Sleight of hand, twist of fate
It was dark, at night, in heavy traffic. I could only just make out the shocking scene in front of me. I flipped up my visor and there, in the headlights, I saw a man beating another man badly. Without thinking, I pulled up on my motorcycle and quickly ran over to the assailant, arms outstretched and said, ‘Are you OK?’ He looked at me, puzzled, got back in his car and drove away. The other man, face covered in blood, thanked me…’You just saved my life.’
I felt puzzled too. I was astonished that I had approached the attacker with compassion and yet also noticed how it had diffused rather than inflamed the situation. DeBono calls this ‘lateral thinking’ – to do the counter-intuitive as a way of creating shift. It felt to me like God’s surprising wisdom. It was an important learning moment for me too. What can our actions inadvertently evoke in others? How far do we actually create what we experience?
Then I’m in Germany. I had been an anti-Nazi activist since I was 15 and here I was in the midst of a Christian social work project that aimed to influence neo-Nazi youth by reaching out to them. It ran against everything I felt and believed. Surely – we must oppose these people vehemently rather than open our arms to them?! And yet, over time, I learned important things about their psychology. Attacking would have stiffened their resolve and reinforced their beliefs.
Now to 9-11. Appalling scenes on TV and people crying out for revenge. I remember my first words: ‘We need to think very carefully before we respond. What reaction is Al Qaeda trying to provoke and what will that achieve for them?’ It was a complex situation and a controversial stance and yet, years later, the Middle East is in flames, Islamist extremism is spreading, the West lives in fear of terror and refugees are pouring across borders at unprecedented levels.
I think Gestalt psychology can offer critical insight here. Figure and ground: figure is what holds our attention, ground is the backdrop that provides the context yet lays out of awareness. So here we are in the EU with problems of rising nationalism. The far right parties hold our attention, provide a focus for our fear and scorn, yet the conditions that fuel their support, that drive people towards them, lay unexamined, out of consciousness, out of the spotlight.
Like a magician that tricks by misdirection, we can find our attention drawn to the person, the issue that lays immediately in front of our eyes and miss the vital background. It’s so tempting to go for it. We can feel justified in our actions, feel better about ourselves, yet how often do we compound the issue by what we do? How far are we creating the monsters that keep us awake at night? How can we spot the sleight of hand that deceives us so convincingly?
30/6/2016 08:19:20 pm
I also think there's something here about competing motivations too. So in the referendum the potential damage to the economy caused by exiting became a big issue. Yet I wonder how many of those who voted Remain are keen recyclers and want to do something about the ongoing damage to the environment. And yet the consumer driven economic model we currently sustain is a, if not the , major contributor to all the damage we do to the environment. So exiting and allowing the economy to slow or even break and allowing us to re-shape how we think about consumption requires us to give up comfort and all the luxuries that we have become used to. How much easier to ignore the ground when nudged that way by our own self-interests?
1/7/2016 07:02:59 pm
Hi Adrian. I think those are really interesting points. What we notice (or not) and what meaning we attribute to it is filtered and shaped by our beliefs, values, passions, interests, concerns etc. It means we can become fixed (or fixated) on what we notice, what stands out to us, and not be at all aware of the background.
Dr Joanna Wilde
30/6/2016 08:37:16 pm
Personal and political - how they intersect and yet never touch.
30/6/2016 08:38:12 pm
Hi Joanna. That sounds very mysterious and profound! :) Could you say a bit more? I'm intrigued. All the best. Nick
1/7/2016 05:38:37 am
It is all circumstantial. We are basically profundity driven beings but somewhere due to our journeys get muddled up. I am talking from a very spiritual angle here..which is neither religious nor political.
1/7/2016 08:50:04 am
Hi Suman. Thanks for the note. I have to confess that I don't understand what you mean. Perhaps it's me who is muddled up! Can you say a bit more? All the best. Nick
1/7/2016 06:36:09 am
Thought provoking Nick. It is easy to see only the surface here and now, make an uninformed judgement on it based on the strength of our limited exposure to the reality of the situation. As you say the real truth lies behind. I think we would benefit from the complete story, we would be more compassionate towards fleeing refugees and would be more capable as humans of dealing with shocking events.
1/7/2016 07:20:35 pm
Thanks Susanne. I think this is where a systemic perspective can help. If we step back to try to understand, 'what is causing or influencing what', it can help us predict perverse incentives and prevent unintended consequences. This itself can raise all kinds of ethical and policy dilemmas. One of the most controversial recently has been the question of whether the EU should prioritise providing asylum for unaccompanied adults. As some of my colleagues in the INGO sector have said to me, - off the record - as soon as we do that (understandable as it is compassion-wise), it risks incentivising people to send even greater numbers of unaccompanied children to the EU. In other words, the action we take to address an issue may turn out to the the very action that exaccerbates the issue. The reason my colleagues say this 'offline' is because it's hard to explain to a passionate public without inflaming the debate further. In other words, the strategy and policy debate is often given impetus, guided, skewed or silenced by the prevailing public mood. Another tricky thing is that situations we face are often so complex and fast moving that it's hard to know at any point in time what is causing what and what the consequences of an action might be. This can leave us feeling perplexed, confused and stuck. Against that backdrop, we need great courage, wisdom and humility. Not easy! All the best. Nick
1/7/2016 06:36:58 am
This is years of ...can I say 'deceit'...that has been ingrained into our minds Nick. We are made to be mesmerized by the sleight of hands:That we are truly the puppets of a brilliant puppeteer. Politics (something i never took interest in), news, disasters, national incidents, you name it, the details have all been manipulated and we are so cleverly guided to focus on aspects that were set in front of us as the 'Figure'. We all know this yet we fall for this trick time and again. Monsters are created. Monsters are fed. Monsters grow. The 'ground' remains unexplored. And the few who does explore, well, they do nothing about it either. As the majority prefers to sit back enjoy the magic show 😋
1/7/2016 07:36:25 pm
Hi Ericka and thanks for the note. Yes, we are so saturated with messages via media (including social media), politicians, advertising, 'experts' etc. that it can be hard to discern what is real, what is 'true' etc. During the recent UK referendum, for instance, campaigners on both sides presented 'facts' to support their respective cases. I didn't hear anyone be honest enough to admit that they were construing the facts to create a specific meaning or conclusion...and that there could be very different ways of construing the same facts. An example is newspaper headline today that said: 'House prices hit by Brexit fallout'. The same facts could have been presented as, say: 'House prices following Brexit vote make more homes more affordable for less wealthy people.' This means that continual awareness, critical thinking, healthy scepticism and challenging public debate are increasingly important for democratic societies. I believe a starting point is to be aware of our own tendency to self-delusion combined with an actively curious spirit. I think this is where fields such as Gestalt and social constructionism can provide invaluable insight. Or alternatively...as you way, we can always sit back and enjoy the magic show! :) All the best. Nick
11/10/2019 04:08:16 am
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