Hard on Systems, Soft on People: Fighting for Social Change as If People Matter

“Be hard on systems, but soft on people.”

I’m sure this nugget of wisdom has been around for more than a while, but it was only about a year or so ago that I heard it: spoken into the room where several were gathered — parents and faculty at our daughters’ school — to discuss matters of identity and oppression: things like racism, sexism, heterosexism and the like.

The facilitator for the session, who offered up many other insights throughout the course of the dialogue, repeated this one several times, and with good reason. First, he explained, we need to be soft on people because people make mistakes, we hurt each other, we are all works in progress, and each of us is capable of saying or doing the wrong thing at any time — indeed we all have, many times — and so we should essentially extend to others the patience and compassion we would want for ourselves, as growing, changing, and hopefully maturing people. But also, and more importantly, when it comes to the issues we were discussing, be soft on people and hard on systems because it is the systems (racism and white supremacy, sexism and patriarchy, classism and capitalism, heterosexism and straight/cisgendered supremacy) that have distorted us, taught us the biases with which we all walk around to one degree or another, and in some ways damaged our ability to see each other as fully and equally human sometimes.

In other words, to go too hard on other people, as people, is to often miss the structural and institutional roots of their (and our) own bad behaviors. No one acts or speaks or writes, or anything, in a vacuum. We operate within the context of everything from our upbringing to our education to the media we consume to the peers with whom we associate to whatever happened to us an hour before the dialogue session, which put us in a pissy mood. And because no one knows another person’s damage completely, nor its source — and yet we know, intuitively, that we all have plenty of it — we should probably err on the side of system-based critiques and offer kindness to people whenever possible, knowing that who we all are today owes an awful lot to where we were yesterday, and the day and the month and the year and the decade before that. This is not to say that we let people off the hook for injurious behaviors or statements; it is merely to say that we acknowledge that there is, indeed, a hook; and it has a source that did not originate with the person we are placing there.

This maxim, to be soft on people but hard on systems is perhaps, at least in my experience, the most important guidepost any of us can follow when trying to challenge monumental social problems like racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, religious bigotry, ableism, or any other form of identity-based mistreatment. Among the reasons it’s so important is precisely the fact that it’s so incredibly hard to do, and this I say from personal experience, not just as some abstract observation.

When people say or do things that are in some way racist, sexist, or in any way injurious to others (or ourselves), the natural instinct (for those who consider ourselves anti-oppressive and committed to equity at least) is to fire back. It is not to give deep consideration to the social dynamics that created whatever we just witnessed or heard or saw. It is not to ponder the strategic wisdom of the various ways in which we might approach the individual who just said or did whatever it is we heard or saw. It is to blast away. And on the one hand, this is not only understandable, there’s something truly positive about it. It demonstrates a real commitment to not keeping quiet, and surely we need more people willing to call out oppressive and hurtful behavior wherever and whenever it manifests.

But on the other hand, it can also be incredibly destructive: of dialogue itself, of the compassion needed to maintain dialogue over time, and of the trust needed to move dialogue into action and real movement building for social change. This is because blasting away forecloses any real hope of finding common ground, or even teaching someone upon whom you’re unloading whatever it is you wish for them to know, about their actions, their words, and how they impacted you, or could impact others.

Sadly, to even say this — to suggest there may be strategic concerns worth pondering when it comes to how we challenge each other when dealing with these issues — will be criticized by some, I suspect, as “tone policing.” Because some folks — and I have been one of them before, will probably be one again, but am trying not to be — apparently think that the speaking part is more important than the hearing part when it comes to producing social change. So one person’s need to tell another person their truth outweighs our collective need for the second person to actually hear it, in this rendering. As such, niceties like which style of criticism might work best for that purpose — condemnation replete with challenges to one’s integrity, or perhaps a gentler reproach — are dismissed as deflective, or simple strategies for silencing anger or hurt.

I have violated the “hard on systems, soft on people” rule so many times I’ve lost count, and even after hearing it spoken into the universe have done so. That’s on me, and I am writing this as much to remind myself of what I know in my heart (and head) to be true, as to convince anyone else of it. But I do hope others can give it some thought and take it in as well. Because I think it can make us all better, and more effective, and even make us healthier if we do so. This is not to say that we should suffer fools gladly, or calmly; nor is it to suggest that there aren’t times when folks just need to be put on blast in some way, shape or form. But it is to say that we probably need to evaluate our toolkits and determine if maybe there are multiple tools in there, some of which are better suited to certain situations, and others of which might work best in very different ones.

So, for instance, take the case of someone who we know from years of experience says racist or sexist or otherwise harmful and bigoted things, pretty much as a matter of routine. This is someone in our own family, or class at school, or at work, who we’ve long known to be that guy, perhaps; or maybe it’s someone with a high profile, like a Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or someone like that, whose entire persona is wrapped up in making demeaning comments about others. In those kinds of cases, although it might still be constructive to try and remember that they too are human beings, horribly distorted by systems of racial and gender and class and religious conditioning, I would agree: there isn’t much to be gained from approaching them tenderly or otherwise, and trying to help them work through whatever damage they’re carrying around. Not because they aren’t capable of change — we all have the capacity for transformation — but because that change isn’t likely to come just because of something you say or do to challenge them. A letter or article or speech or book or pithy Facebook post or tweet isn’t likely to be the source of their moral and ethical metamorphosis. And even if it were, the time and energy you’d have to likely pour into the effort would probably exhaust and destroy you before it changed them, so there are some self-preservation concerns here as well.

Rather than trying to fix their damage, or even really understand it, being soft on people in this kind of instance might mean (in the case of family) just walking away from their toxicity, and ending your relationship with them, since attacking them probably won’t help. In the case of someone like Limbaugh, whose high profile poison can wreak far more havoc, it may mean trying to convince his sponsors to pull support for his show, even while trying to refrain from going personally after him on our Facebook feeds with caustic attacks. As gratifying as it can be (and boy don’t I know it), to call someone like that an idiot, or blowhard, or asshat (my personal favorite), it really is pretty hard to imagine that any of that moves us even one step closer to a better, more decent and equitable society.  It makes me feel good for a second or two, it lets the people who see the attack on social media pile on — so it rallies our “team” together for a brief moment of imagined camaraderie — and perhaps gets under the skin of the folks who are on our friends’ list or who follow our feeds, and whom we’re frankly trying to piss off (oh, yes, and don’t act like you’ve never done that). But beyond that, not much. Going hard on the system that spews the poison and makes it profitable would be far more meaningful than any personal vitriol we might be able to throw in the direction of the person we detest, even if at some cosmic level they may deserve it.

But what about other cases? Not the obvious jerk, the blatant bigot, the apparently sociopathic practitioner of rhetorical poison, but rather, the person who shows up in our Facebook feed or on Twitter, with whom we went to school 10 or 20 years ago, and who we really haven’t seen much since, but whose friend request we approved, or who we agreed to follow, because, ya’ know, they always seemed nice enough back in the day? And then all of the sudden they’re putting up some infuriating shit, and they’re saying things that strike us as implicitly racist or sexist about someone, or some issue we care about? Now what? Well, I suspect that for most, here too the instinct might be to blast away. And not only might that be the instinct, but it’s an instinct that is nurtured and all-too-easily rewarded by the mechanics of social media, mechanics that seem tailor-made for a “shoot first, think later (or not at all)” approach. Once again, been there, done that. But is any of this helpful?

Well, I can’t speak for others, but I know that I cannot remember a time that blasting on someone like that actually made me feel better. Oh sure, it’s cathartic in the moment, and then the doubt creeps in: Jeez, is that really what I wanted to say? Did that really help matters any? Man, I hope he doesn’t think I’m an asshole. Maybe I should go back and be a little clearer about what I was trying to convey (too late!) In these instances, it seems like perhaps a benefit of the doubt is in order. This person said or did something that was messed up. I’d like to bring that to their attention and actually find out where they’re coming from, since after all, I don’t really know them very well if at all. So maybe I need to approach this (at least at first) as a fact-finding mission more than anything. Ask some questions to try and gauge why the person said what they said, wrote what they wrote, did what they did, or whatever. Based on that person’s reply, I can then determine the next step I need to take in the process, whether it’s walking away, challenging them respectfully or perhaps (in certain cases) going ahead and publicly seeking to expose them for their actions.

And then there’s one final case: a situation where someone you know does something wrong, someone for whom you generally have respect and whom you know to be a person of good and positive intentionality, but who nonetheless says or does something that could be injurious on the basis of race, gender, ability, sexuality, etc. Now what? It seems to me that neither of the above two approaches are sufficient in this kind of case. Because although intent — as we who do anti-oppression work are quick to note — doesn’t matter in terms of assessing whether a harm has occurred (i.e., something can be racist or sexist in terms of its impact, even if you didn’t mean to hurt anyone), it most certainly should matter in one sense: namely, how we approach the person to whom we are seeking to offer a criticism. If I know you, and believe you to be a person whose intentionality around these issues is positive, and then you say or do something wrong, and then I go after you the same way I would a stranger whose intentionality I do not know, or the same way I would Ted Nugent, whose intent I actually know to be hurtful, then I’m the one who’s sorta being the asshole. To not approach you with kindness in that situation, is to not only ignore strategic considerations but basic notions of how people in relationship (as friends, colleagues or whatever) are supposed to treat one another.

So it means, when someone I know says something that could easily have the effect of perpetuating a racist or sexist stereotype, or, let’s say, a stereotype about those with disabilities, or poor folks, rather than publicly announcing “this is what racism looks like,” or, “this is what ableism looks like,” or attempting to skewer them in some public fashion as someone who was racist, or ableist, or whatever, I would hope that I would reach out to them personally first, or maybe even on social media (if that was the location of the violation) and say something like,”Hey, I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but this thing you said struck me as possibly reinforcing certain stereotypes or discriminatory viewpoints, so I just thought I would mention it and see what you thought, and perhaps we could have a dialogue about it?”

When I have done that with others (and I have),  and when others have done that with me (and they have), it has never failed to produce positive discussion, acknowledgment of the mistake, and common ground moving forward.  This is because such a statement both conveys a serious concern and makes note of what that concern entails, but also signals clear recognition of the basic core decency of the person being challenged. Perhaps some would think this level of  gentleness unnecessary, and that to encourage it is to simply cater to thin-skinned people who take everything too personally. I suppose it could be in certain cases. But at the same time, it is pretty basic to human psychology that when we are criticized for oppressive behavior, unless we are literal sociopaths, we recoil. While I might not much care how someone who is trying to be oppressive feels about my critique of them, it would be pretty shitty of me not to care what a friend felt about one, or how someone I knew was trying to get it right felt about one. And if I blasted them, all the while secretly hoping they would fire back at me, just so I could further discredit them or show others how horrible they can be, then I am being not only vicious, but cynically and manipulatively so. And I have done this, and I have had it done to me, and in neither case was their anything about it that was remotely productive.

In the end, most folks are good people trying to do the best we can with limited tools and understanding. At some level, we all know that too; we know it about ourselves, and I think most of us know it about others. But we make use of these platforms, from Facebook to Twitter — hell, even e-mails sometimes — that are constructed in such a way as to make that basic truism irrelevant in the moment. There is a keyboard, and a send button, and a desire to be the very first person to call out someone else for something they just did, because it’s important to be first, to show others how smart we are, rather than to work with others to facilitate growth. And then maybe, if we’re lucky, our criticism of someone else will go viral, with hashtags even, because hooray! And then we can say we did that, and feel important for a week or so, which in a world as fractured as this one, I suppose can occasionally be a pretty nice substitute for actually being seen and heard as an actual person.

So although I cannot control how others choose to speak to me or about me, to critique me or challenge me, I will absolutely say this much. I am going to try very strenuously, for my own health and for the health of the world I would like to help create, to go “hard on systems but soft on people.” Because I am interested in working against the former and with the latter. And I apologize to all whom I have at any point angered, injured or harmed in any way by not staying true to this principle. I will try and do better. I hope you will too.

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