Why Seeing Systems is So Hard
By Dennis Loo (5/24/14)
Speaking both as a teacher and as an activist, the single most difficult thing for people to learn is the significance of systems. People are so accustomed to the notion that individuals determine everything - they are, after all, taught this constantly by popular culture, the political and economic system, and by all too much of education - that there is substantial resistance to grasping systems’ centrality. Even those who endorse the primacy of systems (e.g., sociologists) mostly do not consistently apply this principle in their work or in their personal lives.
You can find many academics’ books and articles, for example, which do a tremendous job of laying out how systematic racism, sexism, class, economic exploitation, etc., are and how they structurally determine people’s lives. Yet when these authors get into offering solutions to these systemic problems they almost all offer prescriptions for solving these intractable problems in non-systemic ways. Since the problems are systemic in nature - which they have devoted 90% of their writing to showing - these problems cannot possibly be solved following non-systemic routes. Their prescriptions are therefore entirely illogical and will never work. The only way to solve system-level problems is to replace those problematic systems with radically different systems.
Why should this be so hard for even those who make it their profession to study the systemic nature of these problems? The primary answer is that even intellectuals whose stock and trade is ideas are hemmed in in their thinking by the reigning system’s power. It’s one thing to identify, chronicle, and decry the terrible injustices of the existing system’s operations. It’s another thing altogether to advocate what amounts to a revolution to change that system. For that is what a radical systemic change is: a revolution. Most people, even radically minded intellectuals, shrink from the logical conclusion to their piercing critiques because the ramifications of their investigations means that they have to put themselves in open opposition to existing authorities. And that, most people are unwilling to do, at least under the circumstances that exist most of the time where an insurgent, revolutionary movement is not present. It takes particularly brave individuals to buck convention. Humanity relies disproportionately for its fate on the role of these particularly brave individuals.
There is another reason why seeing systems’ centrality is so hard for so many people. You have to think and analyze things scientifically to be able to recognize the hidden working of systems on people’s thinking and actions. This is because systems are not obvious to the eyes, any more than culture is obvious in its impact on people’s behavior. Culture is a system that governs how people in a given culture will interact with each other. The rules for that culture are largely unwritten and operate to the untrained eye in invisible ways. Culture as a system is as invisible to most people as water is to fish. If you were to ask a fish what water is and if the fish could understand your question, it would look at you with its big eyes and think to itself, “what are you talking about?” since water is invisible to fish. You would have to have been a fish that had briefly been out of the water where it could no longer breathe for it to grasp the elementary yet elusive fact that water is what it lives in.
Applying the methods of science and thinking scientifically is not something that people can learn to do merely through life experience. It is not something that most people can learn how to do through reading even a lot of books, although some people discover this that way. Grasping scientific principles such as the existence of systems that exist above the individuals in them and that powerfully shape how people think and act without individuals being conscious of this is not something that is easily learned by most people. Many sociology students – people who are actually studying the science of sociology - are unfortunately still unaware of the cardinal importance of systems. Some of them even explicitly reject the idea of sociology as a science and believe that sociology is no better than a belief system akin to religion.
Those who have this attitude are not solely to blame for their unscientific attitudes. Just as with anything else, systems are involved primarily here: the educational and larger social systems have a powerful impact on how these students see the world and science is something that is one of the more difficult things to grasp because it represents a level of understanding that involves a rupture with ordinary ways of thinking. You cannot readily see evolution happening. You cannot view in ordinary life and with ordinary instruments, viruses or the operations of quantum mechanics. To the naked eye the earth looks flat and it appears as if the sun is revolving around the earth. You cannot in everyday life see the operations of systems unless you have been trained to do this. Most people think concretely and not consciously and abstractly at the level of theory. Everyone needs theory to function but most people unconsciously use the paradigm that they were brought up with and/or the one that is the most common in their society and they use the lens of that paradigm to see the world. Most people don't even know the name for the paradigm that they are using or that they are using a paradigm. (The name of the dominant paradigm is functionalism, in case you're wondering.) What people see in the world is heavily colored by the paradigm they are using. Since the dominant paradigm in society is that which authorities endorse and benefit from, it should be no small wonder that most people tend to see the world using or being heavily influenced by the ideology of those who rule. Consequently even those who are critical of the existing system have a hard time mounting a really effective critique and mobilizing a radically different movement to the existing system because you cannot replace the existing system using the intellectual tools of that very system. You cannot counter the power of the existing system and authorities using the premises of that very system.
Making the leap to grasping an alternative theory and seeing the world anew with that alternative theory therefore involves a rupture with ordinary thinking and being. This is why the most advanced theories in science and philosophy are so challenging and difficult to develop and grasp. The most advanced ideas and the most profound truths always have to struggle for their rightful place because the lowest common denominator is always not going to represent the most advanced views.
Science by its very nature is disposed to being at odds with conventional thinking and with the existing order of things because it accepts nothing that cannot be proven by overwhelming evidence to be true. Political and economic authorities, on the other hand, generally want people to accept things that political and economic authority say is true. Obviously this is also at least equally true, if not truer, of religious authority. Authorities do not wholly trust, and for good reason, the inherently critical and insurgent nature of science. They seek, therefore, to either deride and undermine it, or to stringently control it so that it can be tamed. Those who seek to tame science, however, are riding a tiger.
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)