26 Feb 2013

Staying Together For The Voters

By Zoe Krupka
Does the political debate ever make you feel like a child caught between two badly behaved parents? It's no wonder the Greens-Labor split is being talked about as a 'divorce', writes News Therapist Zoe Krupka
People really love a divorce. Folks like to get in there, take sides, hang on tight and not let go. A marriage is usually a quickie when it comes to journalism — a photo spread and an invite list — but the divorce press goes on and on. Jennifer Aniston will reprise her role as the tragic divorcee ad nauseum and Katie Holmes will forever be known as an escaped prisoner of war.

And it doesn't matter if it was a marriage of convenience either. We don't seem to care a whit about the quality of the marriage; when things fall apart we still want to get down the front and cheer on our team, seemingly oblivious to what we're bringing in of our own games.

Take the analysis of the Greens/Labor split. Imagine you're at the doctor's office and it's written up in Who magazine. The only changes needed to fit that format would be a couple of photos of Christine Milne looking forlorn, an inset of Bob Brown and some snaps of Julia looking self righteous. And all this next to a list of who did what to whom; the promises made and honoured and the ones apparently broken; the asset split; and the fear for the country of their children if they can no longer bring themselves to work together.

I've had umpteen conversations about the split over the last couple of weeks, and somehow they all drift into the territory of break up language. Milne is being precious. She knew what she was getting into when she signed on the dotted line. She got everything Julia promised her, so how can she leave now? Sour grapes. She's letting a good thing go. The Greens will go back to powerless protesting when they could have had real clout behind them.

On the other side of this potent linking of political conflict with personal tragedy, are the conversations about how the Greens need to go back to what they stand for. How this marriage has compromised them, watered them down, stolen their fire. How Julia was never a good partner or a true friend. What were they thinking? We're glad it's over. Now the Greens can go back to being true to themselves. They're better off alone.

As for the divorce metaphor itself, it's been done to death. All we've got left is a cliché. What started out as an analogy designed to give us an image of what's happening has become a kind of thinking straightjacket.

Metaphor is a kind of projection. And a great projection can help us see simultaneously what's inside ourselves and what's also in the thing we're looking at. The problem with metaphor is that because it's a projection, if we're not really willing to look at ourselves, then the picture we're trying to describe gets smaller and smaller as we continue to run away from what we see.

Listen to your friends who feel stuck in unhappy relationships or jobs they hate. I guarantee you the tired old metaphors will be flying. I had a client years ago who used to refer to his wife as "the handbrake". This was not a man who was on the point of leaving or trying to work towards something better with his partner. Just the opposite. It took him a long time to take responsibility for his own life, and the metaphors were a signpost not so much of his discontent but of his desire to resign himself to unhappiness.

By referring to his wife as something that stopped him from getting anywhere, he was unknowingly saying that he blamed her for his lack of freedom. He felt frustrated with his life and not responsible for it at the same time.

As things got better for him, he started to describe his world in more detail, and the metaphors became less hackneyed and more personal. But in the process he kept going back to the image of the handbrake because it was that metaphor that held the heart of his struggle to drive his own life and still be connected to another.

That's what makes this divorce talk so catchy. We want to understand this bitter separation so we use the closest personal experience we have: divorce. It's ubiquitous contemporary shorthand for a conflict that ends with division rather than some kind of functional reconciliation. And it gets our attention because it's one of the great struggles of our lives. How can I stay close to someone I disagree bitterly with when the consequences of ending the relationship will hurt us both?

It's understandable that we use metaphor here. I'm not asking us to stick to the facts, whatever those are. But here the divorce analogy has lost its way. It's become a kind of lazy phrase we throw around that tells us a lot more about ourselves than it does about the end of a political alliance. We could be focusing on policy, but instead we're stuck in rhetoric. We've forgotten that this is in fact a metaphor. We've mistaken the analogy for the real thing.

So we may as well be reading about Tom and Katie. Whatever part of the political playing field we're on, I think there is still a kind of hidden innate human sadness when we're shown the reality of the impossibility of playing together. When issues that are fundamental to our survival are being addressed in a system where working together is either structurally impossible or mere strategy.

We can't stop the divorce chatter because it's become a way for us to avoid our own responsibility for a political system that is continually disappointing us. If we could pick the metaphor apart to look at what we're really saying, we would have to face that for many of us, we feel like the children of badly behaved divorcing parents; simultaneously disgusted and bitterly disappointed that our needs seem to come last.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day

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Posted Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 16:50

krisp 'n krunchy

Whether my "parents", Labor and the Greens, are divorcing or not, I have been feeling disenfranchised by both of them for a long time now, as Zoe describes, "simultaneously disgusted and bitterly disappointed that our needs seem to come last."

We want our parties to look after US, their constituents, individually and as a whole. It is to the Greens that I have turned in recent years, as a result of Labor becoming less and less equality focussed, like a greedy self-centred narcissistic Dad, slowly reaching rock-bottom, especially once the "family" could see that his enormous ego was the source of all the trouble. He was then forced to make a pact with Mum, the Greens, who needed him too.

Now, Mum has the more egalitarian approach, so I am all for her. I am just worried that she won't have enough support to make it on her own. My fear won't help her though, so I will honour my principles and give her my full support anyway.

Living in fear is not pleasant, but lack of support from those who are meant to look after us, especially the more vulnerable ones, leaves us little choice. Perhaps I am living in the metaphor too, but life without Mum and/or Dad to look after us seems pretty grim; aka the Liberal Party.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. outrider
Posted Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 22:46

I agree, the analogy with a marriage is ridiculous. Marriage is supposed to be for better or worse for ever, political alliances are strictly for the length of the parliament. The best analogy is a contract between two companies to supply and to purchase over a period. Towards the end both parties will be looking at their options.

The so-called split does not change the Greens' support for supply, merely that they are putting some distance between themselves and the ALP during the campaign (who wouldn't wanr to?). They have to differentiate their policies, otherwise they will simply disappear. Very sensible.

Posted Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - 13:00

Perhaps it has something to do with my age, but Parliamentarians in dispute always appear far more like squabbling siblings to me. And the media, supposed to be a mediator presenting both sides impartially, only serves to amplify the disputes and disagreements, happy to create a newsworthy story by picking on/e side or the other.
The break-up will do both parties good, as it just wasn't working out the way the ALP or the Greens wanted it to.
Now Gillard can be free to determine ALP policies to a more centralist position and the Greens can resume their preferred position further to the Left.
This will inevitably push the Coaltion even further to the Right, where they may feel uncomfortable, because they are well aware of the centralist position they also want to retain.