The Double Bind

This week in Ireland we had a referendum in which only 33.5% of the electorate voted. This has sparked some debate as to why people did not vote, and how do you solve this problem etc. Scanning various online streams, some have suggested that voting should be mandatory. More so than this was a general frustration or anger at people who did not vote – with the suggestion that it is a moral duty and imperative to vote in polls. An idea which as I noted, was encouraged officially.

Then today, as it was Remembrance Sunday, there were a few stories from the UK about the wearing of the Poppy to commemorate the war dead, and in particular those who choose not to wear it.

As I thought about both of these things – voting and wearing a symbol of remembrance – and people’s expectation that you should do these things – I thought of Alan Watts description of the double-bind game, from his classic “The Book”

A double-bind game is a game with self-contradictory rules, a game doomed to perpetual self-frustration—like trying to invent a perpetual- motion machine in terms of Newtonian mechanics, or trying to trisect any given angle with a straightedge and compass. The social double- bind game can be phrased in several ways:

The first rule of this game is that it is not a game.
Everyone must play.
You must love us.
You must go on living.
Be yourself, but play a consistent and acceptable role.
Control yourself and be natural.
Try to be sincere.

Essentially, this game is a demand for spontaneous behavior of certain kinds. Living, loving, being natural or sincere—all these are spontaneous forms of behavior: they happen “of themselves” like digesting food or growing hair. As soon as they are forced they acquire that unnatural, contrived, and phony atmosphere which everyone deplores—weak and scentless like forced flowers and tasteless like forced fruit. Life and love generate effort, but effort will not generate them. Faith—in life, in other people, and in oneself—is the attitude of allowing the spontaneous to be spontaneous, in its own way and in its own time. This is, of course, risky because life and other people do not always respond to faith as we might wish. Faith is always a gamble because life itself is a gambling game with what must appear, in the hiding aspect of the game, to be colossal stakes. But to take the gamble out of the game, to try to make winning a dead certainty, is to achieve a certainty which is indeed dead.

The alternative to a community based on mutual trust is a totalitarian police-state, a community in which spontaneity is virtually forbidden.

A free democratic society that forces you to engage in those very activities that make it a free democracy is surely a double-bind? And, in the case of wearing the Poppy, that very act itself is only meaningful because people choose to do it. It must lose all potency when it becomes a mandatory activity.