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Alcoholism, Game Theory and Peace in the Middle East

The world continues to watch with dismay as killing continues in the Middle East. I might say senseless killing but to those who instigate the acts it makes all the sense in their world.

How can this issue even remotely relate to alcoholism?

Gregory Bateson was a social scientist and anthropologist with an interest in systems and relationships. In 1971 he published a seminal work, “The Cybernetics of Self: A Theory of Alcoholism.” Bateson determined that alcoholic struggle for sobriety was part of an errant “Occidental stance.” He believed the success of the mutual aid group Alcoholics Anonymous was due to a change in epistemology, the alcoholic’s way of knowing and being in the world. For Bateson, an examination of the type of relationship within the system was paramount in effecting change. Bateson identified two primary relationship types: “symmetrical” and “complementary.”

Symmetrical relationships are competitive: Like-Like (think nuclear proliferation). They are part of a zero-sum game. In addiction, sobriety competes with non-sobriety. As action “A” (sobriety) occurs, so does the counter action of “B” (non-sobriety). Not only does Other compete with Other, other competes with anti-Other.

Bateson reminds us that in a system, parts operate from within and cannot have unilateral control over the whole. His view was that the alcoholic doesn’t overtly will drunkenness- he commands sobriety and then is disobeyed…

In the same global sense, as long as one is in a “black and white” relationship, war might not necessarily be planned, but easily becomes the correction of non-war. Pride (whether alcoholic, tribal, sectarian or national) narrows the concept of self and assumes a naïve sense of control while placing events/blame outside its scope. If countries in conflict believe they hold separate, indisputable self-evident truths and can only continue in symmetrical relationships, there can be no resolution.

Complementary relationships foster differences (Unlike-unlike) yet allow for “goodness of fit.” In alcoholic recovery, conversion is a shift from a symmetrical relationship to a complementary view.   The alcoholic “gives it up” to a higher power.

(In light of this treatise, ‘higher power’ in the addiction world was never intended to be an exclusionary entity).   His fight for sobriety, which he cannot win, is relinquished.

Paradoxically in doing so he bridges the self/other gap, expanding his world by becoming part of something “bigger than himself.” It can be, in the burying of pride, celebratory o differences and at the same time expansive of one’s scope.

Politically, there are many opportunities in the Middle East for potential complementary shifts. One example could be Israel transferring control of occupied territory. An example of overcoming “pride” to expand one’s own scope could be Palestine’s acknowledgement of Israel’s “right to be.” (Whether “other” would be less likely envisaged in a one-state vs. two-state environment remains to be seen.)

But how to sit at the table and change the relationship? Part of the inherent difficulty in peace talks is the mistrust not only of “other,” but the inclusion of a mediating 3rd party into that system.

Another shift could be for the dialectic to occur via a truly neutral party, rather than standard political entities. A number of years ago in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, theNobel Peace Prize-nominated Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh led a retreat. He joined together the unlikely couple of “law enforcement” and the concept of “compassion.”

The results were surprisingly positive and powerful.

A mindful apolitical Zen master leading a Middle Eastern peace talk process?

We could do worse.

References.

Bateson G. The Cybernetics of “Self”: A Theory of Alcoholism. Psychiatry. 1971 Feb;34(1):1-18.

Wald H. “Introduction to Dialectical Logic”, Editura Academiei 1975

Morrow J.D. “Game Theory for Political Scientists”, Princeton University Press 1994

Armstrong K. “The Battle for God”, Ballantine Books 2001

Bures F. “Zen and the Art of Law Enforcement,” The Christian Science Monitor.       Sept. 25, 2003

Miller A.D. “The Much Too Promised Land”, Bantam 2008

Gorenberg, G. “The Unmaking of Israel”, Harper Collins 2011.

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Andrew McLean is a psychiatrist in the U.S. Midwest.

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