Monday, 6 November 2017

Power, Hierarchy, and the Sexual Harassment Scandal - Bateson's attempt to clarify categories

I'm recovering from organising the Metaphorum Conference on "Healing Organisations" (see After a lot of anxiety in preparation, it was both an intellectually dynamising and deeply heartfelt conference. It was possibly a lot else too - everyone seemed to enjoy it. I'll say more about the speaker contributions from John Seddon (, Liz Mear, Gerald Midgley, David Welbourn, David Shiers and Allenna Leonard at a later point. They were all brilliant. There was something cathartic about the whole thing... 

A lot of discussion at the conference concerned the pathology of hierarchy and what we do about it (heterarchy? telephathy?). In the news, hierarchies are in trouble: the sexual abuse/harassment scandal is toppling men at the the top of hierarchies, whose positions have enabled them to behave appallingly towards those they had power over, and become unchallengeable.

Hierarchies have a "top", and the top has 'power' over the rest. It also exercises crap management. It takes courage to challenge it. Universities particularly have become increasingly hierarchical in recent years. Something is in the air at the moment that is giving women (and some men) courage. What it is, I think, is overwhelming environmental uncertainty which has been stoked-up by austerity and other attempts by hierarchies (and those at the top of them) to preserve themselves. At the conference, John Seddon pointed out that every attempt to cut costs ends up raising them. This is probably why the deficit doesn't come down, why the health service is on its knees and why those same hierarchies are under attack. It's a positive feedback loop, and like all positive feedback loops, eventually it goes "snap!".

The power inherent in the hierarchy is a strange thing: Power is a controversial concept - particularly in cybernetics. Behind it lies certain assumptions about the way the world works which may be incorrect. The first one concerns evolutionary dynamics. This has sent me back to reading Bateson. In his paper "The Pathologies of Epistemology" which is  in Steps to an ecology of mind, he moves his argument from Darwin to thoughts about what he calls the "myth of power". On Darwin he says:

In accordance with the general climate of thinking in mid-nineteenth-century England, Darwin proposed a theory of natural selection and evolution in which the unit of survival was either the family line or the species or subspecies or something of the sort. But today it is quite obvious that this is not the unit of survival in the real biological world. The unit of survival is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself. 
If, now, we correct the Darwinian unit of survival to include the environment and the interaction between organism and environment, a very strange and surprising identity emerges: the unit of evolutionary survival turns out to be identical with the unit of mind.
Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa—individual, family line, subspecies, species, etc.—as units of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units—gene-in-organism, organism-in environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology, in the widest sense, turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (i.e., differences, complexes of differences, etc.) in circuits.
Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and "Let's build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbors." There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself.
That's the epistemological error: choosing the wrong unit. The critical thing is to include the environment. This is exactly what John Seddon said about the health service (although he was slightly reluctant to be so abstract as to say "environment"). He said "The health system doesn't understand its demand". It assumes demand is ever-growing, where analysis shows that it's stable. The system's increasing inability to cope with what appears to be increasing demand is iatrongenic (iatros = doctor) - a healer-induced sickness, an organisational failure. This is critically important.

Of course, at the root of the iatrogenic disease is misused power. So what does Bateson say about this?

They say that power corrupts; but this, I suspect, is non-sense. What is true is that the idea of power corrupts. Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most. Obviously our democratic system tends to give power to those who hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don't want power to avoid getting it. Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it. 
Perhaps there is no such thing as unilateral power. After all, the man "in power" depends on receiving information all the time from outside. He responds to that information just as much as he "causes" things to happen. It is not possible for Goebbels to control the public opinion of Germany be-cause in order to do so he must have spies or legmen or public opinion polls to tell him what the Germans are thinking. He must then trim what he says to this information; and then again find out how they are responding. It is an inter-action, and not a lineal situation. 
But the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it. It is a myth which, if everybody believes in it, becomes to that extent self-validating. But it is still epistemological lunacy and leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster.
I've wondered about this for many years. Is power a myth? It feels pretty real to me... But what Bateson is saying is that power is an epiphenomenon of systemic failure. If you heal the system, power-as-a-myth disappears. In its place, one would hope, we have wisdom.

1 comment:

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