Thursday, February 09, 2017


By circuitous route, Tucker Fitzgerald's Intolerant Liberals came up on my screen.  There is much that might be said about the end result of what he thinks and the road he claims to have traveled, which I will leave off here. I don't want to get bogged down in this particular anecdote.  This isn't NPR here.

I would like to focus on the word "systemic."  This is one of those fashionable words used to obscure meaning rather than improve it.  Tucker is much enamored of it, and this is not a surprise, because he has converted to that faith.  All religions have their languages and jargon, their means of identifying each other quickly and reinforcing group norms. Tucker is just one example, and perhaps not the worst (there are clues I might like him well enough in certain settings) so let me switch to the general problem.  Systemic injustice.  Systemic racism/sexism.  Systemic marginalization of dissident voices. Systemic poverty.

It is a deceitful term. It is used to claim that 2+2=22.  I would like to take it apart a bit to show how this is.

There are components to the claim of something being systemic. It must be widespread.  It must be complicated. It must be difficult to solve quickly.  Privilege influences how it is experienced.  These conditions are often met, and quite obviously.  Poverty is widespread.  Racism is complicated. Injustice is difficult to solve quickly. Privilege does favor some persons over others.  Yet systemic goes worlds farther.

Systemic would mean that human nature is not a part of the problem.  It is the system that is the problem, and the system must be adjusted in some way to make things right. Let's pause right there for a moment.  That is huge. An enormous chunk of the possible cause of the problem is written off.

Systemic means that people have personal responsibility only insofar as they have power in the system.  The parties affected are seen only as those who are acted upon.  They have reduced accountability for outcomes, or even none at all.

Yes, yes it does mean that. When confronted, those who believe in systemic violence will back off slightly and claim that they do believe in some personal agency.  But systemic has no natural boundary.  They revert instantly back into all those things that are not the fault of the individual, but derive from The System. Bad schools, poverty, availability of guns and/or drugs - all of which are out of the control of the affected individuals.  They are, rather, under the control of the privileged.

Systemic has ever-expanding meaning.  Systemic injustice - well, that could include the schools, they're part of the system. That could include small businesses or large ones.  The police and fire departments. Elected government.  Appointed government. Language. How people judge you by dress. Internships. Churches. Courts. Control of media. Medical care. Even reason and logic themselves, as was just discussed over at Grim's. Everything, absolutely everything that occurs can not only be considered part of The System, it can easily be considered part of The System.

Systemic gives an excuse, a justification for intervention in any part of the system.  Ah, you begin to see the real attraction here.  If racism is systemic, then nothing is off-limits in trying to solve it. Once you believe that it is the whole system that is the problem, then tweaking pre-K education, creating standards for how the internet can be used, requiring hospitals to insist on special workshops - all of it is fair game.

A great deal of mischief can be smuggled in with the word "systemic." Again, 2+2=22. But evidence for the first "2" and second "2" are not sufficient to get us to 22.


Christopher B said...

Fancy word for

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem"
"If you're not with us, you're against us"
"If you're not #Resistance, you're #Collaborator"

james said...

Chesterton said that the doctrine of original sin was the only Christian doctrine that could be proved from the newspaper. But I notice plenty of people who believe in perfectibility anyway.

I think Godel should play a bigger role in political theory than he does. Whatever system you devise will have some situation that it can't handle. When you design to help X, you injure Y. You may be able to get a sort of compromise, but I think systems themselves are not perfectible.

David Foster said...

James..."I think Godel should play a bigger role in political theory than he does"...and when situations that the system can't handle do show up...and they will...then either some human needs to exercise discretion, or the situation won't get handled. But if wide discretion *is* allowed to government officials, corruption and abuse of power are likely.

As Peter Drucker put it, "Any government that is not a “government of forms” degenerates rapidly into a mutual looting society."

See also my post The Reductio ad Absurdum of Bureaucratic Liberalism:

james said...