Time is (Way) Out of Joint: On Systems, Politics, and Truth


It is difficult for an adversary to see further than the dichotomy between winning and losing in the adversarial combat. Like a chess player, he is always tempted to make a tricky move, to get a quick victory. The discipline, always to look for the best move on the board, is hard to attain and hard to maintain. The player must have his eye always on a longer view, a larger gestalt.– Time is Out of Joint (Bateson, 2002, p. 223)

Bateson wrote the above in a letter to the Regents of the University of California in 1978. He was arguing for change, but he insisted that change must only follow a rigorous examination of its potential effects on the larger systems of which the university system was only a small part. He strongly opposed the idea of the university entering the political fray; of coming down on the side of liberalism or conservatism. I wonder what Bateson would have thought of life in the early 2020s. When I consider the vastness of his vision and try to bring it to bear on the absurdities of our own scene, my mind reels. In a debate between an anti-masker and an 80-year-old COVID-19 patient on whether one should wear masks, would he have found a way not to take sides? What would he have said to Black transgender people, who are shown almost weekly, with every new murder (Human Rights Campaign, 2020), that their lives are worth less to our society than White, cisgender ones? When each new crisis is worse, where is the time we need to reflect and comprehend the “larger gestalt?” How do we not act with urgency?

Questions like these may emerge in your own clinical work. However, they usually emerge subtly, woven through the interpersonal fabric of everyday decisions. The following is a heavily disguised account of a clinical situation that is likely familiar to most readers of this magazine: a couple in which one partner hails from a family who occupies a spot on the American “political spectrum” that is far from the couple’s own. Two exacerbating factors arise from the world scene: COVID-19 and the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.

Ben, a White cisgender gay man in his 40s, is a social worker living in Chicago with his husband, Jeff. Most of Ben’s family are professionals in the wealthy western suburbs of Saint Louis. As quarantine dragged on into weeks of Zoom-saturated sameness, Ben found himself missing family more and more. As the holidays approached, he pictured himself and Jeff on a long visit to the home of his sister, Heather, and his two nephews. Late in summer, Ben put the question to Jeff. Could they manage an extended visit?

“Are you sure they’re following precautions?” Jeff inquired. Ben shrugged. Still in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of summer, it may not have occurred to him to ask. And Ben, being an agreeable and accommodating type (like many therapists), didn’t really know how to ask. Still, Ben went forward with asking Heather if the guest bedroom would be available for a few weeks. Heather replied that they could stay as long or briefly as they would like. Her house is their house. Immediately, Ben noted this as extreme (and wonderful) generosity. Genuine, certainly, and motivated by a desire to be close to Ben and his husband, but infused, also, with longing. A longing rooted in their family history. There was a time when they were all together under the same roof with both parents. There was a rhythm to life.

In the present, however, the time is (way) out of joint. Ben and his sister live in very different worlds. She is an attorney who defends corporations against labor unions. Ben is a caseworker whose job is often to help individuals, couples, and families adapt to the decisions of corporations. Power differentials are a fact of life. Heather sees these differentials as rooted in an optimal political structure: the free market. In her world, the market decides who has power and who does not. Opportunities are distributed impartially. Misfortune, while inevitable, must be managed in a spirit of rugged individualism.

Time Out Of Joint - peopleWhat Ben didn’t see coming, or hoped wouldn’t come, was a clash of cultures between his right-leaning sister and his husband. Ben’s husband, Jeff, hails from a working-class background and raised three children from infancy to adulthood. While he was raising his kids, Jeff worked as a blackjack dealer at the riverboat casinos along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. This was not work that he enjoyed. He became well acquainted with the rude, selfish, impulsive, vicious aspects of human behavior. Drunk, bloviating men could throw away more money in a single night than he would make in a year. Sometimes, a young adult would blow their student loan refund check on a bad bet. Jeff had to get used to being called names, screamed at, belittled, ignored. All the while, cameras would record Jeff’s every move. A small arithmetic mistake or a flash of retributive anger could get him fired. The cultural seeds were planted for conflict to blossom.

The first couple of weeks of the visit, from Ben’s perspective, were joyful. From Jeff’s perspective, not so much. Jeff largely kept to himself while Ben worked from his sister’s basement. When he did interact with the family, Jeff found that Ben’s nephews frequently had friends over, and no one wore masks. For Heather, the added risks were acceptable to support the kids’ social development. Plus, nobody they knew had come down with the virus yet.

Secluded in the guest room in the evenings, quiet conflict would flare between Ben and Jeff. At this rate, Jeff would never feel safe visiting his elderly father, for whom the coronavirus presented a clear threat. He knew it would be like this, Jeff said, but he didn’t say anything for fear of disappointing Ben. And Ben hadn’t said anything to Heather for fear of insulting her.

The pandemic wasn’t the only problem. Differences of culture and economic privilege began to emerge. Educated in systems theory, Ben saw an interactive cycle take shape, usually around the dinner table. Heather would discuss her frustration with labor laws or celebrate a legal victory against an aggrieved laborer, and Jeff would withdraw. Heather might start a political discussion, and just as Jeff started to participate, Heather’s legal mind would kick into gear, driven by a passion for ideas that was sparked at her childhood dinner table and cultivated through years of higher education. As bright and articulate as Jeff naturally is, he was not raised to disagree with a benefactor, and they were under Heather’s roof. So, Jeff might voice a contrasting opinion, but with little of his usual spirit. All the while, Heather could tell Jeff’s personality was getting smaller the longer he stayed in the house. This added an undercurrent of sadness to an otherwise happy time. In the evenings, while they sat around talking, it seemed to Heather that she had a taste of the family wholeness she had been missing for years. She had opened her home and her heart to Jeff, so why did he seem so uncomfortable?

Things did not end well. The couple left after their own arguments became intolerable, and they left abruptly with little explanation. In an anguished text, Heather asked her brother “What did I do wrong?” Of course, from Ben’s perspective, she’d done nothing wrong. And neither had Jeff. They had both just been themselves. Two profoundly different lifetimes had intersected under a single roof. Any real fault, Ben said, lay with him and his longing for a dose of normalcy in the midst of a pandemic that was shaking the world. Ben let that longing override Jeff’s concerns about different levels of comfort with COVID-19 precautions.

On a first-order level, certainly Ben showed some emotional intelligence or communication skills deficits that, once addressed, could have helped him predict conflicts and negotiate differences before they became too severe. But I wonder if Ben’s case reflects something about the larger situation in which we find ourselves. What can systemic therapists do in a system as polarized as the United States in 2021? You might be tempted to find some solution that involves “rising above it,” “taking a larger perspective,” or as my beloved mentor, Ray Becvar would put it, “going meta.” But Ben’s case also involved differences of power and culture that perhaps could not have been painted over with skills training interventions.

Systemic therapy has been criticized for having an apolitical stance that, by ignoring the workings of power in the therapy room, reinforces existing power differentials (Featherstone, 1996). Second-order cybernetics has been proposed as a solution: do not try to hover above the political chessboard. Instead, be in the game, but as a player who removes obstacles to free and respectful dialogue (Krippendorff, 1996). OK—and I’m grossly simplifying here—second-order cybernetics would have us admit our biases, remind everyone of our shared goals of getting along and loving each other. Sounds good. But the environment of the present contains some serious obstacles to singing folk songs around a campfire. Finding common ground can be a lengthy and difficult process; it’s much faster and more immediately reinforcing to escape to the validation and safety we can find in a media bubble. After all, if a family member disagrees with us, we have only to glance at our own phones to Google up a list of opposing talking points. The “echo chamber” theory states that individuals tend to seek out media that confirms their own biases, leading to increased ideological polarization; this theory has been criticized, as politically interested people may try to avoid echo chambers (Dubois & Blank, 2018).

But wait, aren’t we the profession that is OK with everyone having their own truth? Don’t we specialize in finding ways to get along without a common view of reality? Our postmodern theories of family therapy emphasize the plural and context-bound nature of truth (Becvar, 2003). However, it’s getting harder and harder to set aside the notion of truth when untruth is such a powerful political weapon. Today, misinformation campaigns are targeting the nation’s confidence in such bedrock principles as the safety of vaccines and the trustworthiness of public health officials. Even I, who as an undergraduate philosophy major eagerly devoured the works of Richard Rorty, Donna Haraway, and other critics of scientific objectivism, find myself pounding the figurative table, shouting science! This is just what the science says!

I do not think we need to reclaim objectivity, what Thomas Nagel called the “view from nowhere” (1989). I do not, in the end, believe in truth—at least not the kind that gives anyone a cudgel with which to bash. But I do believe in wisdom. I believe in what Marsha Linehan calls “wise mind,” the place where emotion and cognition overlap (2015). It’s a quiet, everlastingly moonlit space where heart and mind meet, and some place like it is where Bateson arrived at the close of his intellectual journey, when he wrote about the sacred, an ecological wholeness that cannot be comprehended by human language, but must be respected nonetheless (Charlton, 2008). I think a bit of the sacred comes into being whenever we successfully embrace a family in the holding environment of the therapy room. And the longer I do this work, the more faith I have in the potency of that intervention.

Even if we do not try to reclaim objectivity or truth, what I think we can reclaim with confidence is a sense that we don’t have to know all the answers to be helpful. And in fact, what is most likely to be helpful is modeling a flexible approach to experience, to problem-solving, and to relating. I do think that, in this capitalist era, the idea of an expert whose stock in trade is not giving out answers is a hard sell. And it is one we may have to get better at selling.

Heather asked her brother “What did I do wrong?” Of course, from Ben’s perspective, she’d done nothing wrong. And neither had Jeff. They had both just been themselves. Two profoundly different lifetimes had intersected under a single roof.

Aaron S. Cohn, PhD

Aaron S. Cohn, PhD, LMFT, is Chief Postdoctoral Fellow at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. His scholarship focuses on integrative and third-wave behavioral interventions for couples and families, cultural humility in self-of-the-therapist training, and the impact of technology on service delivery. Cohn is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow.


Bateson, G. (2002). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Hampton Press.

Becvar, D. S. (2003). Eras of epistemology: A survey of family therapy thinking and theorizing. In T. L. Sexton, G. R. Weeks, & M. S. Robbins (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy: The science and practice of working with families and couples (pp. 3-20). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Charlton, N. G. (2008). Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, beauty, and the sacred earth. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Dubois, E., & Blank, G. (2018). The echo chamber is overstated: The moderating effect of political interest and diverse media. Information, Communication & Society, 21(5), 729-745. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2018.1428656

Featherstone, V. (1996). A feminist critique of family therapy. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 9(1), 15-23. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515079608256349

Human Rights Campaign. (2020, December 14). Violence against the transgender community in 2020. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-trans-and-gender-non-conforming-community-in-2020

Krippendorff, K. (1996). A second-order cybernetics of otherness. Systems Research, 13(3), 311-328. doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-1735(199609)13:3<311::AID-SRES106>3.0.CO;2-O

Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT skills training handouts and worksheets (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

Nagel, T. (1989). The view from nowhere. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

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