I think a lot about language: how language affects how we approach problems, how our language effects how to try to solve problems, and how language often prevents us from actually solving those problems.
Today’s nitpick: our lazy language around faults of “The System” is preventing us from seeing the real problems and ultimately preventing us from building better systems.
Why we call it “The System”
Years back, I think we (popular society) realized we couldn’t blame our hard problems only on specific individuals in power. I think we came to terms with the fact that there was a larger set of factors at work, driving homelessness, crime, corrupt politicians, and prison recidivism rates, for instance. However, as we properly identified these issues had a systemic causes (and were therefor not the fault of individual humans), we nevertheless personified or anthropomorphized that “System” as an evil entity somewhere along the way. Now, millions of people are up in arms to “bring down the system” or “change the system” — and billions of dollars are going to politicians and causes which scapegoat that System that promise to fight “the system”. Some have even begun to wrongly equate The System with specific rich corporations, their CEOs, or more broadly: anyone with more affluence than they have themselves — people who are “benefitting from The System” and therefor protecting it. I’m not here to say powerful corporations and CEOs are blameless, but I am here to say this: we’ll always fail to solve a problem if we don’t take the time to understand its real nature. No amount of good intentions are going to substitute for the homework needed to actually understand our societies problems and their very real systemic causes.
Why we need to say “systems” instead of “The System”
Scapegoating is a popular and lucrative industry, but it rarely produces real change in our society. If we want to make progress on a specific problem, say homelessness, or improving the child foster system in the US, we must start by properly labeling and diagnosing the problem. And the first step in real systemic change is to acknowledge that there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of systems in place today which drive our societies very real problems. I think the reason this message is so hard for people to hear and internalize is that it feels so demoralizing and intimidating. It is far easier for us to imagine a single evil than it is to imagine hundreds of distinct — and possibly unrelated — systemic flaws.
You’d be hard-pressed to win a billion dolars in political donations with the message — “I won’t fix all your problems but I’ll fix 3 out of the top 300.” But that is exactly how progress is made, we resolve one problem at a time and we build new systems to hopefully keep those solutions in place after we die. Modern plumbing, the societal push towards hand washing, the invention of the electrical grid, and the invention of the foster home to replace traditional orphanages: all of these were new systems built to combat the weaknesses in our old systems. In some cases they had all-but-replaced their prior systems (drinking from wells, reliance on candles and oil for night-time lighting, etc.) but can you imagine if we all just decided to burn down the orphanages or scapegoat their owners? Yes, you can imagine — because we’ve got many popular works of fiction in which once the supposedly evil owner of the orphanage is taken down as corrupt, everyone in the orphanage spontaneously gets adopted. But that’s not real, and it’s not ultimately helpful if we actually want to solve problems.
A story from my personal journey
I grew up poor and often hungry, a member of the “lower-middle class” in central California. My mom had to give my half brother up for adoption when I was 8 because she couldn’t afford to raise another child. When I was around 11, I spent one night in a group home because my already divorced parents were both arrested for assaulting each other. That night I spent in a group home was my first experience with the US group home system, but even then I wouldn’t actually know how the foster care system worked until I worked in it about ten years later. When I got to college, I knew I wanted to help kids so I took a job at an afters-chool program in inner-city LA (Watts, CA) to help teach kids how to use computers and how to program. Then I worked for a group home, for 8 hours at a time being the temporary parent (they called us “staff”) for six 9-to-12 year old boys. These were the orphans of our society. I did the best I could for them but I learned very quickly there was magic solution to instantly solve their very real problems.
I was struck by two things when working in the group home. First, I was struck that through all my education, I’d never learned where Americans “put” our orphans. I think I knew we no longer had orphanages in the US, but I didn’t know or realize that group homes were our modern replacement. I also didn’t realize before then that there were various types (levels) of group homes, leveled based on the approximated adoptability and manageability of the children — would they need to be restrained, could they be legally locked in their room, etc. Much later, I would learn that some foster families also house five or six children, the same number of kids in the group home I worked at in college. Yet those foster homes with do not get the same scrutiny as 6-bed group homes. (And I think they should.) Why don’t we teach kids where orphans go? Why isn’t that a standard part of our US education system. Some could imply a malicious intent, but I just think we haven’t gotten around to it, because no one is vocally advocating for it yet.
The second thing I realized in working at a group home, was that many of those kids I worked with were statistically unlikely to succeed in society. The incarceration rates for foster and group home children is depressing, to say the least — but no more depressing than the statistical likelihood for those same foster kids to in turn have more kids who end up back into foster care. This is a terrible cycle and it breaks my heart whenever I think of it. Those children need a family and stability and unconditional love. But even with all those things, there’s a very real trauma from losing their first family — and that trauma doesn’t disappear even in the best circumstances.
For all I’ve seen, I refuse to blame “The System” — not because the system is blameless but because it simply doesn’t exist in any real sense. Based on what I’ve seen and learned about the foster system, I think it is lazy and dishonest to try to blame the System — the only reason to do so is to raise money, but in doing so you hurt your cause by miseducating your audience. Rather than blame a nebulous enemy, I spend a lot of time thinking about small changes that can improve those kids lives. I went on to be a foster parent for two amazing young girls (now all grown up!), and I was a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for a high school senior who was about to be emancipated from the foster system. I gave a lot of myself along the way, and I gained even more — in terms of amazing experiences and relationships I wouldn’t trade for anything. But these experiences have soured me so much towards the lazy populist approach of just blaming The System.
So what can we actually do that will help?
I’m going to suggest three specific steps that anyone can do today if they want to see real change in our society.
Don’t tolerate lazy language
Our language about a problem affects how we try to solve that problem more than anything else. Join me in calling out politicians, non-profits, and even our friends when they start to blame the The System. Remind them kindly and gently that our problems are harder and more diverse than bringing down a single System or corporation. While it may be discouraging at first to refocus our energy like this, it is nonetheless necessary if we actually care about solving those problems.
Study the systemic problems (plural), then decide how to act
Once we’ve been specific with our language, the next step is to study the problem. If you’ve read this far, it won’t be any surprise that I have some ideas on how to improve the foster care system. I decided that this was a systemic problem I wanted to work on, and I study the related systems carefully and try to see how I could improve it. I know I can improve it with my presence: by working in a group home, being a foster parent, supporting and encouraging other foster parents, and by working as a child advocate. But how could I “fix” the system itself? The simple answer is that we cannot magically fix it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve it by injecting new systems into the existing ones.
Propose specific improvements and support those improvements proposed by others
This is not rocket science. Once we’re honest with ourselves that there are many problems in society, and that there are many overlapping systems in play, the logical next step is to work on improving those systems.
Calling back to the foster care example, here are two systemic incremental improvements we can make today, which I think would make a big difference:
- Require all elementary students to learn about the US foster and group home systems. This is a simple solution which, I believe would have huge long-term effects in our society. How we go about this is unclear to me, but one possible step forward might be to add foster-care related topics into the standardized tests for high school and middle-school aged children. Modifying one system (the testing/evaluation system) would impact other systems, such as curriculum, standard learning schedules, and teacher education.
- Require additional oversight measures for any foster parents housing 5 or 6 children, similar to how group homes of the same number of children already are subject to inspection and oversight. When I’ve heard “foster home horror stories”, they rarely are from homes with one or two children. After 4+ kids, however, the government income for raising those children becomes the equivalent of a full time job, and therefor I think we should regulate and train those parents as if they are full time employees of the foster system.
Taking another example: will UBI (universal basic income) solve every problem? No. Will it solve a few big problems? Yes, probably. Will it create its own new problems? Yes, probably. Will it solve more problems than it creates? I think “yes” — but only history will be able to say for sure — assuming we as a society choose to travel that path. We need to be conscious of the fact that these are hard problems, and new systems often interact with existing ones in unpredictable ways.
Let’s be real
The point is, if we want to make real change we have to be honest with ourselves that there are multiple systems involved. We can’t dismantle or “bring down” a system if that system is actually composed of hundreds or thousands of distinct separate systems.
There’s no Boogey Man, there’s no All Powerful Oz, and there’s no Matrix to overturn. If our language is lazy, our solutions will be too. Rather than blaming The System, we need to blame the systems. And harder than tearing a system down, we need to build new systems that counteract and complement those complex and intertwined systems we have already.