Systemic sins: Why might we discount them?


I just finished reading “In God’s House” by Ray Mouton. It is a terribly disturbing novel (barely one as it is thinly disguised from  his real life) about the massive cover-up of pedophile priests in Louisiana in the early to mid 1980s. Like the Spotlight story in Boston more than 15 years later, those in positions of power in this story (or those who felt the loss of church integrity too much to lose) found ways to deny that a systemic problem existed. Some knew full well and denied the systemic cover-up and obstructed justice as often as they could. Others did not have the facts but chose to minimize the consequences when evidence was presented to them–frequently out of fear for bringing scandal to the church.

But before we get too self-righteous about the problem of child abusing priests, let’s consider how we respond when a system we love is accused of significant and systemic evil. Let me give you a couple of examples, beginning with the trivial

  1. The home run steroid era in baseball. If your favorite team had several players caught taking steroids. Would you acknowledge the problem and suggest that awards won by the team should be revoked…or would you point to the fact that all the teams (possibly true) had steroid users as well?
  2. The race and incarceration problem. African Americans are inordinately represented in prison populations despite being a smaller minority group in the United States. Of course the problem is complex. But can we agree that racial discrimination on a systemic level plays a large role?

Notice that both the trivial and the serious examples are complex and that multiple factors can be implicated in the problem. Notice also that not everyone involved in the incarceration issue are evidence of systemic problems. For example, there are good judges and biased judges. There are profiling police and upright police. There are wrongly accused and justly punished. And yet, we do have a serious problem of sending more Black men to prison than we do men of other races. Naming this problem does not condemn all involved in the justice system. But the problem still exists and reveals some systemic evil.

Is it possible to name a problem without going first to a defense (or attack of another’s position)? It seems this is our common first response when a system we love comes under fire.

Common System Defense Tactics

This week, after the events of Charlottesville and the debates over the statues of leaders of the Confederacy, we see some of these types of responses:

“Well, should we remove all statues, including Washington and Jefferson since they too are tainted? 

“Can’t we celebrate the values we see in General Lee?”

“The other side’s extremists also bear some fault.”

Let’s get specific about some of these tactics which are responses we may go to first, before listening to the concerns of the other:

  • Blame-shifting. Point out the sins/flaws of those pointing out the sins of the system.
  • Sin-leveling. We’re all sinners so no one can point a finger. If every system is tainted, then no system gets to call out the sins of another system.
  • Emphasizing the good. If a system has flaws, quickly point out the good it has done.
  • Pointing out the exceptions. If an exception to the complaint exists, then point it out to invalidate the complaint.
  • Taking the complaint to the extreme. If a system has flaws then take the complaint to the extreme to invalidate it. Example: Complaint: some statues need to come down. Response: So, I guess we need to remove all statues of those who stood for things we don’t like.

System Justification: An Explanation?

Aaron Kay and Justin Friesen discuss factors behind justifying a broken system in their 2011 paper, “On social stability and social change: Understanding when system justification does and does not occur.” They pinpoint 4 factors common in responses that justify maintaining status quo: system threat, system dependence, system inescapability, and low personal control. In other words, when a system I am connected to is threatened and I feel somewhat dependent on it, but it is a large system (e.g., a government or a religion), and I personally cannot make a change, then I’m likely to defend it. In the words of these and other authors, system justification is when “people are motivated to perceive existing social arrangements as just and legitimate” even if not always fair to all.  (Kay et al, 2009, p 421).¹ “…Thus, when little can be done to change [a system that is unfair], people will likely be motivated to justify their system in an attempt to view it in a more legitimate, fair, and desirable light” (Kay et al, p. 422). Why would we do this? The authors say to reduce the sense of threat and anxiety that would come in acknowledging a sick system.

It wasn’t that long ago that our country was embroiled in controversy around big tobacco companies. After clear evidence of tobacco’s role in causing cancer, some still insisted that control of tobacco companies (especially their advertising) would harm the country. These companies paid billions in taxes, they employed hundreds of thousands of people and farmers needed to make a living. They gave generously to many important non-profits. And anyway, the product was legal and bought on a voluntary level.

In an interview in the New York Times Magazine in 1994, a lawyer for Philip Morris had this to say to his daughter regarding tobacco,

And I told her that a lot of people believe that cigarette smoking is addictive but I don’t believe it. And I told her the Surgeon General says some 40 million people have quit smoking on their own. But if she asked me about the health consequences, I would tell her that I certainly don’t think it’s safe to smoke. It’s a risk factor for lung cancer. For heart disease. But it’s a choice. We’re confronted with choices all the time. Still, I’d have to tell her that it might be a bad idea. I don’t know. But it might be.

The author of that essay (with extensive interviews of Philip Morris executives) did not conclude that they were morally bankrupt individuals. Instead, he concluded,

The best answer, which isn’t particularly satisfying, is that people in groups behave differently, and usually worse, than they do singly. In speaking with these Philip Morris executives, I felt the presence of the company within the person. In the end, I felt that I was speaking with more company than person, or perhaps to a person who could no longer distinguish between the two. 

A Question and A Challenge

A question for each of us: Which “company” –system–are you so beholden to that you are inclined first to defend status quo? Your “companies” may include the NFL (the CTE problem), a political movement, a beloved pastor, a denomination, a school.

And a challenge: Be willing to discuss what is before moving on to what ought to be. Discuss the problems. Own them even if you have no power to change them. Then later you can have a discussion about what to do.


¹Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., Peach, J. M., Laurin, K., Friesen, J., Zanna, M. P., & Spencer, S. J. (2009). Inequality, discrimination, and the power of the status quo: Direct evidence for a motivation to see the way things are as the way they should be. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology97(3), 421-434.

2 Comments

Filed under Abuse, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Systemic sins: Why might we discount them?

  1. Tom

    These are useful points, Phil, if we’re listening. I resonate with most of them, but your use of the movie Spotlight worth a comment. There’s a counter narrative to the film provided by Joann Wypijewski (CounterPunch, 2/29/16); that the heroic advocacy depicted in the film was itself a moral outrage – a belief in repressed memories resulting in false accusations of innocent people. So you’ll pardon my skepticism of moralizing that achieves resolution at 50,000 feet but fails to notice when it becomes the subject of its own homily. Of course, that is the challenge you present to us all.

    • Tom, sadly you make one of my points. This post was not at all about Spotlight. It only mentions it in passing to give the reader a historical context of the Louisiana cases of cover-up by the Catholic Church. Instead, you use that reference as an opportunity to change the subject away, to hijack to your concern. On top of that you then dismiss my post as moralizing. You made it a subject of my homily. Not me. You smear with your own accusations. This is exactly what I was talking about. Not everything related to trauma and to mistreatment is about your concern of false memories.

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