in the right system

If we believe that people are just products of the systems that they occupy, then rather than judge the individual (although society should at least in some ways hold people accountable, which we can get to a minute), why not just look at the system? This is a question more or less posed to myself so do take it rhetorically — but how often do you find yourself questioning/judging a particular actor when the real high leverage “lever” of sorts is actually looking up an abstraction or two at the system to which the actor has been dropped into (perhaps from birth without their explicit permission).

I think we end up looking at the individual rather than the system for a few reasons.

First of all, I think most people, myself included do not understand how systems work.

I would say that a lot of this lack of understanding breeds frustration. Frustration leads to us having an emotional understanding of things, or rather may lead to that, but rarely leads to us fully understanding an entire picture accurately.

We also confuse incompetence with certain systems as a reason for why no system is a good system. And that is not the right conclusion to be drawing in the capacity that it breaks the logic chain — just because one system that we have been a part of (for example the American public school system) has not met our needs, does not mean systems are all inherently flawed.

The second reason we may not understand how systems work is because we do not understand how scale works. It is hard for us to think in systems language, at systems scale. Society scale thinking is really a foreign concept to many of us. Perhaps because it is bold to consider thinking about making an impact at a society level (or anything close to it). But also because societies are complicated. Even looking at all of the socioeconomic factors associated with your neighborhood or even your household etc. – it becomes a rather complicated equation to try and unpack.

The third component here is that we may like to believe in free will. And we can believe in free will. But we can also believe that the system level is more powerful/efficient than the individual level.

So sure we may not understand systems very well — this leads us to often times discounting the impact the system can have on the individual. So we instead focus on the individual. But that often leads to what I would classify as ineffective solutions because we are giving too much credit to the person who is really just a product of the system they are inhabiting.

You can think of this across many dimensions — on a micro level versus looking more broadly at the macro state of things.

But what I think about when I see someone acting in a way that I don’t appreciate, or in a way that I disagree with — maybe I can more precisely say that what I try to think about more is the system rather than the individual. No 6 year old, at least not one that I have met, is born evil. 6 year olds are kind naive curious people basically across the board. Does not matter if they were born in Kenya or San Francisco or Medellin. Kind, naive, curious mini people.

And then after years and years of conditioning – people become what we see of them. The good and the bad. And most of that comes down to the system in which they were raised in.

Accepting this can be really powerful and impactful. It can change the way you look at people you disagree with. Rather than being upset at them, you can feel sad for them. I feel sad for these people who are so confused and so angry and so frustrated. I am sad about the systems they grew up in – that conditioned them to choose anger over love or that did not teach them how to communicate effectively.

This is not to diffuse all responsibility – people should still take responsibility for their actions. But if you want to make change, real change in people’s lives — you should consider the system that they are a part of and work backwards from that as you hope to be effective.