The sting in the Rose Garden
How Dominic Cummings changed the rules of debate while his oblivious audience nodded along
In all the analysis and discussion of Dominic Cummings’ Rose Garden statement, one curious sentence has so far gone unremarked, even in the filleting of the wordsmithing by legal commentator David Allen Green. Towards the end, Cummings says this: “I accept, of course, that there is room for reasonable disagreement about this.”
This looks like a generous admission of uncertainty, an acknowledgement of conflicting demands, and an olive branch towards critics. He adds “of course” to make it sound even more like an innocent and everyday acceptance of the difficulties of his position.
It is nothing of the kind. Cummings has pulled what therapists call a ‘double bind’ on us all. Once we accept this statement, as has everyone did on the day and in subsequent debate (including Nick Robinson interviewing Health Sectretary Matt Hancock on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (2:18:31), there is no way out. Cummings’ position is unchallengeable.
It works like this. We have agreed that there is room for reasonable disagreement. Therefore any ‘reasonable’ disagreement cannot be decisive, as there is room for it without changing position. Any ‘unreasonable’ disagreement, however, is as unimpressive as it always was. The only other options are to agree or to say nothing – both of which accept Cummings’ position.
So no amount of disagreement, reasonable or not, can change the situation as offered by Cummings. What he has achieved, in relation to his own position, is to dismiss reason (and presumably its trusty sidekick logic) from the field of play.
The double-bind communication paradox was first noticed by anthropologist and systems thinking pioneer Gregory Bateson and his colleagues at the Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto California in the 1950s. It has been employed for decades in strategic and systemic therapies as a way of looking at stuck situations and a means of producing new responses in those suffering mental ill-health.
I had no idea on Sunday afternoon that Dominic Cummings was about to employ it to hoodwink us all into suspending logic and reason from interfering with his family adventures. I hope that by shining a light onto his sleight of hand I can make journalists, interviewers, commentators and citizens more aware of what is being done, and how, in our name.
Mark McKergow is an author, speaker and consultant. He is currently working on a book about the development of Gregory Bateson’s ideas in the therapy world for Routledge.
Thursday 28 May 2020