We are in a crisis of narrative schismogenesis in the sociopolitical climate of America (at least) today. Gregory Bateson, in Steps To an Ecology of Mind (1981), described schismogenesis as an ever widening schism of viewpoints between opposing sides or persons in argument with one another. An example Bateson gave was how an argument can escalate between spouses. The more each person “digs in” to their position as antithetical to their opponent, the further apart their viewpoints become until there is no way to bridge the chasm behind the barriers of which they are each entrenched.
Let’s say the husband asks where they would like to go to eat dinner, for instance, and the wife says Chinese, knowing that her husband is not particularly fond of Chinese cuisine. He then declines and suggests a polar-opposite sort of cuisine, say Mexican for example, to which she declines and then they dig into why each of the choices they have proffered are not only the best solution but an absolute necessity for that evening’s meal. In the end, perhaps the two spouses each go their separate ways for dinner that night, leading to hard feelings for days.
This is a trite example, especially given the deep gravity of the dangerous schismogenetic chasm so many are entrenched behind with today’s fractious tribalism of the Partisan Divide. We harbor two tribes living within distinct reality fields, each accusing the other side of not only being wrong (using “fake news”) but even regarding each other as “evil” in their supposed intentions and actions.
I try to remain as neutral as possible, aware that truth is absolutely relative, after all, depending on one’s basis of evidence and their sources of information. People dig in to the banks of the side they have chosen—or to which they have been conditioned—often unwilling to even listen to let alone to hear or comprehend statements from the enemy tribe.
Anthropologically (my professional field), it is clear that schismogenetic ruptures have often led tribal groups to divide or fission into distinct, rival factions, sometimes—where there is space enough available—resulting in the opposing factions actually moving away from each other to establish separate villages. The Blues and the Reds do not have such luxury of spatial expanse to divide into. North and South are no longer culturally divided in toto, so we live side by side with neighbors from rival factions every day. We are thus divided within the same village, state, nation, and global society.
How can we overcome this Divide? We must somehow, locally and personally as well as collectively, find ways to change the narrative. Couples psychotherapists–and Bateson himself in Steps to an Ecology of Mind–would suggest mediation is a key first step to confronting and dismantling a factional schismogenetic divide. Representatives from each tribe or faction need to convene and meet somewhere at the middle, in the company of an agreed upon mediating person or agency.
Each side’s story needs to be aired—and heard, without opposition or resistance—with the mediator serving as a buffer. After both narratives are fully expressed, the mediator might summarize each point of view succinctly, validating facets of both viewpoints and helping to delineate some commonalities that could begin to construct a narrative bridge, upon which both persons or sides might at least meet upon to acknowledge the availability of a middle ground.
After such an open hearing and mediation process, each representative returns to share with their members and then of course each tribe is free to do what they will with the knowledge gained. They carry the awareness of a willingness of the Other to have at least sought mediation with them. This can lead to a gradual rebuilding of trust and mutual acceptance, at least.
I speak from some experience about the therapeutic value of a mediation process. I and a dear friend, she now being departed, once ran into a barrier with one another that grew into a painful schismogenetic chasm for many months. We agreed to meet with a psychotherapist, which made all the difference in helping each of us to find a greater balance in understanding and mutual acceptance. We came away remembering our ultimate friendship, which has remained vital ever on.
So when faced with an immoveable common barrier between opposing narratives, seek mediation.
Give it a try!