Thought on “systemic” vs “individual” harm

There is an alarming trend of using “systemic lens” to lift individual accountability. This is not only performative but is in fact complicit to the systemic issue.

First, anyone who worked on systemic changes know that they happen as an accumulation of individual acts. We have to create anecdotes, then enough anecdotes to create a pattern, enough pattern to create hope, enough hope to create a movement, enough movement to create an impact, and enough impact to create a funding, and enough funding to create a change. Each of that is made up of small things that I’ve heard people call individual acts.

Second, while the harmful system is still in place, there are a lot of individual acts that can be done to lessen that harm. One could push the envelope on what the system allows, start creating precedence, start normalizing certain ethical practices even if it’s not quite exactly how the system is written, cause a reasonable-scale exceptions under the category of “pilot,” etc. etc. Whatever it is, these individual acts are the solution to the systemic problem in that moment for that person being harmed.

There are in fact many harmful systems that still exist but you don’t know because people have pushed the envelope and created mitigating “unwritten rules” and “ways things are done” to the point how the system can’t hurt people any more.

You want to help change this? If you find that you’ve been a part of this way of thinking, please consider looking at it for who benefits – ie who the discourse is “letting off the hook.” If you hear anyone using “systemic” in a way that lifts the anxiety of the room of privileged people, intervene (if safe for you to do so). And ask what they mean by advocating for systemic change. If they say writing to MLAs etc., ask what people will eat while they’re doing that. Ask what they would be writing about without anecdotes, patterns, and hope.

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