Characters and Contextual Retribution

The minds of characters work very much like our own.

People think both in terms of time and of space.  Our time sense gives us the ability to predict what is likely to happen next.  Our space sense gives us the ability to determine what else (unseen) may be connected to what we do see.

For example, “one bad apple spoils the bunch” describes a time-based (temporal) causal relationship: given that there are a bunch of apples with one bad one in the bunch, it will inevitably lead to the spoiling of them all.  Of course, this is meant as an analogy to the effect on a group of people if one person of questionable character remains in their midst.

The space-based (spatial) equivalent is “where there’s smoke there’s fire.”  This phrase does not predict what will be, but describes a here and now connection.  In other words, if you see all the symptoms or indicators that something exists, then it exists, even if you don’t see it.  The concept of circumstantial evidence is based on this concept as well.

In fact, we base many of our social conventions on macroscopic projections of inherent human qualities amplified to the large-scale.  Not surprising since when we gather in groups, we self-organize into external dynamic replicas of the very same thought processes that go on in our own minds so that the group itself takes on a personality and develops a psychology, and members of the group come to specialize in (or represent) all the different principal kinds of thought processes we use within our own minds.  So, in a group there will be an individual who represents the voice of reason while another expresses passion and a third speaks a the conscience of the group.  In my continuing development of the Dramatica theory I named this phenomenon “Fractal Psychology.”

Now because we, as individuals think in both time and space, and because we organize our experience both temporally and spatially (i.e. “if this, then than” for time and “when this, also that” for space), we are constantly evaluating, both consciously and subconsciously, all that we encounter so that we might identify any instances of either of these two forms of causality in our experience base.  In this manner we are able to protect ourselves in the here and now from that we cannot see and in the future from that which has not yet happened.  Simple survival programming.

Normally, this works pretty well.  And though we sometimes make mistakes by misinterpreting or by not being aware of the larger context, overall odds are that temporal and spatial anticipation is more beneficial than it is harmful.  But, when we interact with others, this seemingly positive survival system can really mess up our relationships.

Here’s a typical scenario:

A conversation between two friends or family members is going along quite normally, perhaps even quite pleasantly.  One says something quite innocuous and the other responds with thinly veiled sarcasm or even a blatant barb.  The first person, feeling unduly attacked, responds with a flash of anger and before either party sees it coming, they are a heated argument or perhaps even a full-blown fight.  We’ve all see this and probably experienced it.  But where does it come from? Why does it happen?

This kind of conflict often stems from a disconnect between time and space.  in a nutshell, one party to the conversation is thinking about the interchange in a temporal way and the other is noting it spatially.  What does that mean?  Simply that while the flow of the conversation by one party may be harmless, a particular item of subject matter may be very close to a land mind buried in the other party’s psyche.  In other words, the flow of one person’s time has intruded upon the other person’s space.

As an example, suppose a pleasant conversation is about getting ready for some guest who are about to arrive.  Dinner is discussed, and bringing out the board games and a selection of movies.  Then, the conversation naturally, temporally, progresses to the kitchen counters which need to be cleaned.  The first person is simply going through all the things that need to be done.  But, the second person has a spatial connection to the dirty dishes because a week ago, the first person had, with some irritation,  requested that the second person stop putting the dishes into the sink without rinsing them.

There was no argument at that time.  The second person grumbled and made some retort that it was no worse than the first person leaving their towels on the floor in the shower all the time.  First person just shrugged it off an moved on but the second person stewed awhile about the dishes comment, feeling put upon and unfairly held to task.

Now, a week later, the second person still has a spatial sensitivity – a topical sensitivity not only to the subject of dirty dishes, but by extension to any chores that pertain to the kitchen area, thereby including the cleaning of counters.  While a mention of dirty dishes again would have elicited a harsh response, this tangential topical reference brought only a verbal barb in reply.  But, since that snappy response seemed unwarranted to the temporally thinking first person, they now felt unduly attacked by the second person and respond in kind.

To the first person who was thinking temporally, they now switch to spatial thinking so that their comment seems to them to be a fair and balanced response to unjustified irritation and levels the score.  But, to the second person who was thinking spatially about the topic, they now switch to temporal thinking and see a trend defining itself in which the first person will not let them balance the remaining emotional distress they had been carried.  Projecting that sequence, the second person now responds with even greater anger.

And so, both parties, switching between time sense and space sense, find themselves becoming angrier as the other person (while really just trying to even the score according to their own needs and assessments) keeps undermining their own attempts to establish an equitable balance within their own hearts.  Each roadblock to satisfaction layers more irritation upon the last, increasing the amount of compensation required to balance the books.

And, since both sides are alternating their consideration of the conversation both temporally (how it is progressing as each seeks the last word to achieve temporal equity) and spatially (what old wounds are being re-opened in the attempt to find spatial equity), like a brush fire the flames move more and more quickly and cover more and more ground, thereby increasing both the pace of the mutual attacks and the extent of the topics begin brought into play.

Usually such interchanges continue either until they burn themselves out or spark a fire storm so great it creates its own weather and destroys the relationship landscape beyond any hope of regrowth.

This is contextual retribution.  It is the attempt to seek equity that is justifiable in one of either space or time, but seems inappropriately out of context in the other.  Such conflicts lead to broken relationships, alienated family members, feuds, wars, and even ethnic cleansing.  It is human nature.  But it is also human nature to have a choice.  Each individual may choose to accept that there is more than one valid perspective, more than one valid context in which the world and all that happens in it can be interpreted.  Space and time, logic and emotion, male and female, your experience and the other guy’s – each is valid in his or her own context – as valid as your is invalid from their experience base.  If we can train ourselves to recognize the occurrence of contextual retribution when it happen, either in the other party or, even more important, in ourselves, we can interrupt the temporal and spatial escalation of hostilities, allow the dust to settle, and then find a common solution that will bring equity to all parties at once, thereby avoiding the downward spiral of one-up-man-ship.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

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