Updated: Aug 12
This past year I decided to revisit some of the books that made a big impact on me as a young man and see what they look like now, as a guy in his 50s with grown kids. Most of the time I found that the ideas were now so tightly woven into my way of thinking that it was hard to remember how I saw things beforehand. There were a few exceptions, however: especially Gregory Bateson’s “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.” If I were stranded on an island and could take only one book, this would be a top contender.
Bateson was a cross-disciplinary scholar in the truest sense, combining insights from psychology, cybernetics, anthropology, and philosophy. The whole book is remarkable, but just as it had 30 years ago there was one chapter that grabbed my attention immediately: “The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication.” This is where he introduces the idea of “punctuation” in human interaction – a concept that sounds simple at first but has profound implications.
We all recognize that punctuating a sentence differently can change its meaning. (“Let’s eat, Grandpa” is quite different from “Let’s eat Grandpa.”) According to Bateson, however, this same concept can be applied to human interaction.
Let us imagine a husband and wife who have been fighting recently. The wife feels unappreciated by her husband and is chronically angry at him. One day the husband gets off work, but rather than coming straight home, he stops by the pub to have a beer with his coworker. He gets home 30 minutes late and the wife berates him. They get into an argument. Then, their six-year-old daughter starts to cry, and the husband and wife stop arguing and comfort their daughter.
One way to view this is that the husband initiated the whole mess by coming home late and that the wife was merely responding to his bad behavior. Yet one could also see the sequence beginning with the wife’s anger, and the husband reacting to her anticipated hostility with avoidance and beer. And what about the daughter? Is she a victim of her parents’ open conflict, or is she helping to contain the conflict by creating a successful diversion?
These types of patterns tend to recur in loops, so designating one person as an initiator and another as a responder is inherently ambiguous. As Bateson puts it: “…It is up to A and B to distinguish (consciously or unconsciously or not at all) between ‘dominance’ and ‘dependence.’ A ‘command’ can closely resemble a cry for ‘help.’”
He also notes that people tend to develop habits of punctuation that are applied across situations, a process that he refers to as “Learning II.”
We suggest that what is learned in Learning II is a way of punctuating events. But a way of punctuating is not true or false. There is nothing contained in the propositions of this learning that can be tested against reality. It is like a picture seen in an inkblot; it has neither correctness nor incorrectness. It is only a way of seeing the inkblot…
This is not to say that one habit of punctuation is as good as another, however. The way we punctuate events has enormous consequences for how we see ourselves and others, and the decisions we make. For instance, some people routinely assume that the sequence starts with them; they are the architects of their own experience and are generally responsible for events in their lives. If a conversation goes badly, they are apt to question how they could have handled things differently and modify their behavior with the idea of changing future outcomes.
Alternatively, there are those who habitually assume that other people and outside influences are responsible for whatever happens to them and that they are merely responding to the demands placed before them. That is, the sequence starts with someone else’s behavior and their behavior is justified as a reaction to this.
Years ago, I remember interviewing a young man who had been arrested for assault. Someone had been flirting with his girlfriend and he responded by pushing the man to the ground, punching him in the face, and kicking him on the ground. By the time I talked to him, he had already been in jail for a week, but expressed zero remorse. “He disrespected me, so I had to beat his ass,” he remarked. I pointed out that he had a lot of other options: he could have ignored him; he could have told the guy to back off; he could have taken it as a compliment and said something like: “Yeah, she’s hot. And I’m the lucky man who goes home with her at the end of the night.” He found my ideas amusing but unpersuasive. He was convinced that he was simply reacting to someone else’s provocation, and that given identical circumstances he would be compelled to beat him up again. “It’s a shame it had to go down that way,” he observed.
As Bateson points out, once we settle on preferred patterns of punctuation, they tend to be become self-reinforcing. This is because most people are unaware that they are making choices. We assume that because our interpretations are consistent with the data that they are correct, not recognizing that alternate interpretations are also consistent with the data.
People who see themselves as victims in one situation are more likely to see themselves as victims in other situations, and to view society in terms of perpetrators and victims. Similarly, those who see people as inherently good tend to interpret positive actions as manifestations of inherent goodness, while ascribing bad behaviors to ignorance, peer pressure, or other factors that are external to a person’s true nature. As Bateson puts it:
The premises of “purpose” are simply not of the same logical type as the material facts of life, and therefore cannot be easily contradicted by them…In sum, this self-validating characteristic of the content of Learning II has the effect that such learning is almost ineradicable.
Most people’s preferred punctuation styles are not as rigid or extreme as the young assailant I met with, but we all have them. When you see a homeless man do you tend to assume that he has made poor decisions in his life, that he has been traumatized and denied basic opportunities, or that he is simply unlucky? When you fail a test, what are you most likely to say to yourself: “I didn’t study hard enough,” “I guess I’m stupid,” or “That test was bullshit”? Your answers to these questions say something about your preferred style for punctuating events.
Re-reading Bateson’s work after 30 years, it occurred to me that what he was describing was a particular form of insight, perhaps even wisdom. Am I able to recognize my own interpretive style? How do my choices about punctuation affect my life? I like to think I am a little closer to the answers, though I suspect this is a lifelong project.