Beyond An Eye for an Eye
Identity, Relatedness and Digitisation during the Pandemic
This paper sets out a range of activities that took place since February 2020 to the present in my role as Director of the Group Relations Programme at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. It addresses some of the underlying dynamics at play in the social milieu and how they percolate into the micro-context in which the role is situated. I should warn the reader that I narrate this 18 month period as a purposeful organisation of our social order in line with the planned and emergent digitisation of human life systems, not as a problematised pandemic.
My articulation of the impact of digitisation and its relationship to Group Relations as an approach and discipline began at the Mini-Fest on Friday 13th April 2018. The Mini-Fest took place to mark the transition from Mannie Sher, who held the position of Director of Group Relations for 20 years, to me. In my address, I invited the listener to think about Group Relations as a way of seeing and being in the world. Particularly in our digital transition, we need to think about the key concepts of task, territory and time in new ways and ponder their impact on notions of boundary, authority and role.
My hypothesis was and is that every (western) epoch utilises war to advance its purposes and the loss of human life is collateral damage in these transitions. The transition to the digital era is also a part of this is epochal transition, which includes the pandemic, and once the dust settles we will see that the war metaphors mobilised in this era are a continuation of the processes in the first two world wars, where the fallen paid the price for shifts in the patterns of global capital. Perhaps we will need to take a pause for contemplating the role of forgiveness for the advocates of war.
Someone must pay
The biblical books of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus all advocate the rule of an eye for an eye. The world has been engaged in a sophisticated game of “tit for tat” behaviour in relation to the emergence, cause and impact of the covid-19 pandemic on the one hand, and the global “moment” concerning Black Lives Matter on the other. The convergence of both “issues” leaves social systems wrestling about how best to manage the impact of these social ills, calling for forgiveness on one hand and justice (vengeance) on the other. Verses from Leviticus Chapter 24 states that:
19 And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him;
20 Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.
21 And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.
The development of systems psychodynamic methodologies arose specifically in response to the work of the military industrial complexes and those suffering at the hands of the architects of terror. The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations sought to understand “what makes good people do bad things”. Further, and in terms of the individual in a system, they provided learning opportunities for people holding particular roles in organisations to explore the forces that capture their “good sense” and leave them at the mercy of the herd, often behaving mindlessly on behalf of a group.
In March 2020 as the Corona virus panic began in earnest, the spread of infections in the USA was blamed on the Trump administration and their inadequate action. Politicians were vilified for the alleged misinformation about the “Chinese Wuhan Laboratory’s creation of the virus” and its spread. At the same time another social infection was spreading from the USA to the rest of the world as a result of the murder of a black man, George Floyd by police officers. These two incidents set the context for the work year that lay ahead, a context of significant social anxiety. As Hoggett (2013) argued – this condition of anxiety is at the kernel of our epoch, that of late modernity. This is a socio-economic conundrum where our western society is characterised as a “precariat”, its citizenry wanting more and more whilst at the same time having less and less job security (Standing, 2011).
Group Relations conferences often twist and contort time, events happen in a conference that allude to or directly demonstrate future social actions and events. The following vignettes illustrate this potential “fortune telling” capacity of group relations.
My coronavirus journey began in Israel between 14th and 21st February 202o at the 33rd International OFEK group relations conference, Directed by Leila Djemal. The conference was infused with issues of fear and anxiety about the nature of the potential impact of the corona virus. Debates about which countries in particular posed threats to the safety and wellbeing of the members and staff were alive and intense. The conference faced issues of authority and authorisation of role holders and the impact of gender and ethnic diversity in the role holders and how this very diversity affected their ability to take up or receive authorisation from colleagues and members.
There was a member in the conference who became the repository for the increasing anxiety in the conference. It was of the generalised kind that had no particular object, what psychiatry calls free floating anxiety, with manifestations in the body but no fixed causal thought to pin it to. At one point the whole large study group was on the edge of creating a patient out of a member, or indeed of themselves, becoming overwhelmed with fantasies of destruction, death and violence.
Much of the tension in this intense anxiety dynamic required containment. The conference struggled in the way that governments would soon struggle to contain the anxieties of the global population in regard to covid-19. The capacity to render the feelings speakable so that we could hold them and explore meaning was a significant challenge in the staff team as well as the conference membership. There were repeated calls for decisive action to prevent the impending casualty, as if the primary task to “study” was itself unspeakable and intolerable.
There was another significant incident that took place in this conference that I will refer to later in this paper.
Leicester Conference 2020 in Bavaria
The uncertainty about the impact of the virus on the capacity to travel and host a conference body to body was challenging for the staff, venue, members and the director in reality and in the mind. The uncertainty unleashed as a result of the pandemic led to the UK government deciding to institute the first local lockdown on the City of Leicester, announced on 30th June, the first in England. Of all the cities in England, why Leicester? Thankfully, we had in place a plan B, C and D.
The 2020 Leicester Conference was held in Bavaria, Germany. It was the smallest Leicester Conference in its 63 years, 10 members and 4 staff. It birthed a new event, designed to replicate the lack of face to face contact achieved in a large study group, the Back to Back Event. This will be described and presented in a later paper.
Pleystein was the venue chosen for the conference, and the proximity to the birthplace of the Bavarian Illuminati, a key conspiracy theory locus of suspicion and mistrust equal to the weight in the mind given to the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, who sit at the top of the Global system of mind control.
Terrifying combined Object: Black, male and British
David Armstrong describes the role of Director of the Group Relations Programme at TIHR as taken up by Gordon Lawrence, “he had developed a distinctive approach centring around the concept of “relatedness” – that is, the ways in which individual experience and behaviour reflects and is constructed by conscious and unconscious constructs of the group or organisation in the mind.”(pxvii)
Melanie Klein described the nature of the terrifying combined object in relation to childhood phantasy of the parental combined object as a repository of childhood existential anxiety. I stretch the concept of the combined parental object and link to the geo-spatial terror that is evoked within a population by a person out of place. In this case I refer to a black body in a white neighbourhood.
I chose to spend as much of global lockdown by working from home at a house that I had purchased in 2019. The house is located in the Mississippi Delta on the most fertile cotton-rich soil fields of Arkansas. The house that I purchased is located on the white side of town, in an enclave of white wealth and privilege. Many of the neighbouring houses are owned by wealthy land-owning farmers and merchants, all white. This house in particular stood out as it was owned by a Jewish family of immense wealth and land ownership. The father of the household held the position of State representative on the USA National Cotton Council.
In terms of “relatedness”, my black body appearing in this white neighbourhood represented a disturbance to the natural order of things in the town in particular and the USA in general. Houses on the white side of the tracks had been subject to “red-lining”. This is a process whereby white property owners, land policy administrators and mortgage financiers would institute policies and procedures that prevented people in black bodies from buying, owning and living in property in areas designated (in the mind) only for people in white bodies. And like the corona virus, finding itself unsuspectedly in a human host, here was I, a shocking foreign body in the wrong neighbourhood – and experienced as a virus infecting it!
As discussed above, let us now return to the OFEK conference. My experience of being experienced as a confusing guest in a foreign land was also beautifully described by a white female staff colleague at the 33rd OFEK conference. The situation occurred in a session of the Institutional Event, where I was deployed as a member of the consultancy staff team.
In the consultancy staff team’s room we were working on team dynamics, exploring what we held as a fractal of the conference in its wider context. A powerful exchange took place when a colleague of the consultancy staff team said to me, “The issue is that you are very confusing. On one hand you are so smart and articulate and skilled in this work, and you have the big job as Director of Group Relations, and at the same time you are just a big black slave in the mind”.
This was a wonderfully spontaneous and undefended speech act that opened up a space for us to explore the nature of what identities do to one’s authority in role. My hypothesis is that what emerged was the terrifying combined object and its impact on the individuals and groups in this particular conference in this context. It would be too easy to fall into the binary of black and white on this issue. I shared that this view of what my black body, English nationality and role in the Institute represent is also probably held (and possibly more strongly) in the minds of those who live in black bodies too. In the context of the plantation-era USA this might emerge as the role tension between field and house slaves seeking for the attention of the Master.
This exchange in OFEK 2020 reminded me of a dynamic that was emerging in the group that formed at the Belgirate 2018 meeting. I was interested in bringing together a group of those representing “Presidents/Chairs of Group Relations Sponsoring organisations”. There was some curiosity about what this gathering would mean, but we met during the Exploratory Event at the Belgirate meeting and have continued meeting online since that time.
Just as we do in a group relations conference, we began to tentatively study the nature of authority and collaboration across the globe as a network, council or gathering of chairs representing their sponsoring organisations. Again, as in the OFEK conference, my role and what it means for people, generated significant ambivalence. Ideas of UK colonial oppression and domination were regularly referenced although we struggled to really get to a deeper exploration of what lay beneath. The group continued to meet, nonetheless, and operated in an emergent-resistant fashion. We had a rotating chair, AKRI President followed by OFEK President and Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, Group Relations International and then to Group Relations Australia and currently in transition to Group Relations Taiwan. Effectively this group has been a 3 year Institutional Event or action research project, studying the hypothesis that we are “better together”. The first of its kind, and a rich source of learning about our methods and our integrity and creativity beyond the conference boundary, into a living community of practice.
Hoggett describing Ron Britton’s (1992 p.106 ) essay on Bion’s concept of containment says, “that if experiences cannot be held in the mind then they are either somatised and embodied, hallucinated/projected, or enacted. If a powerful feeling such as resentment is projected then the feeling is displaced onto substitute targets, or scapegoats; it is the other who is seen as resentful, ungrateful or envious, not ourselves.” (Hoggett 2013, p72).
It seems to me that we as group relations practitioners (and theoreticians) have to pay particular attention to our capacity to contain (or not). If we cannot contain, then the ways in which we project, enact or embody our anxieties provide opportunities for us to practice what we preach and adopt an action research methodology to all that we do. In this way, we are applying our art to ourselves in the same way that we invite participants in conferences to engage with representation and authorisation.
This period of pandemic/digitisation, has been a stark and unique era of transition for us all to study and encounter the forces at play in human relations. In particular our relationship to the inner world and its impact on our remote, isolated, quarantined selves in relatedness to the “other”.
The importance of group relations conferences and ways of seeing organisational and social life, are vital for our increasingly unbounded social context. Talking about the mental capacity of an enlightened mind, the following quote also speaks to me of the nature of the group relations learning experience and the mindset of the awakening consultant staff member:
“They don’t know mind is a container that’s always full. Everything flows into it and there’s never a need to hold on to a drop for itself. It's the innocent that watches the whole world come to it. Things enter with their best and worst behaviour, their most shameful, their most glorious, their richest, their poorest. Everything is allowed. It is always vast enough to contain what flows into it. And in it everyone gets what they came for: a look, a glimpse, the gift of love.” (Byron & Mitchell, p. 278)
Arguably, the above quote is the hallmark of the forgiven, no matter what they have done, they are still able to access the gift of love – the absence of judgment – from the other.
Klein, Melanie. (1975). Early stages of the Oedipus conflict. In The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 1, 186-198). (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 9 (1928), 167-180.)
Bion, Wilfred R. (1967). Second Thoughts. London: Karnac
Lawrence WG. (1998). Social Dreaming @ Work. London: Karnac
Byron, K., Mitchell, S. (2017). A Mind at home with itself; Finding Freedom in a world of Suffering. London: Penguin Random House.
Hoggett, P (2013). Governance and Social Anxieties. Organisational and Social Dynamics Vol 13 (1) p69-78.