Symptoms or Systems

It’s easy to see the glaring symptoms of a problem and miss the underlying systems that caused the problem in the first place.

Let’s take Ferguson as the most recent example. If we look at the situation as an individual problem, we could focus on Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, or Robert McCulloch.

Credit: Master Wen
Credit: Master Wen

Michael Brown was clearly the victim – he was an unarmed man who didn’t deserve to be shot. He was also not a saint. He was caught on video stealing from a store and then pushing the owner. When confronted by Officer Wilson, he assaulted the officer in the car, ran away, and then turned and started back at the officer.

Darren Wilson was no saint either. He was probably scared, angry, and influenced by a racist culture. While technically acting within his legal rights, he did not have to resort to lethal violence on an unarmed teen-ager.

Perhaps the most egregious offender, however, was Robert McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney. Not only was he clearly biased in favor of the police, but he also waited until dark fall before announcing the Grand Jury decision. One has to suspect that this action was a set-up: Prolong the investigation to stir up resentment, announce the decision at night-fall, and then point the finger at black looters and arsonists who couldn’t contain their anger – thus creating the belief in some peoples’ minds that the response of the black community justified Officer Wilson’s actions. To me, that is sick manipulation.

However flawed each individual was in this case, the analysis of individual behavior misses the larger point. This was an eruption of an unjust, unfair system with multiple components and interactive parts. There is no question that the black community has been stuck with the short end of the stick (or the blunt end of a night stick as the case may be) educationally, economically, socially, and politically. The facts are too glaring to ignore: black kids are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white kids; blacks are stopped, frisked, and incarcerated far more often than any other race; and most black kids grow up in under-performing, segregated schools in poor communities that are oppressively policed by white officers. Is there any doubt why rage is simmering below the surface? Until we address the systems causing that rage, we can expect the pot to boil over whenever an incident heats up the water.

Ferguson, however, is just one example of symptoms getting more attention than systems. We need to focus less on episodes and more on conditions. We need to focus more on culture than individual behavior. This is true whether we are talking about Ferguson, democracy, or health care.

Yes, our democratic process is clearly broken. Any system that can re-elect George W. Bush is broken. Any system that can elect Tea Party candidates is doomed to disaster. Again, we could focus on the individual attributes of any given politician. More importantly, we need to look at how re-districting, campaign finance, and voter suppression create the conditions for dysfunctional government.

Garbage Is Dumped in the Marshes of Spring Creek on Jamaica Bay Because of Ecological Damage, EPA Plans to Stop Garbage Disposal Within the Next Few Years | Photographer: Arthur Tress | Credit: U.S. National Archives
Garbage Is Dumped in the Marshes of Spring Creek on Jamaica Bay Because of Ecological Damage, EPA Plans to Stop Garbage Disposal Within the Next Few Years | Photographer: Arthur Tress | Credit: U.S. National Archives

Health care is another example where there is more attention on symptoms than causes. Too many Americans are obese, stressed out, and largely sedentary. As a result, whole industries have been formed around weight control, stress management, and exercise. Unfortunately, no matter how effective these new businesses may be, they are still simply treating the symptoms of dysfunctional systems. One must ask the question, “why are people overweight in the first place?” One reason is that the food industry is dominated by high-fat, processed food grown with toxic fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics which is then promoted by the fast food merchandisers luring children to unhealthy food. And, why are people so stressed out? One reason is that people go to work in sterile, stifling, and high stress environments many of which are dominated by toxic leaders. We could choose to focus on the health of individuals as they attempt to navigate unhealthy systems, or we could look at the systems that are making people sick in the first place.

These are just a few examples that make the point that we need to shift our focus from symptoms to systems. There is no shortage of systems to address: education, economic, political, social, health care, organizational, etc. Instead of blaming the victims and chasing the symptoms, let’s start changing the systems.

Also published on Medium.

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