The sting in the Rose Garden – how Dominic Cummings used a double bind to suspend reason

The sting in the Rose Garden

How Dominic Cummings changed the rules of debate while his oblivious audience nodded along

Mark McKergow

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

5 responses

  1. James Linley | Reply

    A good article and sums up my view on his personal response to this shambles (although I clearly don’t have the insight into the methods of Gregory Bateson!). The response by the both he and the Government has been hapless for two reasons (if you accept Cummings’ explanation that he didn’t break the rules): 1) The message has been muddied unequivocally 2) In a time of national crisis, for ten days, Cummings has been the story, not the response to the crisis and what we should be doing.

  2. The linguistic sleight of hand is clever. But I am reminded of a comment by critics of Harold Wilson when he was PM. It went ‘At least Harold Wilson is consistent. Every time he speaks he is lying’. Cummings is pathologically intelligent which is because he is probably pathological in his behaviour. To me this trick just proves everything he does and says is unhealthy. I would love to hear your insight into what is the long term goal of this clever political strategist because his whole gameplay is built on sleight of hand, he either dazzles people with his intelligence or infuriates them with his behaviour, all designed to distract us from his true purpose. What do you think that is?

    1. I am really not sure Chris. He seems to operate outside the norms of politics, and so is very difficult to read. He has certainly exposed our political constitution, based on conventions, as a hollow form, as he is content to break the conventions, take the approbrium and reveal that there are no teeth again people who prorogue parliament illegally, refuse to appear before select committees etc. He seemingly doesn’t representative democracy (he was closely involved in the campaign against a North East of England assembly in 2004) and prefers to operate behind the scenes. Perhaps he will end up like Rasputin?

      1. The article was very interesting and picked up on a seemingly minor but insightful point, so thanks for posting. Trump, Johnson and Cummings all remind me of dangerous abused kids I worked with in care. It is like they want strokes but never give them back, except as aggression or smooth talk. Their needs or goals are not external but internal which means they are never attained and may never be consciously known. They attract other abused kids like magnets. Interesting reading on Linkedin, thanks.

      2. Oh p.s. Great blog I am reading through it.

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