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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

A Somali pirate attack and its toxic aftermath

In April 2009 Somali pirates attacked the cruise ship MSC Melody just north of the Seychelles Islands. The author and his wife were passengers on the ship and directly witnessed a part of the ensuing gun battle. The paper describes how the attack changed the dynamics on the ship, leading to the development of a toxic atmosphere for the remaining two weeks of the cruise. Of particular interest was the captain's behaviour, including his denial of key elements of the passengers' experience and his initial failure to contain the fear and anxiety that pervaded the ship-board community. The passenger group responded with splitting and projection onto the leadership and authority system on the ship as well as the development of hostility between nationality groups. Once the ship reached land, further hostility emerged between passenger sub-groups and the ship's leadership as a result of the captain's attempt to prevent passengers from talking to the media. The author gathered the data for this paper through first-hand experience, by interviewing other passengers during the remainder of the cruise and through interaction with other passengers and the ship's staff. The cycle of events and consequences is examined through a systems-psychoanalytic frame to shed light on how a crisis in a temporary community such as a cruise ship can trigger toxic dynamics and how the leadership of the community plays a vital role in either exacerbating of ameliorating toxicity. Some hypotheses are offered about the constraints that may have been acting on the captain that prevented him from providing adequate containment. Hypotheses are also offered regarding the way in which toxicity was generated amongst passengers and spread by means of the story-telling and gossip that occurs in communities such as cruise ships that are isolated from the outside world. It is intended that this paper will provoke a conversation about the complexities of toxic systems and organizations and about the challenges involved in preventing the growth of toxicity and in moving toxic systems towards health.'