The word systemic keeps getting worked into the conversation these days. Like when kale was in fashion. Some healthy new food that all of a sudden is made part of every dish but you’re not really sure what you think about it. Systemic–it’s put out there in a more or less free standing sort of way without any follow-up examples or stories to prop-up exactly what the speaker means by it. What we are dished up is a description of a (negative) social outcome, one that occurred due to systemic issues.
Dictionary.com offers this: [səˈstemik] ADJECTIVE. 1. relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part. It seems we need to understand more about systems. A system is not the sum of its parts. Here is what Lebanese born author Nassim Taleb offers from his book Skin in the Game:
The main idea behind complex systems is that the ensemble behaves in way not predicted by the components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units. Studying individual ants will never (one can safely say never for most such situations), never give us an idea on how the ant colony operates. For that, one needs to understand an ant colony as an ant colony, no less, no more, not a collection of ants. This is called an “emergent” property of the whole, by which parts and whole differ because what matters is the interactions between such parts.from Skin in the Game
So this Thing, that is socially detrimental, happens across a system. But what exactly? What happens that lies beyond the responsibility of one individual, and that echoes within a larger group of activity, that culminates into whatever it is being voiced as systemic? The gist is the Thing is a series of inter-related activities erupting into the highly objectional scenario at hand.
But why settle for gists and innuendo? Why not name this Thing? Why not fully flush out what it is that stair steps its way through households and into communities, through vendors and corporations, through bureaucracies and governments?
Take the Enron Corporation story for example.
At the end of 2001, it was revealed that Enron’s reported financial condition was sustained by an institutionalized, systemic and creatively planned accounting fraud, known since as the Enron scandal. Enron has since become a well-known example of willful corporate fraud and corruption. The scandal also brought into question the accounting practices and activities of many corporations in the United States and was a factor in the enactment of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002. The scandal also affected the greater business world by causing the dissolution of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, which had been Enron’s main auditor for years.
There’s that word systemic again. At this (formally) worldwide energy company, accountants at all levels could have called out questionable practices but did not. Through failure to act the organization was complicit at all levels of covering up fraudulent accounting practices.
A contrarian might say, is that really fair? The employee’s contract is to fulfill their job description for a bi-weekly check. Today, in the bright of day, the deceit is clear. But in the rush of the workday was it muddled? When did the private contract between employer and employee take on a public obligation? If an employee calls out their supervisor, the writing is on the wall and the pink slip is in their in-box.
The systemic promoters are talking about failure within an entire organization. They’re saying that a weighting of choices throughout an energy company, or a government agency, or a group of neighbors, have social implications. That the cascading of choices of each ant in the system can allow for a horrific result. That each actor has a varying degree of control, of an ability to say no, of the choice to turn on the group and change its course.
So let’s name that little portion of something that could be done to stop a social ill, let’s call it work. The employee enters into a private contract for employment but carries a public obligation to disrupt actions which are contrary to established social compacts. The portion of obligation is tied to the level of ability to have an impact (you can’t really do much as a first year junior accountant). This is also work–it is work in the pubic sphere.
These systemic issues not only occur within private work life, but also the time we devote to our families and communities. When insufficient attention is paid to the elderly, we hear of abuses in nursing homes. When insufficient resources are paid to depression, there are suicides. These too are due to a piece-by-piece failure within the entirety to respond. These too are systemic.
The Thing is work, or housework if you prefer. Not the type of inflammatory action that the cancel culture takes to achieve their thoughts on their social need du jour. The work of stopping over and taking your depression prone niece out for a daily bout of fresh air; the work of maintaining the ballfields for the little leaguers; the work of staying late one day to scrutinize the accounting that seemed awry but you had to really take a few minutes to double check for inconsistencies. It’s the small bits of work by hundreds (of millions) of employees and community members to maintain a certain standard of established norms.
It’s fine to start the conversation with, “All these xyz bad things happened and it’s Systemic!” But we can’t exactly tackle the correcting measures without understanding where and how in the system work can be done to achieve a better future.