Individuals really do get screwed around by systems…
Over the last few days I’ve had a number of conversations that have led me to think about the structural-functional role that personal guilt plays in maintaining problematic social structures. Even reflecting on my previous blog post brings up this issue. For years we were told that we needed to recycle to save the planet, as if the simple act of diverting a small bit of metal from landfill into yet another energy consuming industrial process would somehow shift the trajectory of a planet. The corollary to these exhortations is that if the planet’s trajectory doesn’t change, it is because we, as individuals, did not do enough.
In reality, there is no act that any one individual could do, as part of their daily living, that would have had a significant impact on a global environment. But each of us has been conditioned to feel the weight of responsibility for the position we are in. We feel the guilt of not having done “enough”. But given how much many of us feel we have done, that guilt rapidly transfers to a feeling of hopelessness, despair, fatigue, and most importantly, impotence and powerlessness. This leaves us resigned to the status quo – acquiescing to patriarchy, to capitalism, to white supremacy, to car-dependency, to elitism, to the not-so-gradual decay of our social fabric into fascism. I, for one, don’t believe any of these things are inevitable.
Bu,t I do believe our sense of guilt gets in the way.
It plays out in our personal lives as well, in the form of regret. The world has been changing at an incredible (and accelerating) rate over the last hundred years. Our lives are peppered with regret over choices we may have made within that flow of change – choices that were made with the very best of intent, and often at the behest or direction of those that we think know best.. doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers. And, there is rationality in this. These professionals often do have the best available information and are diligently trying to provide wise guidance based on their informed interpretation of what is known. In a rapidly changing world, however, what is known in one instant may well be incomplete, or invalidated in the next instant.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides an excellent example of this. The changing recommendations from public health experts and the WHO were not a symptom of a grand conspiracy to exert social control and enslave the population (except insofar as they reinforced our subjugation to a capitalist economy), but rather the natural adjustments of a system responding to new and evolving information. Health directives shifted, sometimes in directly contradictory directions, as our experts received, assessed, and integrated emerging knowledge.
Still, in the face of some of the decisions we made, during COVID-19 or at other points in our lives, we might think or say “if only I’d known…”
There is no value to this way of reflecting. You didn’t know. You had no way of knowing. In most cases, no one knew. You made the best decision possible, following the best advice, based on the best information available. Unless you consciously chose to ignore what was known in an uncertain gamble, given the same circumstances and information you would make the same choice because you were doing the best that you could do.
But, that regret does something else. It creates a feeling of guilt and, with it, a sense of personal responsibility for whatever negative outcomes have resulted from the decision. The thing is, the decision was never just yours. It was made within a framework shaped by the structural and social systems in which we reside. Those systems should bear the brunt of the responsibility for the impacts of decisions made by “individuals” that the system encouraged based on information that is incomplete or later replaced.
Instead, our personal regret compels us to try to shoulder the responsibility alone, and absolves the collective responsibility that should exist. So much of the guilt that we all carry probably falls into this category. We drove cars with leaded gas, built buildings insulated with asbestos, sprayed our fields with DDT, treated pain with opium, and so much more. While these society-wide errors are well known, how many more must exist at the “individual” level: the damage we do to our bodies with the new health trend, or harm done to a child by the best advice currently available, or the unintended discrimination towards a marginalized group in our daily language.
These aren’t individual errors. They aren’t mistakes for which we should hold ourselves at fault. They are the unfortunate outcome of living in an imperfect human society. Where there is a price to be paid, it should be shared: the costs not resting on the individual or family, but supported by our governments and tax dollars. Where there is learning to be made, it should be reflected in adjustments to the networks and professions that contributed to the decision.
I know that’s not easy. We pride ourselves on our independence and autonomy. At the same time, we are social beings. No decision made in our lives is truly unaffected by our relationships and our cultural systems. It is good to want to take responsibility, to make recompense, to learn and to do better.
So act. Do the things that might repair or offset the decisions you may regret, where that is possible and achievable. Call out and educate the system that led you to your decisions. But most of all, be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself with the compassion that you would give anyone else who was led astray. Forgive, and learn.