Dividing Practises – the cause of so much human unhappiness

I’ve been surprised about how disappointed I feel about Britain’s decision to exit the E.U. At first I thought it was just about my own selfish pleasure. I love the feeling of getting to Europe, putting my passport away and then moving freely around all those countries that 70 years ago were busy killing each other.

Both my parents embedded in me a fear of war and cultural dividing practises – being Maltese and living through the WW11 they definitely understood the impact of misuse of power expressed as racism.

So when Marijo asked if I would write something on racism and family therapy for my July blog, initially I felt I needed more time, but as I listened to what was going on in Britain since their exit vote, I thought it timely.  Especially when I caught myself saying to a friend: “Those dumb Poms, how can they be so stupid?” Currently I do feel hostile towards them, even though I know so many also disagree with what’s happened. If the media is to be believed many Brits are  now realising, too late, that they had fallen under the voice of fear and racism, voiced through the  pedalling of  a simple solution – “lets get out of the E.U and all will be well.”

So let’s start with a definition of racism from the Macquarie Dictionary – 1. the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others.

This style of thinking applies to more than race, it also commonly happens within any group of humans where one person believes they are in someway superior to another and so they should get the right to impose their will on others. These same people usually believe that personality is a fixed phenomena, for example; little Johnny is always bad.

The theories utilised by family therapists help us work with shifting this idea of a fixed identity. We believe that identity is created through our significant relationships. It’s the quality of our relationships that define our current characteristics, regardless of culture or race. With this thinking it’s impossible to make generalisations. Consequently everything becomes more complex – and this, I think, is a major problem – if a person has trouble managing complexity then they fall victim to simple solutions.

Obviously a group of muslim's but we can make no other assumptions about who they are.
All these different people – we can make no assumptions about them even though they’re all in Melbourne.


Whether it’s a family who is scapegoating a child, or an individual blaming a whole race, or a country blaming a cultural subgroup – the process of thinking is the same. To some extent the content is irrelevant, it’s the problem solving mechanism that is dangerous. This is because it denies the right of another to be acknowledged on their own merit. In effect, who you are disappears, oppressed by the description that another has stuck onto you. If they are in a position of power and can recruit others to support their view then something fundamental to our wellbeing has been lost. There is no acceptance of another to being valid being in their own right – there is an absence of acceptance and in turn love. Instead there is hatred and fear, and if this becomes a fixed state chronically high levels of cortisol will be produced, jeopardising empathy and abstract thought.

Does this bird have a right to exist and enjoy the sun on a winters day?
Does this bird have a right to exist and enjoy the sun on a winters day?

Every culture has good and bad people within it. Likewise every family. We all have problems and struggles. It’s what we do with these issues that defines us. If hate and fear are the emotions underpinning our actions then we end up with policies like our current shameful refugee policy.

To help us think about how come we do what we do, I’m going to draw on the work of pioneer family therapist,  Murray Bowen. He gave family therapists concepts that still very much influence our work. In particular The Genogram – a tool for clarifying the different patterns of behaviour being handed down through the generations, it’s like a family  emotional map. One of the aims for doing this is to enhance differentiation. By this I mean – the ability to respond to situations in our  own right, thinking and feeling what is right for us and recognising that does not mean it’s right for everyone else.

Racist thinking or the belief that you know what’s right for everyone, is generally a way of operating in the world that has been handed down from our family of origin. Likewise, if there has been enough love, there might be a belief about accepting difference.  Most families pass down a complex mix of emotional heirlooms and ways of doing things. Our history does influence us. This may be either directly, and so people do the same as in the past; or as a guide on what not to do, and so people try and do something different to what has gone before

Learning to self regulate is a significant key to remaining differentiated, this is when we are able to be responsive and not reactive to hate and fear. Bearing in mind that these emotions are contagious but so is love and kindness. If we have grown in a family that is fearful and blaming it’s hard for us to find a way comfort our selves and trust in the world and so easy for us to fall victim to simple good/bad solutions and misuse of power.

If we have been raised with enough love and so more or less trust in the world and our own intuition, it’s confusing when others see threat that you can’t see. With enough love we can be grateful for what we have and respect the position of others. With fear – comes hate and resentment the expectation that someone else is responsible for making our life work.

Cosmopolitan Melbourne. How lucky are we to be here.
Cosmopolitan Melbourne. How lucky are we to be here.

Inciting fear is a tried and true mechanism of gaining control. It also sells things whether it’s fear of bacteria lurking on the kitchen bench or being the victim of someones dangerous behaviour and so the need for extra security . One could argue fear is good for our economy!  It’s no wonder racism and misuse of power are alive and well.