Stop saying it is the fault of The System when it is the fault of many systems (plural!)

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”

Why we need to say “systems” instead of “The System”

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 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?

Don’t tolerate lazy language

Study the systemic problems (plural), then decide how to act

Propose specific improvements and support those improvements proposed by others

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

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.



Hi, I’m Aaron Steers, aka “AJ”.

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