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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021



Parallel Papers Session 5
Saturday 6 July 3.30pm-4.45 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP16

Who takes care of co-existence? Exploring the exacerbation of polarization in connection to the shifting nature of the vertical and lateral axes.

Presenter: Petros Oratis

Socio-economic, and technological advancements have exacerbated laterality in human systems. Seemingly, there is a democratization of equal access to resources, capital, knowledge, and information. These transform the nature of the vertical and lateral axes of human systems, which have largely been defined by formal hierarchy. On the vertical axis, leadership is expected now to be participatory with minimal exercising of formal authority. And the lateral axis isn’t what we once clearly located as the space of interaction amongst peers of the same authority levels. It has become a “democratic arena” that invites everyone to participate across a vast spectrum of formal authority levels. Our coordinates for a system’s social order are distorted.

Sibling psychoanalysis inspires us to understand lateral dynamics, particularly in connection to sameness and difference, within a system of explicit social order. Central to this is the oedipal boundary between parents and children, which is difficult to locate in contemporary human systems. Whether this laterality is real or illusionary, it raises the question of how we can locate the vertical axis in contemporary human systems, which is critical in mapping and healthy contesting the existing social order of any system. Otherwise working with differences can become destructive.

Through studying lateral dynamics, I have found evidence of the confusion of these coordinates, as I observed a prevalent internal preoccupation of role-holders to rank themselves amongst others, at the base of seniority (hierarchal rank, role size, age, tenure, etc), even in non-competitive situations. I suggest that this “mental ranking” functions as a way to make sense of a system’s social order, for self-regulation and authorization, in the absence of clear coordinates.

I propose that today’s polarization can be understood as a result of the radical democratization of the law that keeps social order together. Freud proposes the Oedipal complex as the fundamental law that contains lateral aggression from destructiveness. Mitchel further suggests the “law of the mother” as the prohibition of sibling murder, wherein differences can coexist through the concept of seriality. With the collapse of the vertical axis in contemporary human systems, its function of containing aggression is repressed. Laterality between those with and without formal authority blurs the oedipal boundary and the task of regulating equilibrium has to be conducted laterally.

The implication of this is that any exploration of difference is destined to lead to polarization. Managing social order laterally relies on a commonly accepted law, an internalized vertical axis, which becomes harder to locate and easier to dispute. Hence, equilibrium is sustained through sameness or ritualistic democratic processes. And any expression of difference will be experienced as a threat to shift world order, that must be stopped. In fact, social order is up for grabs, as it can and should now be shifted to fix inequalities and oppression. Is polarization a power-dynamic that sustains equilibrium in the absence of verticality? And if so, who and what takes care of co-existence?

Biographical Summary

Dr. Petros Oratis
Petros is an organizational consultant, executive coach and co-founder of The Lateral Space, a consulting practice based in Amsterdam, which primarily focuses on the development of executive and organizational collaboration. He is a tutor and supervisor at the doctoral course “Consultation & the Organisation”, and the Tavistock Qualification in Consultation, at the Tavistock & Portman. He has been a visiting lecturer at the systems-psychodynamic postgraduate course: “Inside Dynamics in Organizations” at Utrecht University. He has been holding member and staff roles at various Group Relations Conferences and is a member of ISPSO and OPUS. Through his doctoral research: “On The Lateral Axis: A systems-psychodynamic study of the lateral relations of collaboration amongst senior leaders in corporate organizations”, he developed a passion for studying lateral dynamics in organizations and society and how authority and power, take new forms inside and outside formal hierarchal structures.