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Theory. For me, theoretical concepts are like this special collection of toys that I can take with me wherever I go. The particular toy I’d like to play with today is Melanie Klein‘s concept of splitting (or rather, her development of the concept). I’m going to explore this with reference to the current coalition Government, and particularly in reference to the absolute hammering the Lib Dems took in the recent Local Government elections.

As psychoanalytic concepts are essentially myths psychoanalysts have created to convince themselves they know what they’re doing, I take full poetic licence to have no idea what I’m actually talking about (this is not a slight against psychoanalysts, the same holds true for gestalt concepts).

In a nutshell, I’d sum up splitting like this:

Splitting is when you deal with what you don’t like by pretending it’s not there.

That’s basically it. In gestalt terms, splitting is about tinkering with your awareness. Douglas Adams knew all about splitting when he wrote about a spaceship hiding in plain view disguised as an Italian restaurant; its shield worked on the principle that people won’t see what they’re not prepared to see. They split it off from their awareness (see what I did there? ‘They’ split it off, nothing to do with me!). And with good reason. Usually, pretending it’s not there involves putting it somewhere else.

If I’m invested in an image of myself as ‘peaceful’, for example, then angry feelings could threaten that image. Rather than wrestle with the contradiction and conclude that being peaceful is actually just one possible choice that I can make at any given moment, I can avoid the conflict by splitting off angry feelings and pretending they belong to someone else. That guy across the street is looking at me funny; my wife is pissed at me for no good reason; why are there so many damn angry people walking around? If they were all peaceful like me the world would be a better place! And so on.

For example, suppose your Government were to illegally raid a compound in another country in order to assassinate a suspected perpetrator of terrorist attacks who had never actually been tried by a court of law. You’d be forced to conclude that your Government had violated another nation’s sovereignty as well as the key democratic principle of the rule of law. But that would contradict the idea that your Government is a democracy and a force for good in the world. How to deal with this conflict? Take the negative and positive aspects of your Government, split them apart, keep the positive aspects in view, and throw away the negative ones.

That is pathological splitting. The inability to tolerate conflicting emotions/perspectives of something valued, leading to the splitting off from awareness of the unfavoured polarity. Anything that might be likable about Osama bin Laden is split off to avoid contradicting his arch-villain persona. Anything that might be sinister about the Government is split off to avoid contradicting the idea that they’re protecting us, that it’s all for our own good.

That wasn’t the example I was intending to use, but my fingertips seem to have a life of their own when I start typing (figure of speech), and I’m still quite affronted that a large number of people celebrated the assassination (in my opinion; the US Attorney General disagrees) of a fellow human being by dancing in the streets.

I’ll walk away from that one for now because, frankly, it’s just too big for a post about splitting. However, for bitterly ironic amusement value, consider that the word assassin is taken from “a fanatical Ismaili Muslim sect of the time of the Crusades, under leadership of the ‘Old Man of the Mountains’… with a reputation for murdering opposing leaders after intoxicating themselves by eating hashish”. Brilliant.

Scaling down, I’d like to focus on the coalition.

Klein’s development of the idea of splitting is part of her wider theory of child development, and encapsulated in what is known as object relations theory. I dislike this term and the language of object relations generally for reducing human interactions to an internal drama of psychic objects; by definition, the language is objectifying. However, there is an idea here so important that it drives current speculation that the Lib Dems will be wiped out at the next general election; not the Conservatives who are the senior partner of the coalition and the driving force for the cuts that the Lib Dems are being punished for.

My hypothesis is that the conservatives don’t need to make a whipping boy out of Nick Clegg. In point of fact, they can’t make a whipping boy out of Nick Clegg, not unless there’s a significant body of people who are willing to play along. That is, there needs to be genuine rage, and a genuine hook for people to hang it on. Try making a whipping boy out of Mother Teresa; for most people, the hooks just aren’t there, she’s not a viable recipient for most people’s rage.

Klein theorised that children experience the world in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ie things are either entirely good or entirely bad. In the classic computer game mentality of much psychoanalytic theory, this is a stage of development that must be completed by successfully learning that things can be both good and bad at the same time. This is the End of Level Boss of the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ level which, once defeated, earns you progression to the next level… the ‘depressive’ position (frankly, I’d prefer a few hours on Streets of Rage, but that’s psychoanalysis for you).

The point being that the world is split by the child into good stuff and bad stuff, and the child’s internal world becomes populated by good objects and bad objects. So, mother meets your needs = good mother. Mother fails to meet your needs = bad mother. You internalise two separate mothers, the good mother and the bad mother; cue literary reference to wicked step-mothers in fairy tales.

I don’t buy object relations theory, but I do buy Klein’s idea of splitting someone into a good version and a bad version (I don’t think children internalise good and bad objects; I think children internalise holistically and learn to split their awareness through necessity). Applying the field theory formula (behaviour is a function of a person in some context), this kind of good/bad splitting is all about being in a situation in which only one side of the polarity is allowable. Children quickly learn when their parents can’t tolerate being the bad guy, and the roles of good guy/bad guy can often be divided up between parents and permanently fixed. Furthermore, the whole family can collude with the idea of there being a ‘golden child’ and a ‘black sheep’; the family selects people to embody what is good and bad about the family respectively, and then rigorously enforces these roles.

The British people are far from declaring David Cameron their golden child. However, Nick Clegg has stepped spectacularly into the role of black sheep, and I think he achieved this with one fatally symbolic error: a broken promise to students. I know for myself that a broken promise gets the child part of me raging. This isn’t to create a polarity between students/adults and childishness/maturity. Rather, I think that with age comes an accumulation of experiences of broken promises that can lead to a conclusion of ‘that’s the way the world is’ that is symptomatic of much apathy; generally speaking, students (thankfully) haven’t yet been ground into compliance. I was impressed that a large proportion of the student population took to the streets in protest, and am hopeful that a politically active generation is being forged.

This broken promise is important because it was a direct pledge to students ahead of the general election. It sits outside the logic of ‘as a junior partner in coalition we need to make compromises’ because it wasn’t the ‘if we become the Government’ pledge of a manifesto. It was a direct promise: ‘in the next Parliament, we will vote against tuition fees’. There is no better way of becoming the wicked step-mother than by being the coalition partner that breaks promises to young people and then makes excuses for it. Whatever one’s opinion about the Tories, David Cameron hasn’t broken any promises.

Ironically, that makes Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems a more appropriate recipient for the electorate’s rage than David Cameron and the Tories, with the net result that while the Liberal Democrats were taking their worst kicking in the Locals since the 80s, the Tories actually gained seats and Councils as well as successfully shelving electoral reform for the foreseeable future. That is a major Tory victory. And yet both parties are equally responsible for the policies of this Government.

In my opinion, the coalition currently resembles one possible family dynamic that encourages splitting. In this dynamic, one parent is utterly intolerant of being the recipient of negative feelings, while the other parent is excessively tolerant. The end result is that the kids can vent rage at one parent but can’t vent rage at the other; so one parent carries the rage for both.

Nick Clegg seems to believe in the new politics of compromise to such an extent that he has been excessively tolerant, whereas David Cameron is rapidly becoming famous for his lack of tolerance of criticism. If the Yes to AV campaign had demonised David Cameron the way No to AV demonised Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat heads would have rolled. It is very clear to all concerned, as it is in families, what the balance of power is between David Cameron and Nick Clegg. And, under Parliamentary convention, Ministerial positions are in the gift of the Prime Minister; Nick Clegg has no power to make ministers beyond that given to him by the Prime Minister.

How do I tie all this up with a gestalt-relevant conclusion about splitting? Like so:

In gestalt, confluence is a way of modifying contact with something by merging with it. The archetypal example is the married couple who no longer talk in terms of ‘I’ but in terms of ‘we’; husband and wife merge identities into a single identity and contact between them is lost. Hence the Daily Mail was able to create Cleggeron.

Ironically, merger encourages splitting because now Nick Clegg can carry not only the rage justifiably aimed at his broken promise, but all the anti-Tory rage as well, While David Cameron can happily carry whatever perceived benefits the Coalition’s policies produce. And all this with the end result that anti-Tory rage has actually strengthened the Tory position by weakening the Lib Dems’ Local Government base.

The merger of confluence never results in an even distribution of qualities. Instead, the merged couple polarise. This makes sense when you consider that, in confluence, the two people count as one person; so when you put the two polarities together, you get an evenly distributed whole. The reality is, there isn’t one person, there’s two, hence in real terms there is splitting and polarisation.

So the splitting polarises Cameron as powerful, and Clegg as weak. In practice, that means Cleggeron is a whole person; he is both powerful and weak, just like a whole person is at once powerful and weak. But Cleggeron is a confluent illusion. The reality is that there are two people, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, and they are both powerful and weak.

David Cameron can’t pass legislation without Nick Clegg whipping his MPs; that is an exceptionally weak position for a Prime Minister to be in. On the other hand, David Cameron decides who gets to be a minister and who doesn’t; a very powerful position. Likewise, Nick Clegg decides who gets to be Prime Minister; an exceptionally powerful position to be in. On the other hand, the only patronage he has is given to him by David Cameron (contrast with Ed Milliband who has full power to create his shadow ministers); a very weak position for a party leader to be in.

‘Cleggeron’ is a confluent illusion, and so is the so-called ‘ConDem Government’. Our Government is a coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Parties; two distinct parties with distinct agendas. Punishing one party doesn’t punish both because ultimately both parties would rather be a majority Government.

In gestalt, the emphasis is on reowning polarities in order to raise awareness of how we actively choose where on the continuum between a given pair of poles we place ourselves. David Cameron can enjoy being the golden child now but he only has to look as far as Thatcher to see how that ends. Likewise, Nick Clegg can play at being the tolerant one but that means he gets all the rage that no one feels able to direct at the Tories; by definition, anti-Tory sentiment isn’t coming from the Tory support base.

By accepting that we encompass the whole of any polarity, we regain lost aspects of ourselves and, again ironically, gain greater choice over who we are at any given time. If I disown my anger, then that is a part of myself that I can’t control because, by definition, I have to pretend it’s not a part of myself in order to maintain the illusion that ‘I’m not an angry person’. In accepting my anger, I get to choose whether to express it or not.

Now clearly David Cameron has a lot invested in not accepting his weakness. But it only takes one person to break a confluence. Imagine how different the Coalition would look if Nick Clegg started accepting how powerful he is…

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