Credit: Kai de Fontenay / Father and daughter, Cambridge 1978
We live in a world in which distrust and greed and violence masquerade as common sense, and in which the pathways of distrust and greed and violence are rapidly becoming self-validating. By following those pathways we create the social and international structures, the premises upon which we must live. By choosing the “common sense” of distrust, we choose also the progressive truth of distrust. We cause horror to become the only pathway to wisdom.
Gregory Bateson, letter to the UC Regents 1979.
I keep these letters from my father, Gregory Bateson to the University of California Regents close. While they are not personal mementos, they are beautiful treasures that speak deeply to me. They remind me how to think with a bigger heart, and bigger perspective. His wisdom in these pieces continues to be a source of both goodness in the world, and of dire warning. For those of us who consider ourselves “systems thinkers” I think these letters are worth studying. They illustrate a kind of perceptive reach into the meta-meanings of events and deeds that can otherwise be taken at more surface levels, and misunderstood.
The way in which he was able to see the more interrelational information in a situation remains staggeringly fresh, and difficult to get one’s head around. As the world’s crisis alarms are going off in all directions with immigration, climate, political, religious extremism, terrorism, and pending economic crash, it is more relevant now than ever that people come together and at least support a curiosity of the kind of reality that Gregory was pointing to.
In his reality, trust is not one dimensional.
Nor, is evil.
Nor is cynicism.
Nor is the responsibility of those who sit in positions of either authority or wisdom.
The shift he is directing our attention to in these letters is one of multi-dimensional integrity.
It takes courage to advocate for the unseen premises upon which our society is composting into both rot, and new life. Death is a necessary part of living systems, and life with death in it is inherently generative. So the goodness of life itself must remain intrinsic to the “thinking”, “doing” and “acting” at the bone level. Death is death, but death that creates appetite and normalcy of distrust, and greed is another matter, and one that we need to be very, very careful with. It matters. He says:
Chalk up the distinction between the act of hurting somebody, which may be subject to simple negative reinforcement, and a habit of offence such that each act springs from a philosophy which prefers harm in this second case. I shall say the process which led to this philosophy is evil. In the first case the act is merely bad. And the difference between the two is related to the notion of addiction – progressive and partly irreversible habit formation. Gregory Bateson, letter to the UC Regents 1979
“A civilization which is not worth fighting for” /
Gregory is offering a substantial teaching through these pieces, though many will not see the subtlety of the shift he illustrates. And, what he is saying is also acutely relevant. Though these letters are now several decades old, their subject matter: resurfacing of the nuclear threat, the reigniting of distrust of the Russians, are both back in the forefront of socio-political worry. Gregory could not have known that in 2017 people would be fretting over social media stories, but somehow he foresaw the confusion that would bloom into a trillion toxic binaries… and that for us in this future moment there would still be confusion around where to focus the conversation about what sort of world this is becoming. Ouch.
…I am totally out of sympathy with the whole business of nuclear weaponry. I believe that a university should have no connection to such folly, such evil. It is like a church or a hospital. The munitions of war should never be stored in such places or shipped in hospital ships etc. not just because churches are ancient monuments or to save the wounded but because the civilization which puts materials of war in its hospital ships and attacks hospital ships with torpedoes, bombs churches, etc is precisely a civilization which is not worth fighting for. Gregory Bateson-letter to the UC Regents 1979
A tender, and careful process /
My question now, 37 years after these letters were written is:
Who are we?
Who are we?
Who ARE we?
The question is not whether or not universities should house research on nuclear weaponry. The question is what kind of society asks that question?
In this moment, when ecological shifts are in play, and our entire species is at a junction along with thousands of others, what is the tonality of our conversation? What is the color-spectrum, the harmony, the substance and meaning of our days? Those of us who are alive in this moment are participants in this historic period of transformation. Thinking habits in today’s world, or addictions as GB would call them, are patterned into “solutions” silos, and are action oriented. But this implies a kind of surface level linear approach. You will notice Gregory’s analysis is carefully holding relational and communicational arcs, and is not located in the obvious binary of the “yes” or “no” question. He is interested in the context in which these questions have arisen. To his understanding, responding to the binary will only bring more distrust, more misunderstanding, and more errors.
Gathering together toward the work of systems shift is a thankless and glamorless job. There is neither money to be made, nor heroics to be given. In a world that recognizes “deeds”, the profound influence of ideas is often invisible. The “doing” is a consequence of the ideas and in that spirit, the cultivation of ideas is a tender, and careful process. It requires mutual learning.
Revolutionary, and evolutionary /
At the peace table, at the change-makers conference, at the climate convention, and at the dinner table with your children, how much are we all looking to establishment to provide the path to a new perception? But it will not come from the institutions. Notice that these letters are all about Gregory resigning, ducking out, and retreating from taking part in these institutional processes. Why? Should he not be trying to produce change from within the system? No. Harsh though it may sound these letters are a call for us today to look to one another and create a context from which to discuss the context. That means the possibility for the survival of our species is with you and me, not any ministry, or organization.
The liminal realm in which we live is where the shifts are. Our integrity from one moment to the next, from one conversation to the next is everything. To take the risk of trusting each other is revolutionary, and evolutionary. Are we trustworthy?
It is a matter of levels of treachery. In actual warfare any trick can, perhaps, be condoned, but woe to the man or nation who uses treachery in the negotiations about war. At the peace table, treachery must always be ultimately suicidal. –Gregory Bateson, letter to the UC Regents, 1979
Nora Bateson, 2017
Nora Bateson, founder and president of the International Bateson Institute, award- winning film-maker, and author of Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns (2016).
It is a great privilege and a profound honour for NWCC to have these unpublished and highly relevant Gregory Bateson-letters on our website. Thanks to Nora Bateson for the introduction and to the Bateson Idea Group for the permission to publish!