One of the major weaknesses of the current dialogue about critical issues of our time (race, poverty, disease, etc.) stems from our inability to think systemically. This inability is crippling our efforts to reach workable solutions and making it much harder for us to “get to the bottom” of our collective challenges.
To understand what “systemic” means, let’s actually look at a few problems that we don’t’ look at systemically. Many say “drugs” are the problem in the US. And by the huge increase in incarcerations, it must be a major problem (sarcasm intended). Others think violence is a major problem. And this must be a major problem especially when we have the most mass shootings of any country by a long stretch (ref 1). And on top of drugs and violence, our lack of jobs must be a major problem; oddly, latest figures say that less than 5% of our adults are unemployed (down from 10% in 2010), however this is largely due to a misleading accounting practice as many people aren’t counted anymore (such as, those imprisoned, those that have stopped seeking work, those that are on disability, etc.). How about hunger? As I have previously outlined, food insecurity is a very serious problem in the US (ref 2) with almost 50 million Americans living in food insecure households. So now that we have a pretty good list to work from let’s look at how we deal with these “problems.” (How would you order these four “problems”? What would you add to the list?)
Dealing with these “problems” takes the form of proposedn solutions. So let’s look at the solutions to these problems as offered regularly by our politicians and the mainstream media. Our “drug problem,” we are told, can be solved by: (a) putting those people who use or sell them in prison so they can no longer use/sell them; and, (b) teaching our children to “Say No to Drugs” by convincing them of the harms that drugs do to our bodies (ironically, this message continues concurrently with the massive expansion of “legal” drugs by big pharma and the expansion of alcohol use in our popular culture). Violence, we are told, can be solved by: (a) surveilling everyone with the intent of figuring out when/where/who might commit such crimes; (b) making it harder for people to get access to deadly weapons; (c) increasing police presence in our communities; (d) making sure “good” people have readily accessible “defensive” weapons to protect themselves and others in case of a violent attack by a ne’er-do-well, and, (e) increasing our military presence everywhere we can and using brutal methods (including drones and robots) to kill preemptively those that might do us harm. Unemployment can be remedied by: (a) forcing people to “work” by making it increasingly difficult to get workers’ compensation or unemployment payments or “welfare”; (b) keeping minimum wage low so as to allow companies to employ more people; and, (c) keeping taxes on corporations and the wealthy low because this will allow them to spend more of their “hard earned money” employing people. And, lastly, hunger can be dealt with by: (a) filling community pantries with large amounts of processed food; (b) subsidizing school lunches using overage from industries that produce highly-processed and nutritionally low-density foods; and, (c) subsidizing a few food crops in the U.S. (primarily corn, wheat, rice and soybeans) to the tune of ~$20 billion a year enabling processed foods to remain inexpensive (and therefore the staple of choice for an increasing number of people).
Do you notice anything about these “solutions”? They are almost all reactive to the specific “problem” that is being addressed. None of them deal with basic questions that anyone making a serious attempt to understand the nature of these identified (or other) problems. Such questions would include: Why are people using so many drugs? Why are so many people choosing to sell drugs knowing full well that the penalties for getting caught are extreme? Why are people committing violent acts, be they terrorist, hate-crimes or domestic in nature? Internationally, what impact does killing innocent people (purportedly to bring peace) have on the creation of future terrorists and people willing to kill others out of revenge? Why have many of the efforts to reduce the most violent crimes only be met with increases in frequency of these types of crimes? Why are so many people unable to pay their bills despite being full-time employees? Why are mental health services so hard to find (or afford) for most people and why are mental health matters usually not considered part of our health care program? What influence does poverty, malnutrition, and systemic violence and racism have on our individual and collective mental health? Why are so many former “criminals” unable to find meaningful work (which would allow them to reintegrate smoothly into society)? Why are most things we purchase made in other countries? Why have so many manufacturing plants in the US (which used to be filled with hard working, often unionized, domestic laborers) moved to foreign countries? Why are so many mothers unable to get maternity leave so that they can properly nurture our future generations? How can so many people be hungry in the “richest” country in the world? Why are processed foods so much less expensive than more nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables? Why are an increasing number of neighborhoods in the US seeing food markets (with fresh fruits and vegetables) being replaced with liquor and convenience stores? Why are increasing numbers of people choosing to eat processed and “fast foods”?
These questions try to get to the bottom of the “problems” of drugs, violence, employment and hunger. They are not exhaustive by any means (and I hope readers will share their illuminating ones here as well) but most have something in common, the word “why.” In so doing, they attempt to understand why these things are happening rather than just trying to stop them. Trying to stop something without understanding why it is happening in the first place is inane and harmful but consider how commonplace it is for us to react in exactly this way rather than to think more holistically about the origins of our collective challenges.
What happens when we start asking the “why” questions? I suspect we’ll begin to make connections between “problems,” such as drugs, violence and unemployment. We’ll begin to recognize that many of our current problems are merely symptoms of more systemic issues such as inequality, historically-rooted prejudice and racism, and hypermasculinized forms of power and governance. When we start looking deeper into these systemic issues, we will likely have very different conversations about our “problems” which will lead to very different solutions being offered. Yet, those in power benefit from the status quo and, as such, do their best to keep us “sheeple” reacting ineffectively to symptoms rather than addressing core injustices. Until we acknowledge this we will not be very successful in solving much of anything. Let the “Systemic Games” (riffing off of the Olympic Games which are taking place right now in Rio) begin!