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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


Parallel Papers Session 2
Friday 5 July 3.30pm-4.45 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP29

Politics of Difference - Uses and Abuses

Presenter: Charlotte Williams
Moderator: Alexandra Gerny

Over recent years, matters of equality and diversity have become increasingly significant in organisations in western society. Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the emergence of the Me-Too movement, there has been a greater recognition of the need to tackle institutionalised discrimination based on race, sex, gender, age, disability, sexuality, and religion. Whilst some progress has been made there is a long way to go, and such matters need to remain on our agenda. At this same time in history, we came face to face with existential threats such as the pandemic and increasing reports on climate change, further highlighting the destructive nature of human beings.

Through my work with groups, I notice a phenomenon which remains a source of disturbance, and puzzlement. I often observe a group so preoccupied with matters of difference that it obscures all other matters and impedes upon the task of the group. It often results in a battle around which identity group has been oppressed most and which is the most destructive with some individuals or sub-groups sharing experiences of discrimination and others feeling paralysed by guilt and shame. Whilst this may be useful to raise awareness in those groups holding more privilege and power, it sometimes appears as if the group uses some members to project human destructiveness and violence into other members as a means of avoiding the fact that this is a quality of every human being and of the group as a whole, hence the current state of the world and planet.

When I witness groups engaging with matters of difference in this way, it often doesn’t feel as if they are working on matters of difference but resembles a group caught in the grip of Basic Assumption Fight/Flight (Bion 1961). I wonder if what might be most difficult for the group to bear is not the pain and suffering caused by destructive acts of discrimination by some groups against others as if that isn’t enough to bear, but the fact that our collective human destructiveness is leading us towards extinction and destruction of the planet in its current form.

The question I ask, is when the topic of equality and diversity is being used by groups to try to resolve matters of discrimination and when is it being used as a vehicle to defend against other difficult realities that cannot be spoken to. After all, despite the science and evidence, climate change is rarely a topic of discussion in the groups I consult to.

This paper explores this phenomenon, using examples from my work with groups. Colleagues are invited to join me in exploring this based on their own experiences with working with this phenomenon.

Biographical Summary

Charlotte Williams
Charlotte is the Director of Tavistock Consulting, the consulting arm of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust. She provides leadership training, consulting and coaching across sectors, working with leaders at executive and board level as well as with those new to leadership and management. Charlotte teaches on the Masters course – Leading and Consulting in Organisations: A Systems- Psychodynamic Approach and on the Applied Psychoanalytic Theory Masters Course at the Tavistock. She has both attended as a member and staffed numerous Group Relations Conferences. She is one of the only Welsh and English-speaking systems-psychodynamic organisational consultants/coaches in the UK and she practices bilingually.