The Strange Case of the 2 million pound Oxford Don Punch Up!

What can the feud at a very rich (just under a billion in the bank) Oxford college tell us about the unconscious? What happens when clever grown men and women of privilege (and godly thoughts) fight over prestige, power and status? And does unconscious bias training work?

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So, why see a psychotherapist? Why not just read a business book, or self-improvement text with cool actionable points and checklists in the appendix? Don't get me wrong, business books and self books are fantastic. I enjoy them as much as the next person. But, we all know, deep down, they are a type of escapist fiction. If only we could turn our lives around in seven days with measurable and long lasting results! If only. Most of us know, realistically, and slightly depressingly, that change is excruciatingly difficult, if not sometimes impossible. Most analysts are familiar with this tragic dimension of living. Unlike the self-help books, the tragic view of life, has the premise that life is guaranteed to give us trouble, lots of it (alongside pleasure and satisfaction). The analysts view of life is more about how we come to terms with certain aspects of our inevitably flawed and incomplete selves. From the therapists consulting room viewpoint, the fable of the all conquering self-help hero is one for the fairy tales.

The genre of self help and self improvement is usually superficial in the sense that it privileges what we can see and touch. It talks about what we already know about ourselves. As psychotherapists we work in a different realm. We work with what we don't know about ourselves. The unconscious. Dreams. Slips. Mess. Chaos. When Steven Peters, sports coach, writes about psychology in his book Chimp Paradox, he is repackaging what Freud called the id. The Chimp Mr Peters refers to, the unruly impulsive monkey in each of us, is the same untamed creature that Freud was interested in understanding one hundred years ago.

So, I'm interested in questions like, why do we sabotage ourselves? Why do we do the opposite of what we set out to do? Why do we slip up, or even fall flat on our faces? Sometimes people get in touch with me when things are going well. But to be honest, they mostly get in touch when things have gone a bit off track. The unconscious can't really be revealed by a book. It's a dynamic, living aspect of ourselves, and it comes to life in a real living relationship. This can be with a therapist, whose job it is to focus on this aspect, but it can also be picked by our friends and family.

A few examples come to mind to help illustrate. Many years ago I ready Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Christ Church, Oxford. It's a well known college, maybe because it features as the dining hall in Harry Potter films. It's also a finishing school for the British upper classes. Thirteen British Prime Ministers have been helped to scheme; seventeen Archbishops have been encouraged with godly thoughts; and numerous business men have hatched plans for worldly success, Alex Beard (Glencore), Sir Michael Moritz (Sequoia Capital), Crispin Odey (hedge fund manager), Jacob Rothschild (N M Rothschild & Sons), Nicky Oppenheimer (De Beers), Peter Moores (Littlewoods), James A. Reed (Reed group), and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (twins associated with the founding of Facebook). Even Albert Einstein put in a five year Cameo.

You may notice that there are no women on this list because Christ Church did not admit women until the 1980s. The list above says as much about the intersection of class, gender and race in elite British institutions as anything else. But my interest has been tweaked by recent developments at Christ Church and what they tell us about the individual and group psyche.

Christ Church has half a billion in the bank, so it doesn't normally feature in the papers (things are done on the hush hush). However, a simmering feud between the leader of the college, Dean Percy and the academics who run the place (censors - yes that's really what they're called) has recently blown up. Mr Percy, aged 55, interested in all things godly, pastoral and academic, wanted his status reviewed. Paid £90,000 he felt he was paid less then other staff (the development director) and heads of other colleges. This resulted in an eventual breakdown in the college's internal institutions, with Don's accusing him of over twenty accounts of scandalous behaviour. Mr Percy spent £350,000 of his own money defending himself. The college spent north of 2 million. Not even the combined might of 13 prime ministers, 17 archbishops, facebook and Einstein could avert this huge bun fight. How can we understand this psychologically speaking?

Here, another alumuni is more relevant. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was also at Christ Church. In his language we could say that the Dean and Dons have gone down a rabbit hole. Their psychological warfare has moved out from the light of the grassy field into the tunnels of the unconscious and there is no easy way out.

For psychotherapists the conscious mind is just the 1 percent. Most of the action that interests us (money, sex) goes on down the rabbit hole, in the 99 percent of the mind that is less easy to observe. So what happened here between Mr Percy and the Dons? You can read more about the details in the FT. However, I will just comment on it from a symbolic point of view. The psychotherapist Carl Jung noted that the psyche works with opposites. The more the conscious mind concentrates on one aspect of reality, the more that it's opposite will become pushed into the unconscious. In this case the role of the Dean, is normally understood to be conflict averse, caring, religious, non-material etc. Therefore the shadow side of the Dean role gets repressed. The conflict between the Dean and the Don activated these latent areas - around money, power, prestige and status - resulting in a psychic explosion, with huge financial implications. The shadow area burst into the open. Cavemen used to throw spears. Deans and Dons hurl carefully crafted poison-soaked emails. Mr Percy's desire for a 10 K pay rise, in order to signal his relative status, was snubbed, resulting in a multi-million pound bill. No reasonable face saving way to back down could be found. I tell this story because it could stand in for every workplace or institution. Despite the sleepy exterior, there are always very powerful psychological forces at play; the more things are pushed into the shadows, the more likely they will erupt, sooner or later.

Language, Slips, Racism, Christ Church

Another Christ Church news article caught my eye.

Melanie Nneka Onovo a second year history student at Christ Church called out some distressing racism at the university. Another student, standing for the position of cake rep, made a joke, on zoom, trying to link the death George Floyd with her candidacy

"I would like to put forward the motion that these incidents are not two, but rather one. Flour shortage leads to rioting, which leads to death, which leads to racism. And racism leads to death, leads to rioting, and that leads to flour shortage."

The junior common room had minutes earlier made an undertaking to send funds to the US to support charities working with black communities. However, this joke, which has since been condemned by the college and the student bodies, appears to trivialize George Floyd's death. Despite all the unconscious bias training, which is part of student induction at Christ Church, the unconscious has away of making itself known.

Perhaps what is interesting here is that, even in a conservative institution like Christ Church, the shadow elements are being openly addressed and integrated. However, this is not a smooth process. Change rarely comes smoothly. The Dean has had to fight for his material compensation and symbolic standing to be recognized by the academics; Melanie, the history and politics student, has had to had to fight against the trivializing of George Floyd's death during a student hustings. Both these developments have required external involvement, further reflection, and changes in the organisational culture at different levels.

Psychotherapists usually say we need trouble and conflict, and that this can lead to renewed development and enriched consciousness.
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Ajay Khandelwal PhD

Ajay Khandelwal is an experienced psychotherapist and consultant. He welcomes contact and enquiries and is accepting new clients via zoom during the shut down.