I read this on Facebook today, attributed (I assume, from what prefaced it) to Karl Marx:
It is well known that a certain kind of psychology explains big things by means of small causes and, correctly sensing that everything for which man struggles is a matter of his interest, arrives at the incorrect opinion that there are only “petty” interests, only the interests of a stereotyped self-seeking.
Further, it is well known that this kind of psychology and knowledge of mankind is to be found particularly in towns, where moreover it is considered the sign of a clever mind to see through the world and perceive that behind the passing clouds of ideas and facts there are quite small, envious, intriguing manikins, who pull the strings setting everything in motion.
However, it is equally well known that if one looks too closely into a glass, one bumps one’s own head, and hence these clever people’s knowledge of mankind and the universe is primarily a mystified bump of their own heads.
After my post yesterday on the subject of systems versus people, I wonder if the above doesn’t top and tail me as the very reactionary I have cleverly tried to avoid being all these years. In this post, I said the following:
[...] I’d also be inclined to argue that it’s time we stopped blaming political systems for the corruption they appear to generate and started blaming, instead, the corrupting people who are taking advantage. Yes. I know it brings us back to the hoary subject of personal responsibility, many times couched in quasi-religious terms and so consequently abused by those who have specific and unhelpful agendas, but it serves no one’s interests to continue destroying the public face of politics as an ideal, concept and practice by saying the problems are essentially of a widespread and systemic nature almost everywhere you look.
I also added that:
There’s nothing wrong with our systems which a swathe of people encouraged to be good couldn’t put right. After all, the problem is hardly ever an absence of relevant legislation – rather, far more frequently, an occasionally appalling inefficiency in its application. And this is the case in politics and banking, just as much as it is obviously the case in medical research and food distribution.
Forget the systems, then. Forget that ever-present policy tinkering so beloved of professional politicos. Whatever we’ve got, let’s try and make the best of it. Don’t change the textbook. Rather, give the teachers and students the opportunities to properly engage.
As you can see, I look at this whole issue from the perspective of a life-long language trainer and teacher. I have always felt that given the opportunity and confidence, people tend to do good over bad. And where they do bad, they have not been given the opportunity and confidence. Does this then lead me to reactionary conclusions? I dunno really.
Meanwhile, over at Rick’s blog today we get this:
As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as a rogue operator. Whether or not senior managers know about the detail, they are the ones who set the tone for the organisation. Employees rarely deviate far from this. If they do, they don’t last long. OK, some may be a little over-enthusiastic and cross a line but it’s usually within a framework of what is generally regarded as acceptable. The rogue trader fallacy is an attempt to individualise what is almost always a systemic problem. If managers set aggressive targets and tell people to do whatever it takes, they usually have some idea of what ‘whatever it takes’ means, even if they don’t (or choose not to) know exactly who is doing what.
But I wonder if my latterday instincts to interpret events in terms of individual responsibility is altogether as reactionary as the systemic people amongst us might accuse me of. I don’t disagree with the idea that systems affect behaviours: I am a teacher, after all, and facilitating safe and productive learning environments and frames prior to the start of any learning process is always key to any final success.
I do also wonder, however, if we aren’t as a species simpler in the round than we think. There’s a tipping-point in life, love and war which encourages us to hold out until the last moment – but no longer that. If we see something is about to go belly-up, it is a reasonably common instinct to try and save one’s reputation, worth, income and wealth. Perhaps, then, when I find myself now wanting to blame individuals for the corrupting tendencies of systems – whether political, medical or food-related – I am really saying: “Don’t blame these systems, blame something else!”
Politics isn’t to blame; the banking sector isn’t to blame; even Nestlé isn’t to blame. But that’s not to say, either, that individuals are as to blame as I original posited – nor in exactly the way I blithely suggested. No. What’s really to blame is yet another system out there – much bigger and much more lowest-common denominating than all these more apparent and visibly human-made ones.
What may that be? People sometimes adduce human nature, but to say this reduces our thoughts to immediate adherence or rejection of the concept. So for me human nature doesn’t cut it.
Maybe more it has to do with the fear that drives that tipping-point I mentioned earlier. And in a world where fear could be completely eliminated, wouldn’t it be so much easier for the planet – and ourselves – to be systemically “better”-behaved than is currently the case?
Whilst we would all behave better for acceptably systemic reasons, we would simultaneously be behaving better at micro-levels of personal responsibility too. Striking that balance is surely where the future lies: not somewhere halfway between the systemic and the individual but rather – in a far more complex and as yet unexplored way – simultaneously systemic and individual.