete illustration of the ecological patterns of interdependency that can be identified between social, political and cultural institutions. It may seem as though these institutions can be isolated, and even altered or fixed individually, but their reinforcing interrelationality makes change at that level nearly impossible. Likewise, the rhetoric that directs blame at any particular institution is a manifestation of our failure to recognize the way in which these institutions are interrelated and stuck together. Stuckness and change will be discussed later in this paper. Here I will attempt to lay out a few familiar narratives next to each other to gain perspective. There is no hierarchy implicit in the listing of these institutional binds, and their circuitry of interaction is non-linear. Of course, none of these listed institutions can be truly separated from one another, and my doing so is an invitation to the reader to notice the patterns that they form collectively and in which we all live and make decisions.
The most familiar line of discussion around the refugee crisis is that the arrival of people in need will disrupt and perhaps destroy existing economies. The social systems of the nations they migrate into cannot afford to pay for their housing, education, employment, and welfare without undermining the situation of citizens already in need. The argument for providing shelter to refugees before existing citizens is rife with injustice that typically puts the lower working classes in competition with incomers for basic needs. People perceive that refugees are expensive, that they arrive with nothing, and that they need care that taxpayers have not agreed to pay for. In this sense, the argument against the economic destabilization that sudden influxes of people will bring is strong. It is an old argument, used time and again around the world in times of transition. The economic discussion crosses into cultural territories in the form of nationalistic sentiment and fuels xenophobia.
Additionally, measures of austerity have revealed reinforced local poverty in harsh contrast to soaring international corporate markets – thereby fueling another level of distrust and anger toward the proponents of “globalization”. The elite shield their funds from taxation in international accounts while national, public systems that support national social care, such as medical, educational, and other infrastructure, struggle to fund local initiatives. When governments are not flush enough to give anyone a “free ride,” there is increasing competition for funding that pits locals against refugees. Bitterness toward refugees increases when people perceive that addressing local citizens’ impoverishment comes second to assisting strangers.
It is easier to blame the refugees for the lack of jobs and social services than to call the larger global corporations to order in terms of being transparent and honest about paying their share of taxes, fees and environmental fines. The constant threat of unemployment and economic volatility is leveraged against citizens while offshore accounts and hidden assets are the norm for the world’s biggest moneymakers.
Colonialism is not a thing of the past. While they may not be explicit, colonial patterns and the epistemological habits flavored by that history are deeply engrained and seep into our perception of the refugee crisis in significant ways. Holdover colonial attitudes surface as a sense of entitlement to assets, democracy and a comfortable lifestyle. Most of the world’s populations do not presume these luxuries to be within reach, while wealthier demographics within wealthier countries take the same luxuries for granted. Countries that have a history of colonizing carry the often-unseen attitude of the victor, and the intrinsic assumptions that confidence of access and ownership of this positioning have generated.
The history of how some nations became wealthy and others have become economically and ecologically vulnerable is largely an extension of the colonial narrative. Across generations in wealthy countries there is an expectation of living standards that require vast resources, both economic and natural. Colonial shadows and holdover attitudes have normalized a sense of entitlement to a particular vision of success, wealth, and way of life that is mathematically impossible to distribute equally across the population of the globe.
Colonial heritage, particularly in wealthy countries, implicitly imposes a responsibility for people in need, especially those who are themselves the descendants of people who lived under colonial rule. As such there is a necessity to address the errors and imperfections of the systems that have increased “progress”. The idea that no problems exist in the richer societies feeds the illusions that the state is more efficient than it is, and that support is available. In turn, underlying conflicting expectations on both sides that spark rivalry gain momentum. Refugees needing succor are led to believe that wealthier countries should and can offer help, while the incumbent citizenry construe the refugees’ needs as drains on existing social service and employment resources.
Mining rights, big banks, cheap labor, resource exploitation and tax evasion have allowed poverty and notions of “underdeveloped” nations to reach across decades and even centuries. The accumulation of wealth and influence that wealthy countries enjoy are the spoils of capitalistic leveraging of inexpensive resources. Exploitation and violent inequality appear to be built into notions of “progress and development”. But colonialism had a shelf life and while its shadows are still looming, the tipping points are being reached all around the world. Again, this history spills into both culture and economics, as ideas of success and economic dominance are inevitably woven into the historical picture.
Some of the same dynamics of exploitation, exclusion, and social hierarchy, which colonial nations and peoples extended outwards towards their external empires, also extend inwards towards non-dominant social classes and regions “at home.” Though it can always be argued that being citizens of a nation or members of its dominant race or group brought and brings privilege, this shouldn’t obscure the fact that similar principles of subordination and privation can apply both externally and within empires. Taking a broader view, the similarity in position of those oppressed at home and abroad could ideally yield solidarity and compassion from one to the other. But, sadly, the internally exploited or excluded can often be manipulated to set themselves against the externally exploited and excluded, for example in the defense of minor advantages in a world they have learned to see as being characterized by scarcity and competition.
Looking back: People have the tendency to naturalize historic events that illustrate the predictability of conflict and impossibility of mixing races, religions, and economic classes peacefully. History is often used to justify inequality with stories of inevitable violent invasions and take-overs around the world with the victors taking the assets of the losers. However, naturalizing this pattern will not serve now. Though there is an historical case for an impulse to fiercely defend territory and wealth, there is also an historical case for coexistence.
World War II is being brought into the collection of metaphors surrounding the refugee crisis, by both the right wing and left wing political parties. While today’s context is not the same as the 1930s, the direct correlation is impossible to ignore. From rapidly emerging Nazi groups to large camps holding millions of refugees in Turkey, the sentiment of hatred toward others matches the imagery and the language of WWII history. One difference in the current context which is important to note is that present generations can bring to mind remembered history of fear, loss and pain that was felt by the world as a result of the twentieth century era of fascism. The identity of the German nation and especially the children and grandchildren of Nazis have carried the shame that was cast on Germany by engaging in anti-humanitarian policies and consequent unthinkable genocide. How this historical mirror will reflect into the coming years is, as yet, unclear. There is collective shock in the hearts of many that this verbal and physical hatred is actually returning to mainstream culture after such inhumane disregard for the lives of others was seemingly shut down after WWII ended, and again in the US with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Looking back further: It cannot be disputed that humanity has always moved around the globe in times of need. The history of Homo sapiens, and in fact all of biological evolution, is a testament to movement, cross-fertilization, and fusions of ideas, forms, environments and cultures.
How has the idea formed over time that we can value some people’s lives more highly than others? Or that the sacred lands of some people are more valuable than the sacred lands of others? Where does this thinking lead if not to violence?
While economics and policy will be important in addressing this process, it is cultural discourse that is framing, limiting, and normalizing ideas about “immigration” and how to respond to this situation. Human beings are creatures of place, and our identity, belonging and well-being are woven into landscapes that house our history. In response to the dream of a world where people are integrated, homogenized, and peaceful, there is no question that the globalized economy has generated a flatness to the earth’s cultural dimensions. Languages and traditions are lost every day as the extinction of human societies parallels the lists of animal species that are disappearing. The same massive spaces and fluorescent lighting of corporations have hijacked the architectural expressions of localities, and designed modernized efficiency has stolen the soul of so many moments in a day.
In contrast, the notion of cultural purity is equally untenable. Language, arts, food, traditions, religions, scientific breakthroughs and skills are all derivations and fusions of multiple cultures. As individuals within larger communities our notions of identity inform our ideas of who we are in relation to the systems we live within. But this era is a time of upheaval; ecosystems and social systems around the globe are in rapid transition. The fear that cultural identity can be taken away, like money or other assets, is contributing to a rising right-wing political fervor to guard and protect violently what is felt to be cultural heritage, and ensure the pre-eminence of certain cultural heritages in “homeland” places. Current instability triggers more stringent attempts to ensure security within ideas of belonging and normalcy.
While change is a constant in living systems, the rate of change in this era is extraordinary. Reaction to the need for rapid adjustment to unfamiliar culture (for refugees and existing citizens) often takes the form of heightened attempts to preserve culture as identity. Nationalism, racism, and protectiveness around perceived boundaries of culture limit the flexibility required for mutual learning. Nothing but loss results from this response, loss of safety for both the refugees and the locals as violence is justified by both sides, loss of trust, loss of political discourse as binaries supersede information about the complexity of the situation, loss of economic security due to the increase of broken ties in communities, and more. We have not begun to see the true cost of animosity between locals and refugees yet. In the decades to come the roots of the toxic seeds sown now will be part of our daily lives. Have we sown community spirit? Collaboration? There is a lot to lose in these early days of this new era of relocation as cultural isolation contaminates the possible upsides of diversity with violence, vengeance and rumor.
It may be useful to ask “who are we in this changing world?” As families, as professionals, as cultures, how is our perception of ourselves changing – and what if it doesn’t? Identity is a personal matter, but it also matters in terms of family, culture, society, ecosystems, and the future. Double binds of identity, and other traps of obsolete fragmentation in our thinking, can be seen with greater clarity through the lens of complexity and systems.
“Making social and cultural identities sustainable in a world where change is unpredictable, frequently exogenous and often resulting in unintended consequences can be compared to rebuilding a ship at sea. It requires flexibility and improvisation, or novel forms of boundary-making.” Thomas Hylland Eriksen
The culture of exploitation that has fed the economic and political domination of wealthier nations is worth questioning not only in terms of human rights in labor and industry, but also the destruction of the global ecology. Demand for increased assets and ownership underpins much of the violence and abuse in poorer nations. Cheaper labor and cheaper resources make for larger profit margins, but the profit does not go to the people at the bottom who need it most. The culture of consumerism is woven into the suffering of the people who are relocating and into the very threats to their survival.
Democracy is under-equipped in its current form to accommodate the complexity of the issues emerging globally. By definition, elected representatives are tasked with the responsibility of serving their communities, states or nations. They are not tasked with a larger responsibility to the ecology or to humanity as a whole. Consequently, they are bound to the well-being of their specific locale. Ironically this promotes nationalism in a moment when the most acute decisions and actions must take into account global concerns.
The past decade has brought a sudden explosion of right-wing political parties around the world that have voiced a fear of losing national culture, racial purity and social services. Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, fundamentalism and extremism and multiple other forms of humiliation and disrespect for other people have been emboldened by the surge in popularity of right-wing groups. Left and center political parties have found themselves unexpectedly in dialogue with previously extremist positions on proposed or actual policies, such as the government making lists of Muslim immigrants (US), the removal of personal jewelry from incoming refugees (Denmark), or the sending of children with no parents back to Afghanistan (Sweden). The EU decision to house three million refugees (some say that number could be doubled) in Turkey was a political decision that many argue was illegal under the UN Human Rights Convention. Political discourse has been hijacked by the populist struggles between right and left, and diverted from the larger issues of climate change, water, and human and ecological rights.
Of course, it is the job of the politicians to represent their constituents, so the leadership that is emerging is in keeping with the voters’ preferences.
But who and what are informing the voters?
Media and Journalism:
Communication of information about complex topics like climate, global economy and the refugee crisis are rarely expressed in their complexity over mainstream media and journalism. Mostly stories that have more than two sides are regarded as complicated and unsellable. The press is a commodity whose demand is informed and fed by numbers of readers. Popular stories dominate the news, and usually popularity means that the issues addressed are either fluff or simplistic, binary narratives.
Many news and media corporations are not able to provide impartial information that could discredit existing socio-economic structures, because they are not free to do so. TV channels, newspapers, radio and other media at the top level of global journalism form part of larger corporate conglomerates that have their own “dog in the race,” so to speak. This is not true everywhere, but enough news and media sources face conflicts of interest situations that can alter the course of big stories. Many journalists who have tried to publish critical stories that undermine powerful and corrupt leaders or businesses have found themselves publicly discredited and even in physical danger in recent months.
The press has found itself in a feedback loop that blinds it to the growing numbers of citizens (around the world) who have become so dissatisfied with mainstream discourse that they have seemingly moved their cultural focus into a parallel communications realm that utterly befuddled the press in the UK and US around Brexit and Trump.
Immigration laws, humanitarian aid rules and refugee regulations are all in a state of transformation now as a result of the sudden increase in numbers of refugees arriving in Europe after fleeing Syria and other countries in the Middle East. Sweden, for example, has thousands of unaccompanied child refugees who were sent ahead of their families in the hope of establishing asylum status for which families could apply. Now the rules have changed to stop the flow of refugees and their families are no longer allowed to apply for entrance to Sweden based on their children. Swedish family services are overwhelmed and children are fostered into care centers, traumatized and alone. They are caught in a Nowhere-land of not being able to go home, because home is gone, and increasingly finding no way to stay alone in Sweden.
Likewise, many EU countries are contending with proposed new laws around religious dress codes, education systems, and privacy of information for citizens.
Legal systems are also struggling with increasing pressures to harmonize with international norms that differ from local traditions.
Ecologists have warned that tipping points of climate change have been passed and that droughts, rising sea levels, flooding and extreme weather will disrupt food production, transportation and habitability in large areas of the world. In this sense the surge in refugees we are seeing now is only the beginning.
The ways in which these ecological changes will affect culture and economy are yet to be seen. But, it is more than likely that survival needs threatened by a combination of ecological disaster, economic depression and political unrest will drive millions of people from their homelands in the coming decades. Who those peoples will be, and where they will go is unknown.
Generally, the most vulnerable demographics are hardest hit, but even that is hard to predict. This emergency relocation project we are facing now marks the beginning of an era, not a passing event.
The institution of the family is where all of this comes together. Between generations, at the dinner table, in the garden or the market, this is where ideological threads are woven into the ecology of institutional systems. Families are where attitudes toward other people and nature are expressed and passed on. The care and empathy – or lack thereof – demonstrated within the family toward others provides the model for the next generations.
For many of the refugees arriving who have lost all or some of their family members, traumatic separation leaves feelings of loss and heartbreak, and potentially the desire for vengeance. After their journeys across continents to find a safe place to start over they are met with hostility from some and hospitality from others. What will the children who are arriving now feel about their new community if their experience is one of feeling unwanted and despised? Will that divisiveness develop into us vs. them revenge and gang behavior? What will the children 10 years from now experience when they walk alone at night in the city? Will the polarity of today beget a day-to-day life of violence for them?
The idea of home is usually associated with place, with residence, or with culture. But home can also be found in those that we love and that love us. Particularly in times of suffering, place is less reassuring than those people in whom we place our trust.
The Double Bind – A Cross Contextual Stuckness and Unstuckness:
The term Double Bind refers to a pattern of perceived impossibility produced by cross-contextual limitations. The term was introduced by my father, Gregory Bateson and a team of researchers to describe the conditions for schizophrenia. However, the pattern was never intended to be concretized as a cause for any particular pathology. Rather, Gregory Bateson insisted it was a description of an evolutionary pattern that produces both the trap from which all options appear blocked and the possibility of escape which comes with finding another level of perception. Double Bind theory is similar to what is sometimes called a “Catch 22” in that there is a high-stakes problem in which multiple contexts overlap and eliminate any strategic solution. The experience is one of being stuck from multiple directions, and usually contains the additional aspect of there being no way to express this multiple stuckness. Before addressing the ways in which the Double Bind theory is relevant to this analysis of the refugee crisis, the stuckness needs an illustration. An example of the double bind can be seen in the experience of the child of an alcoholic parent. The child whose life is danger in their household, knows his survival depends upon his parent, and that to go to the authorities will break up his family leaving him with nothing. The child cannot leave, but to stay is dangerous, and to tell is disaster.
The description above of the transcontextual overlap of institutional perspectives on the refugee crisis illustrates the theater of conflicting conflicts in which the crisis is brewing. Seeking solutions to the refugee crisis from any singular contextual angle will certainly breed consequential conflict from other angles. To receive the refugees with open arms is unfair to residents with the local experience of hardship under austerity, will change local culture and could crash the economy (some say); to send them back to their homelands is not possible when their homes and schools have been destroyed and there is no life there; to be responsible for their death in a camp somewhere at the doorstep to Europe calls into question the whole of European Civilization. What kind of culture sends millions of innocent people in need and asking for assistance, to their deaths? How do these events reflect upon cultural identity? And in what will future generations say about the choices made by their ancestors?
The solutions for one institution create further conflict in another. Preventing the parents and families of migrant children from receiving refugee status limits the numbers of refugees entering the EU, which may appear to be a political solution. However, economically and culturally this policy has the adverse effect of increasing the psychological service needs of the alone-children to treat their trauma, and of forcing the children into situations where they have to face day-to-day survival without the emotional and structural support of their families. Likewise, the political decision to park the refugees in Turkey provided an answer to the dilemma of where to put them, but created human rights issues, increased the likelihood of anger, humiliation and violence, and did nothing to stave off the ecological drought and political devastation that the refugees are fleeing from.
As mentioned above, the double bind is not only a pattern creating stuckness across contexts, but is also a pattern that permits release from that stuckness. The release requires that the stuck ones find the capacity to perceive their contextual circumstances in a new way. The stuck ones of course are not only the refugees and the citizens of the nations who are affected, but also the national and transnational institutions charged with understanding and dealing with the larger issues. In a sense, Europe, and the world as a whole, are caught in the stuckness of this situation. The ability to identify the double bind patterns is a step toward at least recognizing that the way the problem is being described is part of the problem. A new description will open otherwise unseen possibilities.
Complexity in Emergency Situations is Hard:
Lives are at stake, cultural identity is at stake, economic and social services are at stake – making the urgency of this issue a dominant political and economic story in the media. The lives of those who are relocating and the lives of those who are receiving them are both now and forever changed by these circumstances. The question now is about the nature of that change. Even though they have been developing over centuries, the emergencies around this crisis are severe. In the face of life and death decision-making, holding complexity in focus can appear to be a distraction from taking action. However, the narrative of this international situation is forming rapidly into polarized ideological interpretations, conflicts, and the emergence of divisiveness between citizens. Organizing a description of the current situation into a form in which the information is visible in a more contextual way is vital if we are to move toward the possibility of asking more productive questions about how to respond more effectively.
The era of people’s movement is under way. It is estimated that there will be hundreds of millions of people relocating in the coming decades. How do we generate a discussion about this that helps us get better at both supporting the incoming, and the incumbent, populations? The ecology of institutions that I have briefly described is patterning together and reinforcing outdated and inflexible interlocking relationships. With that in mind, I am increasingly inclined to encourage communities to organize outside of existing institutional frameworks. Changing institutions from the inside is unlikely given their stuckness, but we can change our relationship to our institutions by reconfiguring our own communications and interactions.
This process of reorganizing the relationships between existing institutions will require that communication and collaboration be opened between them in new ways. Ultimately this discussion will become installed as a change in the structures of our institutions. But, that will take time, dialogue and a collaborative mandate for information that addresses multiple contexts. On a community level this process is quite easy to begin. Organizing a group of people from varying corners of the socio-economic system around a topic is the first phase of gathering transcontextual information. In achieving even this initial step toward making the boundaries between institutions more porous, the complexity and interdependencies will become visible, thus lessening the tendency to reinforce binaries. There are many urgent topics such as the ecological crisis, health, and education which communities are struggling to find systemic approaches to support, and which could make a good starting point. At present the discourse is authorized only in terms of siloed information. As long as those compartments of our institutions are kept separate, their cross-sector consequences are not approachable in systemic ways. Polarization and binaries are useless in complex systems … except that they are highly effective in escalating unrest.
The issue of rapid human relocation globally is particularly charged by the looping of this siloed information. The press, the public and governments are feeding into the polarity of either welcoming or walling-out immigrants. Together they are frothing up passionate memes of nationalism versus global collaboration. These communication patterns miss the necessary complexity but offer what looks like the possibility of belonging to familiar right- or left-wing ideological positions in the discussion. If a wider range of transcontextual information becomes available, this illusion of partisan sides is worn down, making way for the more relevant questions of how to support systemic health and prosperity through this era of transformation.
I fundamentally believe that human beings can be horrible, but they can also be creative, and can instigate remarkable improvisational possibilities. History attests to both. This moment in history is the time and the opportunity to challenge habits of thinking that drift to reductionism. When information about complex issues, such as emergency relocation, is derived without contextual consideration “solutions” or actions to get pinned to simple binaries that wreak havoc. Now is the time to bring to the fore a more informed and contextualized perception of what lies ahead for humanity. Preparing the conditions in which another kind of conversation can take place will bring with it the possibilities of new forms of action.
Von Foerster, H. (1971/2003) Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition. New York: Springer.
 This article was delivered in compliment to a keynote speech and one-day seminar I gave in Oslo with the Norwegian Family Therapy Association’s “Førjulsseminar” in Gamle Logen, in December 2016. The form of this essay, which zooms in and out, focusing on the transcontextual interdependency of societal institutions was first developed to address “addiction” through a transcontextual lens in my research with the International Bateson Institute.
 The term was coined by Gregory Bateson in 1969, see G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind 2000, p. 272.
 The term was coined by Gregory Bateson and his colleagues at MRI in 1956, see G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind 2000, p.201.
I first used the term “Warm Data” in a meeting in January 2012, as a concept it is still emerging, slowly and with a depth that continues to surprise me. Tomorrow I am going to host a Warm Data lab with the LILA group at Harvard. The subject: Health: of the individual, community, organizations & biosphere.
I feel it is time to let this cat out of the bag so to speak, and let Warm Data be real. This blog post is an introduction to my work on Warm Data so far. Next week I will host one in San Francisco (Subject: Addiction, to substance, behavior, nuclear weapons, and ideas of society that are continued even though they are harmful)
Stockholm, Sweden (Subjects: immigration, education, economy and cryptocurrency). Singapore (Subject: the complexity of intimacy and consent!! Very excited about this one.Regenesis 2018 (Subject: investment in the health of society and the biosphere)
Canada, Finland, Australia, UK, and other places are upcoming places where I will host Warm Data Labs.
There will also be training sessions offered with certification on “How to Host a Warm Data Lab.” (UK, US, Sweden, Finland, and Singapore)
In my opinion the most important task in this moment is to generate a base of people who are eager to practice perceiving the complexity and interdependency in every aspect of their lives. If I could wish for one thing it would be a big grant to do this work around the world, to train others to do it and create a cross-sector community of people who have a new tool, a new vocabulary and most importantly, each other… to meet the challenges of this era (i.e. ecology, economy, health, education, politics, communication, culture, incl: identity & sexuality). If humanity can’t approach the complexity of our world with greater collective effort, we can’t meet the challenges we face now.
This is NOT an abstraction. I maintain that developing an understanding the patterns and processes of interdependency in complexity is the single most practical capacity that we can support in ourselves and each other. The uncertainty of this transformational era we are now within is triggering some people to grasp violently for more control. Others are recognizing that a potential evolutionary junction for the human species is upon us. Can we perceive the world through another lens that brings the potential of our interaction with each other and the biosphere into mutual harmony? There will be those who wish to divide the world into parts and control the emerging changes of our times, and those who see the interrelational complexity that defies linear causation and will respond with another order of questions, projects, and actions.
Humanity is at a crossroads, will we be hoarders or healers? There is every reason to argue that history proves either. System Change is needed to find our way to another way of living that is not fed by exploitation of each other and the ecology. The change needed is not in any of the institutions, for surely they are interdependent, the change is between them. For that reason a greater familiarity is required to respond to the complexity. For example: any change in economy is going to involve changes in employment, education, medicine, politics, media, culture, law, and so on.
For many years I have worked as an educator “teaching” and modeling perception of interdependency. My father, Gregory Bateson, had his way of doing the same thing, and so did his father William Bateson. My family has been working on this project for more than 125 years. Others have also been working on it, including the community of “systems theorists & systems thinking”, cybernetics, and complexity theorists. I can tell you… it is a frustrating task. The intellectual activity is delicious and delightful, but more often than not the session ends with someone asking, “But how do I use these ideas in my work?” The gut-knowing that the world is interdependent is incongruent to the mechanistic patterns in which interaction with our families, jobs, life struggles, is habituated. Some people seem inclined toward this material, and others resist, –but for all of us it takes time and practice. This form of perceiving and knowing is not only intellectual, it is also physical, emotional, cultural, linguistic and lives in our imaginations.
In my experience this idea of Warm Data, and the Warm Data Lab have been the most successful approach I have found. I do not say that lightly. I do not see this work as a manipulation of peoples’ thinking. The task here is offer the conditions in which the realizations can occur both individually, and collectively. I attribute the success of this project to the way people in a Warm Data Lab make their own individual connectings and linkings – it is not about any direct “teaching” from me. I have now done more than 60 Warm Data Labs around the world, with all ages, and levels of education, addressing any subject that is complex by nature. I feel I can share it with the world now.
What is Warm Data?
“Warm Data” can be defined as: Transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.
Though statistical data is useful, it is also limited due to the common practice of decontextualizing the focus of inquiry. To study something is usually to pull it out of context and study it in isolation. Rarely is the study re-contextualized to examine the complexity of its larger scope of relationships. Warm Data bypasses this limitation inherent to statistical analysis by centering itself within a transcontextual research methodology, bringing not only context, but multiple contexts into the inquiry process.
In order to interface with any complex system without disrupting the cohesion of the interdependencies that give it integrity, one must look at the spread of relationships that make the system robust. The sole use of analytic methods focused on parsing statistical (cold) data will often point to conclusions that disregard the complexity of the situation at hand. Moreover, information that does not take into account the full scope of interrelationality in a system is likely to inspire misguided decision making, thereby producing additional destructive patterns in an effort to remedy the issue.
Warm Data provides cross sector information because it is the outcome of a research methodology premised upon the transcontextual interaction inherent in any system. The complexity of this sort of inquiry is daunting. For example, if one is to study the ways in which food impacts our lives, a multifaceted study of ecology, culture, agriculture, economy, cross-generational communication, and media must take place. This transcontextual platform provides a wider contextual framework for further inquiry into what forms and constitutes certain international contemporary issues such as eating disorders, starvation, and other health problems associated with diet.
Warm Data is generated through a Batesonian approach of examining interrelating processes in a given system. With this developing methodology another species of information, beyond the limits of statistical data is emerging. Warm Data provides the information about systems’ relational interdependence. This information offers contextual understanding of complex systems. Warm Data presents another order of exploration in the process of discerning solutions according to vital, contextual interrelationships.
Warm Data Lab?
I developed this is an exercise for use with groups who are interested in strengthening and further practicing their collective ability to perceive, discuss and research complex issues. By shifting perspectives, the Warm Data Lab process increases ability to respond to difficult or “wicked” issues. Because so many of the challenges that we face now are complex, we need approaches to meeting that complexity. Although there is a desire to reframe these complex issues in simple terms that might lend themselves to easy solutions, this usually leads to the dangers of unintended consequences of reductionism… and further problems. It is inspired by the research and ongoing development of the IBI’s work on How Systems Learn.
But, thinking in complexity requires the ability to perceive across multiple perspectives and contexts. This is not a muscle that has been trained into us in school or in the work world. It is a skill acutely needed in this era to meet our personal, professional and collective need to respond to crisis, and to improve our lives.
Let me be very clear, the Warm Data Lab is ideal for bringing a group together to raise the level of questions, and understanding of a given topic. It does not provide solutions. The WDL is an exercise that gets a group to address their concern within the complexity needed. But it does not spit out answers. (That is part 2.)
How it works: The format of the Warm Data Lab is simple, even though the theory that underpins it is not.
A chosen complex issue is provided by the room,
Start by being seated 3-6 to a table ( depending on the size of the group).
Each table has a “context” on it that will be the frame through which the “complex issue” is discussed at that table. (at least 6 contexts)
Participants (as individuals) discuss at the tables as long as they wish before changing tables. They move when they want to another table or “context”.
There are no time limits, or set instructions. Participants join and leave conversations as they wish.
The process usually takes at least an hour, and can be continued.
The Warm Data lab is a living kaleidoscope of conversation in which information and formulation of cross contextual knowing is generated. The conversational process is designed to seamlessly engage multiple theoretical principals in a practical format. The process relies on using two concepts: Transcontextual Interaction, and Symmathesy.
Transcontextual interaction is the recognition that complex systems do not exist in single contexts but rather are formed between multiple contexts that overlap in living communication.
Symmathesy: The ways in which systemic interdependency form is through contextual interaction and mutual learning. Symmathesy is the concept of mutual learning that encourages us to concentrate on how these contextual interactions inform one another, and generate learning.
“Biology, culture, and society are dependent at all levels upon the vitality of interaction they produce both internally and externally. A body, a family, a forest or a city can each be described as a buzzing hive of communication between and within its living, interacting ‘parts.’ Together the organs of your body allow you to make sense of the world around you. A jungle can be understood best as a conversation among its flora and fauna, including the insects, the fungi of decay, and contact with humanity. Interaction is what creates and vitalizes the integrity of the living world. Over time, the ongoing survival of the organisms in their environments requires that there be learning, and learning to learn, together. Gregory Bateson said, “The evolution is in the context.” So why don’t we have a word for those bodies, families, forests and other buzzing hives of communication—and for the mutual learning that takes place within those living contexts?” – From Symmathesy, a word in progress Nora Bateson 2016
The Warm Data lab is a tool for revealing relationships that are integral and woven into the complexity of the issues we are working on. This process allows us to see new patterns, new causations, and to respond to them with a much broader comprehension. An important aspect of this process is that no two participants will have the same experience. Each person moves and connects their contextual framings through their own lens, in their own way.
The Warm Data Lab process is an inviting and seemingly simple way to bring a group of people into dialogue around complex issues. Anyone, of any age or profession can participate in a Warm Data Lab. From school children to executives, families and companies the Warm Data lab is an open forum of learning, discussing, and discovery. It is not based on prior knowledge, or skill, but will increase both in an atmosphere of mutual learning.
Hosting a Warm Data lab is another story. The host of this process must have a strong base in the many theoretical foundations that underpin the process. An effective Warm Data Lab experience requires a prepared and organized host. In contrast to the appearance of the simple openness of the Warm Data Lab, the rigor in which is set is critical.
Warm Data Lab Certification from the International Bateson Institute:
This training session offered by myself, (Nora Bateson) and soon other International Bateson Institute research advisors, provides certification for those who complete the training to host Warm Data Labs with groups internationally.
A good Warm Data Lab is an artful balance of both holding open the group’s horizon of learning, and generating conditions for a rigorous and multi faceted discovery to take place. The magic of the process is in the participants’ own connection and learning, which cannot be forced or funneled into any particular “knowing”, but must instead be invited to make new associations, linkages and perceptions – as individuals in mutual learning.
Once you have completed the course of training, typically a 3 day course, you will be certified by the International Bateson Institute to host groups who are interested in using Warm Data to facilitate their work on complex issues. You will not however be certified to train others in becoming Warm Data lab hosts.
What the training and certification entails:
A sound understanding of the structure, timing and form of the Warm Data Lab Process. This includes trouble shooting guidelines of “what not to do.”
Practice setting up, hosting and holding the group through the process.
Prep: How to set up the questions and contexts
Process : How to support the group during the Lab
What next? After the session, how to hold the discussion of practical application.
A firm grasp of the theory involved. See list below. The theory is heavy. It should be. The rigor of this work is vital to its integrity.
Theory: There are several theories at work within this process. I will list a few of them in category form, but not define the theories.
Patters that connect
Bertrand Russell’s Logical Levels
Difference that makes a difference
Mutual learning and calibration (Symmathesy)
Iterative multi-modal learning
Autopoeisis (Varella and Maturana)
Mind (G. Bateson)
Systems and Complexity Theory
Ecology of communication
Change in complex systems
Please contact me if you are interested in more information. firstname.lastname@example.org
 a theoretical ontological toolset including, but not limited to, schismogenesis, abduction, double bind, and the six criteria of mind as listed in Gregory Bateson’s seminal text Mind and Nature
The week the #metoo story became a cultural tsunami my husband posted a photo of us kissing, sweetly, and with passionate love. This image was the single most potent message he could have delivered.
In my life I have been harassed, abused, raped at gunpoint, ripped off and underestimated. I have also been loved.
There are too many landmines in this subject for me to ever address them all, but I would like to contribute a few ideas to the ongoing conversation.
Colonial Ghosts: We live in a world that celebrates “takers.” We call it ambition, leadership, victory. The gentle and the careful get trampled, while the aggressive rise to the top. Takers take. Now, exploitation in all its forms is on trial. The entire ecology, including all but a few wealthy humans, is disenfranchised. Our bodies have been taken without our permission. I would argue that the survival of our species and 1000’s of others is hinged to a violence that stems from the same blind spot as rape and abuse.
Getting out of this destructive pattern is not about untangling the mess we are in, it is about arching above it. I am not sure we can undo it, or solve it, or fix it. We don’t have time. Rapid transformation is at hand.
The cells in my body that know the pain of abuse reach back to my mother, her mother, her mother before her, and countless generations. I have waited at least a thousand years for this moment to come. I don’t want to see it get lost in a polarized display of us v. them.
To all those who have found the sensitivity to see each other and love each other beyond the limits of stereotypes, I say, “thank you.” Show us the way.
#Metoo is complex. On behalf of all the generations that came before and those yet to arrive, I would like to give this moment its due complexity. The lens through which we view this opportunity requires a zoom-in-zoom-out toggle between concentrating on individuals’ behavior and societal, cultural, systemic patterns that we are all trapped in. If the discussion gets lost in the crimes of individuals we will lose the opportunity to address the systemic changes needed. But, if we get lost in the systemic we will lose the vital sense of personal responsibility that is also needed. Both are imperative.
Let me state at the outset of this message that the opposite of complexity is not simplicity, it is reductionism.
As an aside, I want to say that short circuiting complexity is never a good idea. It makes life complicated. Complicated and complex are not the same thing. Complex looks like an ocean; whole and alive with a vitality that is generated through interrelational, interdependent processes. Complicated is what happens when you break those relationships into parts and try to control them, like: pesticides on our food and the medical and ecological consequences of consequences that pesticides have created.
It takes complexity to meet complexity. If we go looking for quick-fix answers and binary memes, we will find them, and they will not suffice to build new ways of life upon. But, if we can begin to recognize the complexity in our own identities we may be able to recognize that of others, and thereby humbly enter another level of mutual respect.
As an illustration, consider the complexity of systemic abuse in society in its similarity to the ecological characteristics of an ocean or forest. Ask: “Where is the forest?” Is it in the soil, insects, plants, animals, bacteria, or creeks? The forest exists in the relationships between all of these living things. Likewise, the patterns of abuse in our society are vitalized by a combination of interwoven aspects of culture that hold it in place– and hold us in its grasp.
In order to deal with the mess that has become our gender battleground, an understanding of its complexity is needed. It is not possible to extract these patterns of behavior from the mixed brew of history, of culture, of media, economics, politics or even medicine and psychology. These institutional contexts ferment and fuse into what we call society. As individuals we have learned to make sense of our world within the limits they define. Now, it is difficult to know where our understanding of our own identities begin and how they are informed by our societal contexts.
#Metoo has the potential to bring a formative shift in the conditions of life for us all, and to open the possibility for learning to respect ourselves and others with a wider, deeper comprehension. To begin this is to recognize how important identity is to this moment. And, that identity forms through multiple contexts including language, education, finance, culture, politics, religion, law, race, generation, gender…
Consequently, neither gender nor consent are binary. Both of these are factors in the #metoo discussion. In order to bring another arc of discussion to this important opening in the world today, this complexity needs to be considered.
Gender: First of all, gender is complex. To reduce gender to a simple male/female binary is nonsense. I am being redundant because I cannot say that often or loud enough. Each of the 7 billion human beings on this orb have different ratios of chromosomes. Each of us experiences different aspects of ourselves when we are in interaction with different people. This is obvious. We all know that with some people we may feel more confident, or beautiful, or feminine, or curious… and with others we are shy, or intelligent, or … When someone asks, “Who are you?”—The answer really should be based upon who you are with, where you are, at what point in your life, in what context. For me, gender too depends on a mysterious combination of visible and invisible contextual processes. I can be assertive, and vulnerable. Sometimes I am a perfect flower in the strong arms of my beloved, other times he is small vessel on the waves of my ocean. In my experience, nothing about this business of gender is static or predictable.
Let it be thus. Let us be complex in our gender. Let us find our way into each interaction of our day and learn to be more attuned to the shifting forms of our own landscapes. The sensitivity we explore will serve us toward a better perception of those around us. To learn even a little more about how to read our own changing selves is an asset to apply to our understanding of the world.
I do not want to be relegated to anyone’s binary. And, even if I am defined by that binary, I cannot stay in it. The context of the relationship matters more than the label. I do not want to hear about how “males are” or how “females are”, there is no such thing. Gender is what happens between people in each interaction and encounter.
Consent is also complex. What makes us want each other? Is it chemistry? Is it cultural? Is it economic? Is it political? Is it… natural? What does natural mean?
Consent has been sold as a simple distinction between “yes” and “no.” This is a mistake. Any “yes” has context. Any “no” has context. The context matters.
By saying that consent is complex I am in no way implying that it is unnecessary. Nor am I implicating victims as culpable. Not at all. I am saying that consent is more than “yes” and “no,” and that without some deeper understanding of the contexts of consent justifications will be made that hurt everyone. Additionally reducing consent to a binary leaves a vast horizon of loopholes that can and have been used against each other. The rigidity of the consent binary forces the vastness of our interactions into narrowed stories and statistics that cannot hold the water of larger truth.
How many women have had sex with their husbands when they did not really want to (and vice versa) because they felt that they needed to keep him satisfied in order to keep the family together? Is that consent? Well, legally yes. But, in the reality of that bedroom, no. The question of consent seeps into economic survival which is a murky brew of culture and history lingering in explicit and non-verbal, non-conscious ways. I am not sure how to know when yes is yes, and no is no. Without consideration of context the differences between mutual desire and transaction are blurred.
How many people have been seduced by the sparkling hormones of a student or employee whose rise in the system was contingent upon this affection? Was that seduction consensual?
The pulls of cultural and economic context are many, and they are messy. Finding a clear definition or rule book for consent is not something that can be standardized. Rather, consent is something that needs to be determined carefully, between potential partners who are aware of the multitudes of influences that contribute to the situation.
How to know when consent is there? What are the guidelines for respectful interaction between people?
In this moment, when our hearts are broken by the endless stories of sexual abuse we have witnessed with #metoo, it is imperative that we admit that we do not have a clear rule book. There is no standard. Some people cannot be told “no” strongly enough, and others seem to be at ease reading the signals of mutual desire, or the lack thereof. For all the invasions to my privacy I have experienced, there have also been people who honored the communication, verbal and non-verbal.
The history we all carry is contaminated with old poisonous habits. Our appetites are unintelligent. We are in free-fall across a canyon of unwritten scripts.
Sensitivity: Sensitivity to the complexity of one another is respect. Recognition that we are all in this together, that the old lines are bogus, and the new ones are still almost invisible is what is needed. We simply do not know how to know. But we do know that the abuse is intolerable.
Our future generations do not need to carry any more trauma than we are already saddling them with. The “taking” must stop. The disrespect must end. Consent is more than yes and no. It takes communication, and sincerity toward mutually learning to express respect in new ways.
There will be no formula.
No guidelines will suffice.
Each person is called now to pay attention to each relationship and interaction.
Create new language.
Satiating ravenous sexual pleasure is wonderful… but in this moment the ‘right’ to do so carries the transformative moment of a new era of sexuality. The ground is shifting, hopefully toward a better world in which sexuality will bring more joy and less damage.
The responsibility to change our systemic cultural pathology around sexual abuse resides in each of us, in every moment of every day. We are all carrying the scars of our mothers and fathers. Likewise we are all contributing to the conditions in which the next generation will make sense of these things. We are damaged. Somehow through our damage and our blind spots we have to find new ways to respect each other, to enjoy each other, to find and to give sweetness, love, and passion to one another.
To deny the socio-cultural and economic contexts in which there is need for this mutual learning and discovery is dangerous. To defy these contextual traps is (r)evolution.
**Addendum to my own healing.
(This is a post from my facebook page: Systers Thinking)
What is sexy?“I am thinking of a photo shoot I did 21 years ago while I was 8 months pregnant, and the photographer I was working with was playing with notions of sexuality… He asked me to make a sexy pose, big belly, over-stretched lingerie and all. Without noticing, I brought the existing images of “sexy women” in our culture into my pose. He asked, “Is that sexy for you? Or is that what you think people want you to think of as sexy?” I love him for that question. Is it possible for me to know what is sexy for me, uninfluenced by my culture? The eye of the world is on women today. And what does that mean? Having women on panels, boards, and equal representation is nowhere close to what I hope for my daughter. I think there is a long way to go before the tokenism is eclipsed. I think it has to be a larger paradigm shift that includes reaching for authority in another way. I am tired of celebrating the women and other disenfranchised groups who have mastered the game set within the patterns of white male colonialism. Yes it takes strength to succeed, but… What does it mean to be “equal” when the measuring stick is the reach of the oppression? The experience of perceiving and describing complexity requires a congruent complexity of voices and transcontextual inquiry. It takes the richness of ways of knowing that do not shy from rigor, but do not apply to the limits of authorized knowledge. The expression of sexy juiciness of pregnancy, my own pregnancy, was an exploration of my own complexity, in my body, in motherhood, in my culture, in my own language. To find that juiciness is to abandon the reductionism of anybody else’s idea of my woman-ness, of sexy, of motherhood… and to play with the blurry intermixed expression of being my own syster. With love, Nora.”
I have two stories to share here, seemingly unrelated at first glance; they form their own duet. Together they illustrate almost everything I hold true. They are theory in action; they are what happens when there is another way of looking at the world that allows for the back-swirl of contingencies to be authorized. When the script we have hard-wired inside us is upended in favor of a wider affection for life, something else happens. The context produces possibility. Unforeseen options emerge. It takes courage to meet the hard moments in this spirit. I know I am mostly misunderstood in my attempts at making a case for this approach. Stories help. I offer you zombies and the hitchhiker.
Dignity Vanquishes Zombies
For me, this story is about mutual learning between generations; it is also about how to make change in a stuck system. It is about the blinders of western culture. It is about how acute situations make complexity difficult to advocate for. This story is about the disaster of the education system, and a young man trying to survive it. This story is about my love for that young man (my own son), and the unexpected treasure we found together, which helped get him through the maze of hypocrisy that middle school epitomizes. This is a story about zombies, actors, and the openings to realms of communication between parents and children that are often missed. There are paths through our culture that have been worn in so completely that it is nearly impossible to see past the prescribed, pre-scripted versions of how to navigate them. This is one example where we, my son and I, found a trapdoor that led to a systemic shift for both of us. My son Trevor has given me permission to put it in this book; it’s our story, and this is my version of it.
Trevor was about 12 years old. On a typical suburban evening, in our atypical home, we were unloading the dishwasher. With a sly eye he removed the food-processor blade, showed it to me and said, “Mom, if there is ever a zombie invasion, you could, like, totally use this.”
What? Trevor is a funny guy, and I was amused by this fantastical observation. I did notice though that Trevor had been talking about zombies quite a bit that autumn. At that time teenagers were just finishing a trendy vampire craze. I assumed that perhaps zombies were the next fixation. Trevor’s comments were not yet registering as particularly relevant. We carried on without notice of the zombies.
Meanwhile, the emails from school started coming in. In this era, in contrast to the one I grew up in, parents receive emails whenever there is an issue at school. I suppose the practice is well intentioned, but receiving those emails is irritating. My parents never got emails. But I sure did. Emails from teachers, counselors, and administrators began to pop into my inbox. They each arrived with a tone of both blame and concern. “Trevor is being disruptive.” “Trevor is being disrespectful.” “Trevor is not listening.” “Trevor is horsing around in class and causing distraction.” And then, after a few weeks, “We would like to meet with you about Trevor’s behavior.” “Trevor will be scheduled to see a school counselor.” “The principal would like to discuss a plan for what do to about Trevor’s behavior with you and Trevor’s teachers.” “Have you considered that Trevor may have ADHD, and may require medication?” And so on.
The underlying message I was being given through these emails was that my kid needed more discipline, and that if discipline was not ‘effective,’ perhaps it would be necessary to consider medication. While I cannot speak for other parents and their children, I knew in my bones that neither discipline nor medication were going to be ‘effective’ remedies in Trevor’s case.
Something was going on with him, and I had no idea what. I also had no idea how to deal with it. I knew there had to be another layer of information that I was not seeing. And, more importantly, my boy was dimming down his effervescence.
For several more weeks this continued. Trevor had to go to detention, and he began to wear the reputation of a ‘bad-boy’ at school. He even began to believe he was a ‘bad-boy’. The subtle and not-so-subtle body language of his teachers underscored their view of him and in time Trevor was willing to identify himself as they did. He carried this new identity heavily. Both physically and emotionally I could see the change in him. His focus was on the floor; his ire was on a hair-trigger. He had always been a beaming bright boy who had gradually become cloudy over the course of only a few months. It is hard not to panic seeing a child carry such shadows. Of course I wanted to do everything I could to help him.
As a parent there were paths before me that I was expected to follow. The school had identified Trevor as a behavior project, and had suggested what they considered to be ‘normal’ procedures to deal with such students. Ahead of us lay the paths of counseling, increasing discipline at home, and possible diagnosis and/or treatment for attention disorders. These are the options. But, are they the only options?
Meanwhile, Trevor kept talking about zombies. Not in a gruesome way, but in jest, and in his metaphors. Guys his age often say things that are vivid with the images of their fantasy world. I thought nothing of it. Until, finally one night Trevor came into my room at four in the morning in tears; he had had a nightmare. It was still dark, I was very asleep, and for some unknown reason in my half-awake state I accidently produced what was perhaps my best possible moment of parenting. I cannot claim that I had a plan, or a doctrine that I was abiding by. I was just sleepy.
I asked Trevor what the nightmare was about. Of course he said, “Zombies.”
The great teleprompter of our culture that delivers the script for mommies says that at that moment the appropriate line is: “Don’t worry honey, there is no such thing as Zombies. I am here, everything is ok.” The programming to deliver these lines is strong.
But I did not say any of those things. Instead I took his hand, gave it a kiss and told him we would talk about it in the morning.
Why did I do that? To this day I do not know. I can only say that something gave me pause. The simple platitude of reassurance felt disrespectful to Trevor’s struggle. I did not know what to say or do, so I postponed the conversation until morning.
As a mom, I find that setting my internal alarms to go off when these pre-scripted moments surface is a good idea. In my experience these are precious opportunities for substantive evolutionary communication change between the generations. The way in which culture directs our parenting is almost invisible, and profoundly pernicious. Cultural scripts are tricky, they sneak up on you. Suddenly I notice that I have said one of those things that parents say, “Clean up your room—I don’t know how you live like this.” Or “Don’t talk to me with that tone of voice.” I like to tag those tiny micro moments and expand them. I usually find there is something more there, and that had I gone along with the script I would have set another course of interaction into play. Avoid parental autopilot, that is my motto.
I woke the next day wondering what sort of zombies were haunting my kid. My zombies are inane; they’re the ones from the Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ music video: gory and groovy. Or, sometimes my zombies are like the ones from ‘The Night Of the Living Dead’ which attack and eat people’s brains. They are impressive in their costumes and spooky music, but do not shake life’s foundations.
I know my son, and neither of those types of zombies would frighten him in the way that he was clearly frightened when he came to my room that night. He was scared—deep down.
I became curious to find out more about his zombies. The following morning I asked him, “Trevor what is a zombie for you, because I have a feeling that the zombies in your head are not the same as the ones in my head?”
I will never forget his answer. Trevor at age 12 said:
“Zombies are people who cannot think for themselves, they want you to be like them. …And, if you do what they say, your dignity flies out the window.”
I have never heard a more succinct description of the cultural stranglehold of western civilization. In that moment I realized with tears in my eyes that there were thousands of Trevors out there derailing classroom activities with disrespect, disruption, not listening, and—in their own way—they were fighting the zombies. These kids are engaged in perhaps the noblest battle there is: the battle to protect one’s dignity. They are willing to risk everything for this cause. They get in trouble, they lose privileges, they are labeled ‘bad-boys’ and ‘bad-girls’, they spend hours with counselors, they are given medication, they sabotage their college entry, they even lose the proud love of their parents. But, they will not submit to the zombies. I have to respect that.
“Yes,” I said to Trevor, “We live in a full tilt zombie invasion. I live in it too. I struggle every day. What shall we do?”
I went on to explain that, of course, his teachers meant no harm. No one meant any real disrespect, but to keep the class organized and on task they felt they had to control the kids. Trevor was not accustomed to being controlled.
In truth when Trevor delivered his description of his zombies I knew immediately that he was going to be fine. He had touched upon one of the great challenges that anyone inclined toward critical thinking slams into. He was asking the right question. He was taking the right risk. I knew I did not have to worry about Trevor losing himself. But, I still needed to help him get through the 5th grade without burning his future bridges to university and a successful life. Honestly, being a parent is a demanding job.
Trevor and I were now off script. The counselors and the diagnoses were no longer on the table as remotely relevant. Now an entirely unwritten conversation lay in front of us. Clearly he needed to do something to reclaim his dignity. Changing schools was one option. But there were sure to be zombies at the next school too. So it was my turn; I took a risk and made a deal with Trevor.
Trevor is an actor, and he was already studying performance at that time. So I offered him his first paid acting job. I promised him 100 dollars to play the part of the Straight-A student until the end of the school year, (it was already February). If he could play that part the zombies would be fooled into thinking that they could stop trying to control him. Hopefully he would have some peace. But, I had one caveat; that he never, ever, ever believe that he actually was that Straight-A student the world wanted him to be. I said, “Play the part, but I want my Trevor for a son, not a zombie.”
I wanted him to know that he had an advocate. It was important to me for him to see that there are times in life when we do not have a prefabricated answer or solution. And that I would be there to experiment with him until we found a way through, together. I wanted him to know that even parents do not know how to deal with people trying to control them. Besides that, I only wanted him to know that his fear was real and beautifully articulated.
The school administrators would never have discovered that particular medicine for my son. I do not blame them. But I do want to shatter the accepted normalcy of their response. To ‘fix’ a child’s expression of anger or fear is a horrible thing to do. They are not broken; they are navigating cultural, physical, emotional, and intellectual terrains that are overpopulated with false authority and hypocrisy. We adults are tour guides of these realms, bestowed with the highest possible trust by the coming generations. Let them see us learn. Complexity is surprising, multi-causal, ruled by overtones, and not systemize-able. The only tactics I can advise are respectful patience, affection, and playfulness.
For his 17th birthday I had his iPod engraved with the words: “Dignity Vanquishes Zombies.”
Trevor is a good actor, and a very good student. At university he made the dean’s list several times. He wrote to tell me: “I made a 3.9 grade point average this term, but don’t worry Mom, I am not a zombie.”
Representation is something to be careful with. Mutual respect requires careful jurisdiction on the habit of portraying another person’s experience. I do not lightly offer this story.
After reading my version Trevor added a couple of paragraphs:
I can recall a time in my life when no matter what I did, I felt as though I had to appeal to an authority outside of my own. Whether that was teachers, parents, peers, or even just the preset social standards did not matter. Failing to please meant some form of punishment. I knew then that educational institutions have no vigor for those of us who question them. Can they not see that emails home, alienation, and categorization are not solutions to ‘behavioral issues’ but rather triggers that drive small boys to draw penises on desks? If you put a twelve-year-old student under constant surveillance, and write home about his progress or lack thereof, do you think he will feel at peace? Or alienated? If the schools suggest medication and control tactics they presume that will improve the students’ relationship with school. Will it? No. For those of us who see the zombie world it will just hasten the realization that the educational system is a front for a large-scale colonization project, ridding us of our right to personal perspective.
Yes, I am Trevor, and to this day I can see the zombies, walk with the zombies, talk with the zombies, but I know in my bones that I believe none of it. My mother, a very gracious, nurturing, and unorthodox mother, taught me everything I know. She helped me access my potential, and never gave me a fabricated answer. When I went to my mom that night in tears, having just dreamed of a classroom in which everyone was just mindlessly performing their tasks, no individuality, no talking, no freedom, I thought “Oh no, my mom’s going to just tell me to go back to bed and that it’s nothing.” But, of course, my mom is a Bateson, so she said, “Let’s talk about this in the morning.” We eventually understood that both our lives are filled with conformity, but our minds have to remain free. My mother implored me to find my way to find peace in both, by giving me my first job, in which I would get a real introduction to the process of living in two worlds at the same time. One where authority is defined as mutual respect, and the other where it is merely deference. The latter just requires a smile, a nod, and an answer, but never, ever an opinion.
Someone asked me once if I had ever seen my father in an emergency situation, and if I might describe how he dealt with it. At the time I replied that I had never witnessed him in any danger, or in an emergency. But later I remembered that I had. The fact of my not recalling the emergency is significant.
We were in the car. Driving to my riding lesson. At that time we lived in Big Sur, California. If you have ever had the pleasure or terror of driving the Big Sur coastline on Highway One, you will know that the two-lane road is characterized by majestic mountains on one side and steep, death-defying cliffs that plummet down to the Pacific Ocean on the other. We had an old dirty white Volkswagen Van. It was the ’70s, we were a hippy family and I was a long-legged, scraggly, mountain child, about 10 years old. I was in the backseat, free to roam around as there were no seat belts back then. My father was driving, and while it is not part of this story let me just say he was one of the worst drivers ever. He was always busy looking at the whales in the sea, or spotting hawks. Terrible.
As we drove up the coast, we passed a hitchhiker on the side of the road who had his thumb out. He was a young man with a big backpack. A traveler. My father, ever the anthropologist, was interested in travelers, and in people in general. He liked to pick up hitchhikers. He liked to have conversations with strangers. So we picked up this fellow.
A few minutes later as we were driving along the man suddenly had a knife in my father’s side. He was demanding money; he was pumping with adrenaline.
I think this qualifies as an emergency. A two-lane road with nowhere to pull over. A kid in the back seat, and it would be another 30 years before the invention of the mobile telephone.
But I never noticed. I did not see the emergency because my father’s response was to cheerfully look down at the knife and then into the eyes of the hitchhiker and say in his most droll Englishness, “Well hello, what have we here?”
He was authentically calm and amused. His interest in the desperate young man had actually increased several fold by this communication, (i.e. a knife and monetary demands). My father began to ask him questions. How had he come to be in Big Sur? How had he found himself in such a muddle? Through these questions and, more importantly, the tone of the questions, my father was listening and learning about how someone can get in such a twist. He was not applying a psychological trick or a technique. This was not a manipulation. He was not ‘trying’ to calm the guy down. He was just interested, one human being to another. His curiosity in the young man was piqued, and his inquiry reflected that. He did not see a knife… he saw a person with a story.
How would most people react? Would they fight, would they try to get the money to him right away? Would they try to trick him? What are the scenarios that immediately play out? For most of us, a knife in our side would be a moment of panic. This was an emergency. But somehow it was not. As a passenger in the back seat of the van I watched their interaction and never for one second felt fear in the car. There was no spike in the drama, no flutter of breath, no indication of danger at all. I still do not think of that afternoon as being life-threatening, though surely it was.
After driving another half an hour we came to a place where we would have to drop off our hitchhiker and deliver me to my horseback-riding lesson. When we pulled off the road my father opened his wallet and gave the young man a $20 bill. He wrote our home phone number on a scrap piece of paper from the floor of the car and gave the guy a hug. My father suggested that the man call if he found himself in trouble. These were not idle generosities to suggest good will. He was not faking it. The warmth and the care he felt for the traveler was genuine. I could feel that, and so, apparently, could the hitchhiker. All three of us learned a great deal from that half an hour in the VW van.
As I look back now at that situation I can only say that I hope one day to be able to see context as well as my father did. He was not young when this story took place. He was maybe 74 years along in his practice of seeing more than just the tip of the knife. I suppose it takes time to be able to respond to an acute situation with love that stems from complexity… or is it the other way around: complexity that stems from love?
Perhaps there is no beginning to that loop. I will start by noticing my reactions, and searching for wider, deeper edges to the complexity I am reacting to, responding to—and shift that into mutual learning.
The solution expected, the way predicted, is so far removed from the options that surface when viewed from a wider angle, that they are entirely unplannable. I have spent long hours defending the possibility that attempting to solve a problem by going at it directly is only occasionally effective. I usually receive lost looks of bewilderment and a plea for a map, a method, and a technique. But, so often we make more of a mess than we ever imagined possible by seeking direct solutions. The problems we see are nested in contexts with particular alchemies that produce the ‘issue’ we want to solve. Identifying and strategizing our way through becomes short-circuiting which is often destructive. The consequences go spiraling off into further confusion, more issues, and more problems. Sometimes the way through is at an entirely unseen angle.
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