It’s the System!

I got feedback from Blanche, my partner Sally’s mom, that the term “patriarchy” does not really resonate with her in terms of describing that model of society and its institutions that I keep referring to in many of my blog pieces. It was interesting that Blanche focused in on that term and made the point to share her thoughts with me. I have been wrestling with the term myself versus various other descriptive words for the same concept (like “hierarchy”, “us and them”, “pecking order” or “pyramid of control”). These to contrast this organizational model with the more egalitarian “circle of equals” (a good descriptive term that I’m more happy with using), which I believe to be the model our human society is evolving into.

In my paid work as a business systems analyst I understand the importance of the effective use of precise language to describe things, thus my ongoing quest for the right words or phrases to describe this way we human beings organize and interact with each other. That precise language becomes a tool to identify, define and hopefully improve business processes in the company I work for. Sometimes in my work investigations when I ask why something is done the way it is, I can find no rhyme or reason other than, “That’s the way we’ve always done it”. My job may simply be to get people to step back for a moment and put some conscious focus on perhaps long-standing conventions and even unconscious assumptions in how they interact with each other in order to obtain more gain and less pain from the business processes they contribute to.

From the experience of my work I’ve become a great believer in systems theory as it applies to all areas of our human society. We humans as individuals interact with each other within a web of conventions and relationships that has a life of its own, perpetuating itself even as the individuals change within that web, and even from generation to generation. Sometimes we are not even consciously aware of the systems we are enmeshed in and the conventional wisdom we may be acting on without really examining its truth or effectiveness. I think this is particularly true for systems that perpetuate from generation to generation, because we grow from infancy within them, which makes them seem natural and innate rather than one of several possible ways of being and interacting with each other.

For example, though I grew up with progressive parents in a progressive university town community, as a kid I was intimidated by all adults, seeing them all as impeccable authority figures (whether parents, friends’ parents, teachers or just neighbors) and somehow fundamentally different than my own uncertain young self. In fact, unconscious to me (and maybe to most of the adults), we were operating within a system of adult authority over and control of children and youth. One of the conventions of that system was that the adult authority figures, to best exercise and justify that authority, would disguise any of their own uncertainties and generally refrain from interacting with younger people at more of a peer-to-peer level, or be expected to seek the advise and counsel of their young charges.

It was not until I was a teenager (and having witnessed the messy unraveling of my parents’ relationship leading to divorce) that I had the epiphany that my parents and other adults were not some iconic impeccable alien “them” but just really people like me (full of similar fears, uncertainties and struggles with self-esteem) who had more years under their belts. Their apparent superiority was merely the role they were playing within a system which, though it had moved beyond children being “seen and not heard” and “spare the rod and spoil the child”, still gave adults almost complete unquestioned authority over youth (short of documentable physical or psychological abuse) with little redress available to those youths. Based on this realization, I in fact began giving my parents advice and and at times “parented” them to a degree.

This system of unmitigated adult control seemed natural enough when I was a child that I did not question it, even though my parents raised me with a high degree of liberty and autonomy and encouragement to speak my mind. As my mom always said, “Bright kids will tell you what they need!” But perhaps caught up in the system below the level of their own conscious awareness, they did not sufficiently share with me their own inner uncertainties and struggles that would have made me more comfortable with them as “us” rather than “them”. In fact, based on the conventions of the system, many parents and teachers and the other adults I interacted with may have felt that sharing fears, weaknesses and uncertainties with their kids would make those kids feel scared, uncomfortable and unsafe.

A system is basically our interdependent web of connections with the people we interact with every day and all the past experience and future expectations that contribute to those interactions. It is a web that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts and has a sophisticated life of its own beyond any one individual or one relationship within that web. It includes all the conventions we learn and practice to guide those interactions, such as what is considered of value, who is considered to exercise authority and what the extent of that authority is.

So getting back to where I started in this piece, I’m wrestling with effectively naming and calling out a mostly unconscious system of organization and control of people that is still a significant factor in our society. A system where people are ranked and designated as “inferiors” by other people somehow by convention wearing the mantle of their “superiors”. Call it “patriarchy”, “hierarchy”, “pecking order”, “pyramid of control” or “authoritarianism”, it is a system that has seemed natural to most of us, since it dates back to the beginnings of our recorded human history. It has traditionally permeated all the institutions of human society, including politics and governance, family life, education, commerce and organized spiritual and religious practice.

I am talking here about the seeming naturalness in the middle ages of absolute monarchs, in 19th Century America of corporal punishment of children, or still today in most schools with adult staff laying down rules, schedules and curricula with little or no input from the students.

I have been intrigued by the theory of family systems developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen in the 1950s, that my partner Sally learned about in training to be a marriage and family counselor. According to Wikipedia…

Bowen felt that severe problems within the family unit stem from a multigenerational transmission process whereby levels of differentiation among family members can become progressively lower from one generation to the next…

Those with “low differentiation” depend on others’ approval and acceptance. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them, or they attempt to force others to conform to themselves.

This generational transmission and lack of differentiation seems to be applicable as well to the larger society beyond the family. The system that I am trying to call out and somehow exorcise seems to perpetuate itself by people within that system who conform or try and force others to do so. That perpetuation is supported by adults who are perhaps not sufficiently differentiated themselves, plus conventions that are applied to child-raising and education that do not sufficiently encourage young people to develop that differentiation.

So given all that… I believe our society is moving (at times three steps forward and two back) toward what I see as a more evolved “circle of equals”. A society full of what Bowen described as more “differentiated” people. Again from Wikipedia…

To have a well-differentiated “self” is an ideal that no one realizes perfectly. They recognize that they need others, but they depend less on other’s acceptance and approval. They do not merely adopt the attitude of those around them but acquire their principles thoughtfully… Thus, despite conflict, criticism, and rejection they can stay calm and clear headed enough to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotion. What they decide and say matches what they do. When they act in the best interests of the group, they choose thoughtfully, not because they are caving in to relationship pressures. Confident in their own thinking, they can either support another’s view without becoming wishy-washy or reject another’s view without becoming hostile.

Bowen’s “differentiation” seems to be a useful goal to be achieved by all people, whether adult or youth, and an evolutionary state that I believe we are moving towards. People with such differentiation can examine the system they are living within in, its unconscious assumptions and conventions, and consciously choose to do and be something different. That is the revolution that begins within, being the change we seek.

4 replies on “It’s the System!”

  1. Have you read Sharif Abdullah’s book Creating A World That Works For All (Berrett-Koehler, 1999)? He goes into the cultural roots of our challenges as a society.

    I am in the process of developing a short video that is a kind of mash-up of his ideas with some of Riane Eisler’s, Fritjof Capra, and the viral video The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard.

    It’s called The Story of School. The password is draft (for now, e-mail me if you need a more recent password.)


    Don Berg

    Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

  2. Don… I have not read “Creating A World That Works For All”, but the title sounds intriguing and I will check it out. I have not had time yet to check out your link, but the mash-up sounds very intriguing. Always good to network with another fellow traveler wrestling with these evolutionary ideas. I’ll give you more thoughts once I’ve done some research on your links.

  3. I think this is one of the most important information for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But should remark on some general things, The web site style is great, the articles is really great : D. Good job, cheers

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