Posts Tagged ‘control’

I have an irrational and visceral dislike for list based blog posts. Every time I see a blog post title that goes “ten reasons why…” or “the seven principles of…” etc, a little piece of me dies and reincarnates as a berserker with a nasty case of blood lust.

Gestalt itself seems particularly fond of the number five for this sort of thing; hence Perls’ five layers of neurosis; Parlett’s five principles of field theory; and Clarkson’s five levels of relationship. I mean seriously, at least try some different numbers people!

Anyway, one of the things that makes me a gestalt therapist is my pre-disposition towards noticing what gets my hackles up, having an internalised therapist/supervisor/trainer jump up and declare ‘projection!’, and then crossing over to my dark side for a bit to see what it’s all about.

So here’s a festively themed list-based post about my irrational and visceral dislike for everyone’s favourite mince pie munching bearded reindeer abuser.

Four reasons I set man traps for Santa:

1) he is a patriarchal symbol of parental tyranny

2) he is a capitalist symbol of social control

3) he is an agent provocateur for the Coca Cola corporation

4) … this one’s a secret, shhhhhh!

Stick with me while I elaborate, it might just change your life…

1) he is a patriarchal symbol of parental tyranny

It’s Father Christmas, not Mother Christmas. Ok, so lip-service gets paid to gender equality by a number of films that do cast a Mother Christmas. But that actually serves to highlight the underlying patriarchal assumptions; Mother Christmas is always cut from the long-suffering-wife-whose-husband-is-a-really-important-public-figure cloth. It is Father Christmas who holds the power, and the power he holds is incredibly sinister.

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

Now, try (and unless you don’t recognise the song it’ll be hard) to read this as a threat. Because it is a threat. Try reading it out loud through gritted teeth. A bit extreme maybe, but the point is clear: you, child, had better start behaving in a manner that I consider to be good because an extremely powerful man is about to arrive.

He’s making a list,
Checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town

That’s right kid, you’re going on a list. And this is a black and white kind of affair; you’ve either been naughty, or you’ve been nice. There is no in-between. There is no process of appeal. There is only Santa’s judgment. Oh, and just in case you thought you had any way of hiding from the man with the big white beard:

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

That’s right; every second of every day, Santa is watching you. So be good for the sake of being good, because that is behaviour that Santa has been created to reward; actions that appear to be good. Niceness, that bland little alias for obedience to status quo.

And here’s what you get if you’ve been naughty (NB Tony is one of my cats. Yes, it’s a ridiculous name for a cat).

I labour this point because I consider it the principle point. Every time a parent tells their child ‘carry on like that and Father Christmas won’t be visiting this year’ to get them to obey, a vital message about society is being conveyed: obedience is good, disobedience is bad. Yet so often the people who hold social power and demand obedience are not people whose motivations and actions are all that good.

And of course, Father Christmas grants parents the vital tactic of deferred authority. It’s not me, it’s him; I’m just the messenger. Because the kids need to know how to get on the good list right? And they can’t ask Santa directly, so they need parental cues on what counts as good and what counts as bad. So the parents get to enjoy the authority conveyed by service to a higher power, at the same time as the comfort of delegated responsibility; it’s easier to implement a higher authority’s rules than to own and assert one’s own needs.

Remember, young kids think this stuff is real. They literally think that actual Father Christmas will punish them for being on the naughty list by withholding presents and only reward them with presents if they get on the nice list. Doesn’t that directly assert from day one that the child’s own nature is to some degree inherently unacceptable?

So, Father Christmas is a patriarchal symbol because he perpetuates male dominance of power. He is a symbol of parental tyranny because his function is to give parents an unaccountable deferred authority with which to condition children into obedience.

2) he is a capitalist symbol of social control

If you have kids, and do the Father Christmas thing, I’ve possibly just offended you deeply by implying that you are a tyrant. Soz. Most parents aren’t tyrants, and don’t use Father Christmas as an overt tool of tyrannical control. Unfortunately though, the effect remains the same; however benevolently Father Christmas is presented, he is still the arbiter of the getting of presents.

And there is one very good reason why Santa retains this power: commerce. The christmas shopping period is the retail occasion of the year. There are shops whose existence throughout the year depends on Christmas trade. That is, the profit they make in the run up to Christmas offsets the losses they make in the rest of the year. Watch in the New Year for businesses going into administration as a result of holding out for the Christmas revenues that didn’t come.

That’s a pretty powerful social pressure. Christmas is a vital economic stimulus; profits have always been at stake, meaning the interests of powerful people (it’s that 1% again!) are at stake, meaning a powerful controlling symbol is needed. That’s right, Father Christmas is in the pay of the corporate elite. This makes absolute sense; only multinational corporations can rival Santa’s ability to deliver presents worldwide in a single night without falling prey to the contradiction of timezones.

The point here is this: the vested interests that give the symbol of Father Christmas its power are corporate and motivated by profit. Just look at where the activity is focused; people queue to get into shops, empty the shelves of food, and fight each other to make sure their kid gets the must-have present of the year.

Now stop, breathe, and ask yourself: why does this happen? I’m serious, what’s the motivation here? Wasn’t the 25th December Christ’s official birthday last time I checked? For the record, I’m neither Christian nor driven by the need to labour the ‘but the Christians stole it from the pagans’ angle. All of that is somewhat irrelevant when we take gestalt’s here and now perspective and ask:

What is the need that mobilises all this action now?

My conclusion is that profit drives this action. Generally speaking, I do not observe families benefiting from Christmas. I do observe parents feeling an immense pressure to give their kids what they want for Christmas. I observe advertising telling kids what they should want for Christmas. I observe a level of activity that can only be described as manic taking place in retail centres; not a rush to attend church, not a desperate flailing to go home and play board games with family, but a frenetic stampede to buy stuff. And it’s all stuff that is largely not needed other than to live up to a collective idea of what Christmas should look like.

And Father Christmas is the lynch-pin. For one thing, he’s the symbol that many of us grew up with, so he now sits active in the psyche of many adults wanting to give their children the kind of Christmas they wanted and didn’t get (or worse, the sentimentalised Christmas they remember but that never actually happened). More importantly, he ensures that no parent is in any doubt that Christmas is about giving your children presents.

When your kids go back to school, the question will be: ‘what did you get for Christmas?’. Not, ‘don’t you think it’s ironic that our Government is forcing another 100,000 children into poverty at a time of year when we celebrate Christ being born in a stable?’. Not, ‘did you enjoy spending time with your family over the holiday period?’. But, ‘what did you get for Christmas?’. Because kids are authentic (that is, they respond to the actual situation) and they know what Christmas is really about.

So, Father Christmas is a capitalist symbol because he is the jolly bearded face that demands you shop like a maniac for the benefit of the wealthy few. He is a symbol of social control because his image demands action that is hard to disobey without attracting social disapproval.

3) he is an agent provocateur for the Coca Cola corporation

Holidays are coming, holidays are coming, holidays are coming…

There’s a nice overview of the history of Santa Claus on wikipedia. A brief synopsis of this would be:

Father Christmas started out life as a pagan symbol of the coming of spring. In time, this merged with the legend of a Christian Saint famed for making anonymous gifts to the poor. Under the influence of Victorian sentimentalism, the erstwhile variable form of Father Christmas crytsallised into the kindly old sleigh riding, present bearing bearded one we know today. Finally, Coca Cola popularised the red version.

Coca Cola say: “though some people believe the Coca-Cola Santa wears red because that is the Coke® color, the red suit comes from Nast’s interpretation of St. Nick”. A more accurate way of putting that would be: “some people believe the Coca-Cola Santa wears red because that is the Coke® color; this is true”. After all, the decision to use Nast’s interpretation of St. Nick will have included the rationale “it matches our corporate colour”.

And in the spirit of the imperialistic urges of multinationals, this corporately sponsored Father Christmas has so homogenised the celebration of Christmas, that a natural abundance of diversity in portraying the spirit of mid-winter has been largely wiped out. That’s right, Santa Claus is also a genocidal maniac.

He’s probably not really an actual agent provocateur though, I just put that bit in because it sounded good.

And finally…


Even ignoring the fact that our entire society collectively puts effort into lying to children, forcing inquisitive children to remain in the lie, and using social pressure to force parents into maintaining the lie, we are left with an undeniable truth:

The guy in the red suit sneaking around my home in the middle of the night is a burglar.

Upstanding pillar of the community, Secretary of State for Justice Ken Clarke says I can stab people for being burglars. In the light of the level of menace this man represents to society at large (Santa Claus, not Ken Clarke, though I’ll leave you to make your own judgment in the latter’s case), I am therefore justified in ensnaring him in jaws of merciless steel should he cross the threshold of my humble abode.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I set man traps for Santa.



Read Full Post »

My eye was caught by a BBC article on email greeting etiquette on Friday. It strikes me as a nice way into the concept of introjection. Introjection is the process of taking in something uncritically; usually in the form of messages and rules about how things ‘should’ be. Introjection means swallowing something whole instead of chewing it over.

Fritz and Laura Perls were originally psychoanalysts. Through Laura’s experience of breast-feeding their children, she developed the theory of dental aggression. The central idea in this theory is that when children start growing teeth, they naturally develop the ability to bite and chew. This marks the transition from having to either swallow mother’s milk or regurgitate it (introjection and rejection), to being able to chew over food, swallow the nice bits, and spit out the unpleasant bits (selective assimilation). The point being that before developing teeth, the baby can only swallow whole or reject whole; with teeth comes a level of discrimination over what enters the digestive system.

In gestalt theory, this gets expressed in the idea of introjection. Without teeth, the baby can only introject. With teeth, baby can now chew things over. Laura Perls thought that this transition in the baby’s relationship with food brought about a correlating transition in its relationship with nourishment in general, ie knowledge, culture, information. Teeth become a metaphor for critical evaluation which is reflected in the English language; when we talk about chewing things over, we are referring to critical evaluation. In its simplest sense, critical evaluation is making up your own mind about something.

The question the BBC’s article forms around is the pressing issue of how one should open emails; a contemporary issue of concern to us all. How and why, you might think, would I make a connection between milk teeth and opening an email with ‘dear’, ‘hi’, or ‘hey’?

I think the article shows in microcosm the ways in which etiquette in macrocosm supports, controls and commits violence upon the individual in society. It’s an example of an individual’s developmental history playing itself out in the here-and-now.

When I consider the three ‘case study’ contributions, I have three very different responses. Experiment suggestion:

Read each of the contributions (Jean, Dan, and Katie) in turn. As you read them, be aware of your response to what they write. What emotional and physical responses do you have to what they communicate? Do you agree or disagree with their viewpoint? On what basis do you agree or disagree? Is there any split between the person you feel you want to agree with and the person you feel you should agree with?

For myself, I notice I feel restrained and controlled when I read Jean’s piece; I feel vaguely patronised by Dan’s piece; and I feel warm when I read Katie’s piece. Each approach manages to embody, in writing, something of the character of the writer. However, it isn’t that the character of Jean is restrained and controlled; Dan’s patronising; and Katie’s warm. It’s that my contact with that writer is restrained and controlled; patronising; warm. You might experience Jean as appropriate and respectful; Dan as friendly and business-like; Katie as overly affectionate.

My point being, contact is co-created between writer and reader; it doesn’t and isn’t caused by one or the other. In order for someone to come across as restraining or cold or respectful or boundaried, there has to be a person perceiving and a person perceived; both have to be present at the same time. It simply doesn’t make sense to say that it’s the writer causing me to perceive them in a certain way; it also doesn’t make sense to say that it’s purely my perception as a reader. It’s both of us creating that perception in relationship; in this case, mediated by text.

Notice that, whilst each of the three contributors take a different stance, they all present a rule for governing email interactions. My feeling is that in each case, an introject is being projected onto the activity of writing emails. The clue to the introjection-projection dynamic is the lack of relationship; it isn’t ‘I want people to do this’, it’s ‘people should do this’. The projection of an introject will often take the form of an appeal to some independent, objective, theoretical entity; etiquette is just such an entity.

Jean “If you’re sending a business e-mail you should begin “Dear…” – like a letter. You are presenting yourself. Politeness and etiquette are essential.”

Dan “In fact we have a policy about e-mails. “Don’t write anything that could be misunderstood.” Irony and sarcasm never work. And don’t think that adding a smiley and three trillion exclamation marks will help. It just makes people think you’re an idiot.”

Katie “The rule is, address your reader as you would in the context with which you are replacing the e-mail.”

‘Politeness and etiquette are essential’, ‘we have a policy’, ‘the rule is’; in all cases there is an abstract theoretical entity, external to the person, that acts as an authority in this case. So, the rule has been introjected, and the self now has alien material to contend with. Projection is the self’s attempt to eject the alien material; if that rule isn’t organically me, it must be coming from outside me. Yet when I apply some critical thought to this idea, it strikes me as odd to claim that something like a rule concerning the opening of emails can exist independently of the people sending those emails.

To bring out the projective part of the dynamic more, I’ve translated the above into subjective terms:

Jean “If I’m sending a business e-mail I should begin “Dear…” – like a letter. I am presenting myself. Politeness and etiquette are essential to me.”

Dan “In fact I have a policy about e-mails. “Don’t write anything that could be misunderstood.” Irony and sarcasm never work for me. And I don’t think that adding a smiley and three trillion exclamation marks helps. It just makes me think you’re an idiot.”

Katie “My rule is, address my reader as I would in the context with which I am replacing the e-mail.”

As a new experiment:

Compare the first statement by each person with the subjective version, and notice how you respond to each. Try reading each statement out loud; do you notice any bodily/emotional/thinking responses?

what I notice for myself is that I am much more engaged with the writer of the subjective statements than the projective statements. I disagree with all three of their positions, incidentally, but when they state them objectively, my hackles raise (‘don’t tell me what to do!’). When they are owned and stated subjectively, I become interested in the difference between our viewpoints (‘oh, that’s interesting, my opinion is…’). Contact is possible.

I titled this post ‘etiquette: support, control, and social violence’. What is etiquette? Etiquette in the Cambridge Online Dictionary is ‘the set of rules or customs which control accepted behaviour in particular social groups or social situations’. Though I prefer the more concise ‘prescribed behaviour’ of the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The prescription and control of behaviour can be supportive. The newborn baby drinks milk because that’s all it is equipped to deal with. What I feel often goes missing in gestalt discussion of introjects is that baby makes a transition from needing to introject to needing to chew. Carry that metaphor into new social situations and the potential support of etiquette becomes clearer; it answers those awkward first questions of ‘how do I do x, y and z?’. To a certain extent, we need to introject until we have sufficient knowledge (our metaphorical teeth) of the situation to begin chewing. It is at this point that etiquette becomes controlling if it is used to restrain the active questioning and experimentation of inquisitive individuals, rather than support the unfamiliar and unsure in becoming part of the whole. Etiquette becomes a force for social violence when it is used to actively exclude (etiquette can not exclude; only people can exclude).

Of course, maybe there are situations in which it is appropriate to use etiquette in these ways. Dan’s policy is an organisational attempt to control employees’ email communication for the greater good of the company maintaining a certain reputation. And ultimately, using etiquette to exclude could be just another way of describing anti-social behaviour, and express a need for society to protect itself by rejecting damaging behaviours.

At the heart of gestalt theory is a belief in organismic self-regulation; the belief that if we relax our attempts at self-controlling behaviour, we will spontaneously respond to our needs in a manner that is harmonious with our present situation. This isn’t incompatible with etiquette all the time etiquette represents an abstracted and owned version of ‘how things are usually done around here’; this is just an articulation of the acquired preferences of a particular field, a kind of communal personality. And it isn’t incompatible with an etiquette that states ‘this is how things must be done around here’ all the time each individual professing that rule is owning it as their own.

And that’s because all the time we own the rules we govern ourselves and others by – that is, we state them as ‘this is the rule I have chosen to live by, and I demand that you live by it too’ – contact between you and me is possible. I can say, ‘I disagree with your rule’ and we can have conflict about it (resolvable or otherwise). Or I can say ‘ok, I choose to obey that rule too’ and we can have agreement. But all the time I say ‘the rule is this and we must obey it’ I avoid contact with others because ‘the rule’ doesn’t exist; there’s nothing to make contact with, so I deflect your attempt to make contact with me onto a theoretical entity out there in the void. And if you say you agree or disagree with the rule, it has nothing to do with me; there is no connection between us.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed over the years that when I detect I’m projecting an introjected rule, if I state it as ‘my opinion is….’, I often discover that it isn’t my opinion after all; it’s an opinion I think I should have. Or I discover that I do agree with it, and suddenly feel less of a need for other people to agree with me.

The irony being, the less control I exert over myself, the less control I need to try and exert over others.

Read Full Post »