Systemic Thinking and Social Justice

Thoughts on war...

1. Reflection from Umberta Telfener : As Social Justice and Systemic Thinking Task Force we met the first time at the NFTO in Sofia in June 2023, we created a whatsup group and exchanged some “fast” thoughts wondering what to deal with. Too many issues seemed important and focus was needed. Then life took over but right now we decided to start meeting and discussing again regularly. These words are just some reflections on the too many terrible and unjustified wars we are surrounded by.

Few days ago a client of mine posed this question: “Are we more violent compared to Medieval times?” I was stunned since I was questioning myself about the horrors of war in a time of enhanced consciousness: why does a civilized country become violent and destroy others? How can individuals de-humanize and do things that are despicable and they would judge as horrendous in times of peace? I started searching ….

In 1869 War and Peace by the maximum interpreter of Russian literature, Tolstoy, came out. According to him governments rely on violence to enforce their laws, humans are caught in the adventure and battle with maximum force when they need to defend their homes, when the cause is clear and appears just. At the beginning as a war reporter, Tolstoy got shocked by the amount of death he experienced during the Crimea war, he then became a spiritual anarchist: war should no more be considered a path, individuals can say no and rebel. He spoke about the vanity of power, the vanity of life and offered the alternative of love in his masterpiece Anna Karenina.

Einstein in 1932 asked to Freud if there was a way to free humanity from the inevitability of going to war, to resist the psychosis of hatred and destruction. If there was a possibility of directing the psychic evolution of humans so that they become capable of resisting the psychoses of hatred and destruction. Freud answered with a letter Why war? He wrote back expanding his theory about the life drive and the destructive force that inhabits humans: individuals are in perennial conflict between life and death, Eros and Thanatos, pleasure and limits. The defense mechanisms organized to suppress anxiety of living distort the exam of reality, they misrepresent personal and other’s identities. In this distortion it is convenient to render the enemy the only responsible for evil. According to Freud, at the basis of destructiveness there is the presence of a death drive we need to negotiate with. In Mass Psychology and Ego Analysis (1921) he had stated that masses do not respond to the Reality principle as well, they are not interested in truth, they nurture themselves with illusions and suffer an emotional contagion. The group acts as the guarantor of an ideal. According to Freud evil cannot be avoided since it is within us. Making a jump to modern times, the only way to purify from evil seems the possibility to recognize that it is within us, accepting The banality of evil (Hannah Arendt, 1963) and taking responsibility for it.

The discomfort of the individual and of civilization seem to go hand in hand, they intersect. The spirit of evil dwells in everyone, it is a spirit that cannot be grasped. So, is barbarism inevitably within us? In 1933 Reich answers the question describing the coercion of sexual/vital energy that creates both excitement for the exceptional happening and an extraneous attitude towards one’s actions. What appears as a death instinct to Freud is actually, for Reich, the pathological result of the crushed and repressed life instinct.

Human destructivity is given for granted by the “old” experts of the mind, but I think that this is “outdated thinking”. As Individuals and members of Communities we try and get beyond borders, to overcome the de-evaluation of the other, to refuse human’s categorization as if there were different species (Erikson 1959). Fromm wrote in 1973: “War is exciting even if it involves the risk of losing one’s life; it produces great physical suffering”. We do not need to fear routines, we do not need to embody war as a psychic inevitable dimension, as instead Hillman claims (2005). More interestingly, less definitive, he specifies that it is a mythical happening, a fatal necessity that we carry with us unconsciously, it is the effect of trans-generational, group phantasies, part of our symbolic universe. Inevitable? Nothing is inevitable any more, since the quantum physics is in vogue and war, despite my trial to consider some psychic explanations, remains a total nonsense to me.

“How is it possible to kill a neighbor?” This is the interesting title of a focus groups done with former Yugoslavia survivors in Norway (Judith Teszáry in AAVV 2022). It becomes evident how the guilt and hatred passes from one generation to the next and how there are invisible loyalties and “commands” that oblige not to consider peace and to feel collectively guilty for what happened in the near past. The need of revenge seems always alive. As if people need to remain faithful to the past as an eternal destiny instead of changing it, changing the future starting from the here and now.

The survey by Byung-Chul proposes instead sociological factors more that psychic internal ones. According to him our times are organized by an internal depression more than by an external repression. The destructive heaviness comes out from the self: wars get us distracted. It is only by recurring to a society of listeners and lovers, by acknowledging and desiring the Other, that we can seek to overcome the isolation and sorrow caused by the devastating process we are living. The world has chosen the wrong path: “The human being lives backwards; he goes in the opposite direction. Humans are violent, they put an end to the environment. No animal is violent with nature, except for man. He disrupts what he has as a loan from his life.” It comes to mind Bateson, who compares animals and humans too, according to him the animal shows its neck in order to submit and not be harmed, humans kill themselves and others out of hunger, out of need, otherwise they try and live together. Need? Are we sure for some of the wars that surround us we can talk about need?

There are explicit and underground wars all over our world. It has been explicit and terrifying the one between the Ruanda and Burundi population in 1994 or the multiple attacks to Afghanistan who’s population is used to living in war “as if nothing else had ever existed”. It seems implicit the one battled in Australia: the more individual Aboriginal people appear passive and idle, the more they drink and do not hold a job, the more social interventions can be made to “recover” them. As if the aim of interventions was pretending to intervene, without changing the power structures.

The psyche does not pose questions taken out of context and does not allow linear and direct answers. War is a systemic disastrous process which involves many fields: economic, social, political, geographical, biological,… It implies membership in a group, race, religion and ethnicity, …. It is endemically connected to historical imbalances that seem difficult to remedy and we need to be aware of the historical and social conditions that produce each conflict. Do the psychic priorities in war consist in helping to create well-being for individual people or the aim is one of reconnecting and reweaving collective plots to prevent the social bond from falling apart? What role do we have to carve out for ourselves as mental experts?

It seems to me that the social system is incapable of containing the most extreme events that are happening now a days. How to intervene as social agents so as not to “fix” a situation that has its own intrinsic gravity; in order not to pass on implicit values (for example the fact that trauma is a pathology, that racism and war are inevitable, that social and economic differences are inevitable as well, that it is necessary to die for religious reasons, that certain populations do not have rights, …) Does it make sense to export technical and individual interventions in a context of such serious social suffering (I was very critical supervising for an OMG therapeutic interventions in the Palestinian territory and tried to transform the project in working with the professionals in the field)? What is the effect of this choice in political terms? We need to explore the reasons why community structures are delegitimized by the weight of political events.

There is a fundamental difference between orthopedic interventions and evolutionary ones: the former (orthos = norm, normative) propose a specific action to re-establish a previous state, while the latter are aimed at considering/redefining the same premises that built the problem, creating the conditions of an epistemological change. Rather than intervening on the premises, many interventions that we are asked to perform in the field of war risk to remain within the assumption that war is inevitable, essentially working to reduce its damage. Harm reduction certainly has its own meaning, but only when it intervenes in a residual and not exclusive manner on the problem. It is important not to fall into a social collusion that addresses emerging problems rather than analyzing the cultural and contextual background, which maintains the problem precisely through the tools that attempt to alleviate it.
War affects (often deliberately) the most intimate habits and undermines the tools of social reproduction, defining a context of danger that pushes towards “biological” individualism (everyone tries to stay alive) making relationships impossible. It is the paradigm of “bare life” the only mode of existence? Mental health workers cannot risk reproducing the outcomes of war and I personally end remembering Article 11 of the Constitution: “Italy repudiates war as a tool for conflict resolution.”


AA.VV. , 2022, War and conflict. The psychotherapies point of view, in Psicobiettivo, XLII, N°3.
Arendt H., 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Viking Press, N.Y.
Bateson G., 1956, The Message “This is Play.” In Group Processes; Transactions of the Second Conference (held October 9-12, 1955, at Princeton, New Jersey).
Benasayag M. & Del Rey A. (2018). Elogio del conflitto.
Brinchi M., La guerra e i suoi traumi. La trasmissione nel transgenerazionale, Psicobbiettivo
Byung-Chul H., 2017, The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today, Polity, Oxford.
Byung-Chul H., 2017, The Palliative Society, Polity, Oxford.
Einstein A., 1931 – 32, The Einstein-Freud Correspondence
Erikson E., 1966, Identity and the Life Cycle: Three Essays, 2011,Norton, NY.
Freud A., Burlingham D. (1943). War and Children, Medical War Books, New York.
Freud S., 1921, Mass Psychology and Ego Analysis, Verlag (“International Psychoanalytic Publishing House”), Vienna.
Freud S., 1932, Why war? (Writings Freud/Einstein), in The Complete Psychological Works of S.F. vol XII, The Hogarth Press, London.,
Fromm E., 1973, The heart of man: Its Genius for Good and Evil.: Harper & Row New York.
Hillman J., 2005, A Terrible Love Of War, Penguin, USA.
Reich W., 1933, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Orgone Institute Press, Ohio.
Tolstoy L., 1869, War and Peace, Penguin Classics, N.Y.
Zaltzman N. (2007). L’esprit du mal, [The spirit of evil], Éditions de l’Olivier, Paris.

2. Answer from Borislava Metcheva :

I read the article carefully and so many thoughts are racing through my head…
I am struggling a lot with the idea how we can make sense of what is going on globally so that the way we make sense of it help us see a path forward…
Here are some of my thoughts:
First of all, I am thinking about “conscious purpose” (Bateson) – for how long as societies we were enchanted by this premise and for how long this narrative of “achievement-improvement-more achievement-more ambition-and so on” organized our behavior at large scale.
Then I thought about the presentation of the Slovenian-British philosopher and sociologist Renata Saleci at the EFTA congress in Ljubljana in 2022 who spoke about the apathy that may become a strategy in a world of disbelief and overwhelming anxiety. In her presentation she quoted Byung-Chul Han. According to Byung-Chul Han, driven by the demand to achieve and not to fail, we enter a swirl of self-exploitation until we collapse. And it makes me think: violence starts when we first become violent to ourselves (individually first, then to our closest people… then to our systems, which destroys connectivity, the fragile ecological connections; and then maybe war becomes inevitable – only when we have a context of destroyed interconnectivity for which we contributed immensely).
Again Byung-Chul Han develops his thesis that violence finds expression in ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ forms: “negative violence is an overtly physical manifestation of violence, finding expression in war, torture, terrorism, etc”; “positive violence “manifests itself as over-achievement, over-production, over-communication, hyper-attention, and hyperactivity”. (again, pushing ourselves to the limits).
And I am very interested in this second part – that will make us tired, exhausted, in a constant state of fatigue, a kind of internal depression in the system until we become numb. And when we become numb, here comes apathy.
I listened to a talk by the British-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak at the New York State Writers Institute’s virtual symposium 2 years ago. She says that the opposite of good is not evil. The opposite of good is apathy – when we become indifferent, desensitized, disconnected, when we don’t care… (The banality of evil, exactly, as Hannah Arendt puts it, evil in everyday form of just don’t care, just too exhausted to think critically, to feel empathy, to put ourselves in the shoes of the other)
And when we are apathetic, we are apathetic to lies, double binds, political demagogy…
The pendulum maybe went to the other extreme – either way is distorted perception:
from conscious purpose (rationalism) to rampant relativism (as Scheila McNamee calls this stance when you can create anything, anything goes), from too individualistic to too collectivistic delusion (fascism is exactly this).
Always too much, always extremes, never nuances, never human understanding of the perspective of the other.
So I am thinking what would it be if we start promoting again the narratives of interdependency, connections and relationships?  Something like a response to the narratives of “us and them” that started becoming very dominant – narratives of “us in a relationship”… Will war still be inevitable if at large scale we organize our action upon a narrative of interdependency, connection and relationships. I am thinking about individualism of responsibility, not individualism of survival or of achievement, but of responsibility for the relationships we create.

3. Thoughts by Cinthe Lemmens :

I read  both of your contributions, Umberta and Borislava, my systemic colleagues, friends. How good is it not to feel alone, to belong to a large systemic community. Connectivity and exchange as an antidote to apathy, indifference, desensitization, numbness, hopelessness…
Reading your thoughts brings up new thoughts, memories.
It takes me back to the presentation of Lucie Hornova in Sofia, Bulgaria, our latest NFTO-meeting. She (and we) talked about hope and hopelessness, quoting K. Weingarten who says: ‘Hoping is not just a feeling or a noun, hope is also a verb that we can practice. We Do Hope.
And how much this is missing today. We see the news, the terrible images of war in different places in the world. It makes our hearts bleeding, brings up feelings of hopelessness, despondency. Will this conflict ever end? How to stop this spiral of violence, the repeating traumatising of people, families, complete systems?
So we need to Do hope.
We need alternatives for the dominant ideas of ‘us and them’.
We need other connecting  voices, who bring back the idea of ‘us’, of connectivity.
I listen to Esther Perel, who talks about the social media as platforms that breeds polarisation. ‘They don’t help us to hold complexity and to stay connected with people who may have very different views of us, but who also yearn for some of the same things at the same time. What we need at this moment is every inkling of compassion, curiosity to stay connected, not only with the humanity of others, but with our own humanity. Across our feeds, I see intense polarization. I see rage that is drowning out the fear. I see a focus on making a point rather than making a difference. The words we use emphasize our differences and pull us apart, but the feelings we hold highlight the similarities of our experiences. The grief, the fear, the heartbreak are universal.
In the news, I see the images of hostages, which bring me back to the lecture of Shulamit Graber, the Mexican woman who was kidnapped. (Assisi, Andolfi Conference july 2023.) She explained how the kidnapping traumatised her whole family system. And how it is a national problem, which brings uncertainty and destabilises a country. She showed us images of resilience, and how these traumatised women find back their own voice and reclaim the streets, singing and organising marches. And that is exactly what we need: that the streets are back the territory of the civilians, men, women, children and not the territory of soldiers, army, tanks.
I also wonder why we only hear male voices: Netanyahu, Putin, Zelensky, Hamas-leaders,… Why don’t we hear more strong, powerful, connecting (fe)male voices?
And then, there is your ‘secret agenda’ Umberta. I was so delighted hearing your speech in Sofia. (NFTO 2023). Let me quote you: ‘We are more than family therapists, we are systemic thinkers. Politics and ministries haven tighten us in this position. We have to broaden these systemic ideas. The difference between us and the other models is our mandate on complexity. Holding complexity is difficult but very rewarding. We don’t only have to talk about therapy. Therapy is a second order intervention. We need to talk about all the possible community interventions. It’s the institutions that become the change agent. And we started this way. We were more than therapists. We did so many things.’
In EFTA-conference in Ljubljana (2022) I listened to the keynote of Justine Van Lawick, talking about violence in families. She placed violence in a larger social environment. Violence doesn’t only exist in families, couples, but also in relation to nature, animals, earth, race, gender. She also referred to love and how both, love and violence live in each person, in the surrounding society.
So I wonder how we, systemic practitioners can do more than therapy. How we can Do hope, how we can Do love. In our daily life and work. Let’s stay connected.

4. Thoughts by Petya Varcheva:

The written by Umberta and Borislava is strongly resonating in me. Following the flow I feel, I would like to share some of my associations and reflections
I’m also struggling with the question – how we, as humans, have created such a context in which this terrifying violence became possible and so many of us became passive bystanders, supporting with their silence or openly justifying people killing people…

I know the answer is so complex. I’m thinking of one of the threads of this complex canvas. Since the experience of the pandemic,  I’m wondering in which directions this crisis (on all levels of our life) has forced our thinking – are we feeling more as a part of the world’s living body, or the context of danger pushed us more towards the “biological” individualism that Umberta described and  we started to operate more on a survival mode – to isolate ourselves, to experience the other more as a threat than as a support, to be more reactive than reflective, to destroy our connections.

It seems like this moment of vulnerability and fear was entangled with the propaganda that is telling us: “others are dangerous”, “others will take your children”, “they will destroy our traditional values” etc. In Bulgaria for example, we can strongly feel the echo of this kind of Russian propaganda. It is shocking that so many people that are around me, in our contemporary society accept these messages as the truth and are justifying man-to-man killings… And here comes the urge in me – What can I do? How can we create the conditions for an epistemological change, that Umberta stresses? How to promote the narrative of interconnectedness that Borislava underlines? And would it be enough?

Maybe one way is to continue the path of Gregory Bateson in studying propaganda (his research from the 40s as part of the multidisciplinary project “The Study of Culture at a Distance”). He is pointing out that knowledge of the nature of the propaganda and of the propagandized population is needed so that we are able not to repeat this terrifying experience. Maybe this is an important direction for our systemic research nowadays too. But also – to make our knowledge accessible and understandable for as many people we can. Maybe this will make the nature of the manipulation, the double binds, the institutional violence and propaganda more visible as such.

But is the cognitive knowledge enough to make change… I don’t believe it is. Mary Catherine Bateson wrote that an encounter with other cultures can lead to openness only if we can suspend the assumption of superiority, not seeing new worlds to conquer, but new worlds to respect. And Humberto Maturana told us that we need to live in love, to accept the other and the conditions of his existence as a source of richness, not as opposition, restriction or limitation. And to do this we need far more than the cognitive knowledge – we need to spread the love and humility, and this embodied feeling of interdependence and connectedness. One way to do this is through the promotion of the narratives of “us in a relationship”, as Borislava wrote. It is encouraging that many influential scientists, writers, artist and others are on this track.

Daniel Siegel is using the word Mwe (Me+We) for expanding and evolving the notion of the self, from an isolated and separate ‘me’ to a relational one. And Nora Bateson proposes a new word for “system” that refers specifically to living systems. It is the word “summathesy” that highlights the expression and communication of interdependency and mutual learning.

Maybe someone will say – these are only words. But as psychotherapists and systemic thinkers we know the power of the words when we shape together our reality. As humans we also pass on what we’ve learned from one generation to the next with our words. This way we keep our collective memory and culture alive. I would like to end here by sharing the words of the writer Georgi Gospodinov:
“Words don’t stop tanks or take down drones. But they can stop, slow down, or at least make a little hesitant those who get into tanks and confront innocent people.
Words can help those confused by fake news and propaganda. The fact that the horror of the Second World War did not repeat itself until February 24th still owes little to this memory of evil shared by witnesses, writers, philosophers.”

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