Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Bucking the System

When we read the headlines and see the tragic events that are taking place all over our world, and even when we are able to step back and see the real tragedies that lie behind the tragic events and recognize our failures, the natural inclination for many is to start immediately overhauling the system. It was the system that failed these persons. Therefore, we just have to fix the system. 

But that will never work.

It will never work because that's not the way that systems work. Systems are built on shifting sands, guided by human beings with certain preferences and interests. We can talk about equality all we want, but that's not really the way that we work. History bears out that every time we make a shift toward equality, what we really end up doing is creating a new class of the marginalized. And then, we use the power of our voices to convince the masses that the new marginalized somehow deserve it. 

Take what's happening with the current struggle over LGBTQ issues. We've been told that we're making a shift toward equality, that by allowing gay marriage and protecting gay status and creating opportunities for gay individuals and families, we have gained great ground in changing the system so that it is fair for all. But then, we see businesses, organizations, and events pulling out of cities and locations that support traditional understandings on these issues. This means that what we've done is shifted the marginalized from the LGBTQ community to the traditional community. And we say that this is okay because these communities are "backward," when it was not so long ago that our marginalization of LGBTQ communities was for precisely the same reason - they were "backward" - and we've just been told that was wrong. 

Or take Affirmative Action. In order to level the playing field between races, we instituted this policy that requires colleges, businesses, etc. to admit, hire, accept a specific number of racially-diverse individuals, to a certain percentage of their overall total. But in doing so, we have created an entirely new class of white individuals who are now marginalized because of their race. Let's say there are 100 spots and 25 of them are required to be racially diverse. Think about the white kid who is, say, number 82 in terms of qualifications. The only reason he doesn't get a spot is because of his race. So we looked at a problem where certain individuals were not getting offers because of their race...and our solution was to create a system where certain individuals do not get offers because of their race. And we say that this is okay. Maybe...unless you're that white kid.

By the way, we talk often about how wrong slavery and oppression were, but the same arguments we're using today against our newly marginalized categories in our shifted systems - they're backward, they're wrong, they're dangerous, they're hateful, whatever - are the same arguments we used to justify slavery and oppression in the first place. We said that the LGBTQ community was backward. We said that the Black community was dangerous. We've said that the Muslim community is hateful. All we have to do to justify marginalization at any level within our systems is to change our rhetoric so that it's clear, often by power or force or volume, that it's okay because these communities deserve to be marginalized.

So now, look at what we're talking about with mental health in light of some of the tragic events that we're seeing in our headlines. When mental health as a field was first beginning, we said that these persons were dangerous, that we, as a society, had to be on the lookout for them and do whatever it took to protect ourselves from them. So we built institutions and locked persons away for being weird, strange, or crazy, often for the duration of their lives. Then, we decided that was inhumane, we developed the field of psychology and counseling quite a bit, and we figured out a way for them to live among us. Now, we're talking about how we need to change our system so that these individuals no longer "fall through the cracks." How, exactly, are we supposed to do that without re-marginalizing the very population that we've been fighting for years to equalize? Or marginalizing an entirely different population, either along with or in place of this one? 

We either shift the system to be tougher on mental health issues, thus recreating the atrocities of the past where we felt justified in denying the rights of individuals based on the threat we believed that they pose to us. And we tell ourselves that this is okay because it is for our own protection, never mind what service or disservice it does to these individuals. 

OR, as is the popular debate at times like these, we create an entirely new class of marginalized by imposing more restrictions on gun access and forcing law-abiding citizens who don't pose a threat to us at all to give up their rights because others have abused them. And we tell ourselves that this is okay because, again, we're just protecting ourselves. We're protecting ourselves by taking away others' rights to protect themselves in a way that we don't approve of. ....we'll just call them "backward" and "dangerous" and that will make it okay. 

Changing systems never works. All it does is lead us to commit the same atrocities in the other direction and then justify them by the same rhetoric that we're using to reject the original atrocity. All it does is lead us to redefine who is "us" and who is "them" and essentially change sides of the field like it's half time. And then ten, twenty, thirty years from now, we're right back where we started, with the new marginalized crying out about the inherent injustice of it all and us undertaking new reforms to shift the sands once again, leveling one part of the playing field at the expense of another and creating yet another class of marginalized, to which we will have to respond in another ten, twenty, or thirty years. 

Thankfully, this isn't our only option. And that's good because clearly, it's not our best option. We don't have to concern ourselves with the systems of this world. We don't have to spend our lives futilely pushing the sands around. And, I should add, as Christians, we are not called to. I've written before, recently, about how Jesus never called us to change the systems of this world. He never called us to shape them, even according to our Christian inclinations. Jesus never asked His followers, including you and me, to go out and create a world of "equality" or "justice" or whatever the cool buzzword is that we're using these days. 

No, Jesus had something totally different in mind. And if we'd listen to Him, we'd stand our best chance of engaging this world's tragedies long before they become this world's headlines. 

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