“System” Failure

If a program doesn’t run the way it’s supposed to, there is an array of possible reasons, from an erroneous letter or symbol to a bad line of code to a program replete with errors. If it’s to be debugged, which it is matters. Or maybe the code is so bad it isn’t worth fixing and better to start over and rewrite the program. Or, hold on to your hats, maybe the program will never work, no matter how much effort is put into trying to fix it.

If these distinctions aren’t made, the program doesn’t get fixed and perform the way it’s intended. It’s become fashionable to cry “systemic” as the problem with social ills. It has the virtue of creating the impression that everything is wrong and it allows the screamer to avoid the hard labor of identifying what the actual problem is, what is going wrong, and what can be done to fix it.

I made part of this point in a twit.

Calling a problem “systemic” is a dangerous empty rhetorical flourish.

When someone does something wrong, we absolve individual responsibility by sweeping it all into meaninglessness by calling it “systemic.”

As if to prove my point, I was served up a heaping helping of word salad in response.

Or we’re acknowledging that the structures of certain institutions create perverse incentives through rewards or failures to punish, leading individual actors to disparately impact certain communities without necessarily having malice, because as it turns out words are useful.

Indeed, words are useful. Just not those words. They inform us of nothing, and yet the dedicated followers of fashion regurgitate them as if they’ve discovered Jesus. And they do no better when expressly applied to the current flavor of blame, the police.

Like an organ in a human body, a Police Department is part of a structural whole. It functions to perform a certain task in the body politic; it is an organ in that body. Seen this way, each police officer is then like a cell in that organ. Before we can identify any problem in that organ, we must first understand the job that organ performs.

In the case of the police, the answer might seem obvious. Their function is to protect the citizenry from crime. At least that’s what we’re told. But as any good student of biology or politics knows, it won’t help to ask what an organ is said to do. It is better to observe what it actually does.

This covers a range of logical fallacies, from inapt analogies to strawman. An organ performs a singular function. Police do not. Cells do one thing. Police do not. Then the strawman is introduced, the “obvious” answer of protecting the citizenry from crime, except that’s only one function among many. Then comes the sophistry about observing “what it actually does,” and it’s the old blind man and the elephant joke. The point wasn’t to identify the problem with the code, but to prey upon the intellectual challenged to ignore facts and logic, and lead them to their desired “systemic” problem.* It’s that easy to make people that stupid.

If we look at individual police officers divorced from the structure in which they operate — if we simply look for the “bad apples”— we fail to see the role of the police as a whole. Whether individual police officers are racist is not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is whether the police — the institution of policing as it exists in the United States — is racist. And once we look at this clearly, we understand that the answer must be yes.

The options proffered are “one bad apple” or systemic. Since few subscribe to the “one bad apple” excuse, the latter is proved by a non sequitur.

As we were thinking about the problems with the “bad apple” metaphor in policing, one of us, on June 13 at 2:46 a.m., received this message: “Go to HELL, nigger!” It is one of hundreds of such messages and threats the author has received in the past several years. It is easy to say that this individual white person (and we think it fair to assume that it was a white person) is a racist, a “bad apple.” But here, too, focusing on the individual white person who sent the racist message obscures our understanding of the white supremacist structure in which it is generated.

Notably the authors neglect to mention whether this came from a cop or just some random racist, assuming it happened at all. Does it show racism exists? Sure, but no one argues otherwise. But they then inductively reason that focusing on the person who sent the message “obscures our understanding of the white supremacist structure in which it is generated.” And there they go, begging the question.

So? There is nothing that follows that actually says anything, that proves any point or illuminates where the glitches in the program are happening. Consequently, this mash of logical fallacies, distorted history, appeals to everything from emotion to authority, inexplicably and irrationally ending up with the vapid mantra of “systemic racism.”

If there are serious problems with the police, and there are, then wrapping it up in the meaningless rhetoric of “systemic” does nothing to help.

Back in the 1990s, black politicians and community leaders demanded the police walk their streets to address drug dealers on the corner, dead bodies in the streets as they sent their children off to school in the morning, and muggings of old black women, chain snatchings of younger black women, for money to buy crack. The cops were happy to deploy as demanded, and then engaged in the “stop & frisk” tactic, tossing random black kids against walls. There was a problem and a response. A bad response. And so it was challenged and ended.

That’s how problems are fixed, not with empty rhetoric, logical fallacies, personal anecdotes or twisted history, but accurately identifying where the system glitched and failed to perform its intended function. I say this not because there aren’t pervasive problems to be addressed, but because there are and instead of doing the heavy lifting of identifying them and fixing them, it’s easier to shout the meaningless rhetoric of “systemic racism” at the mob and accomplish nothing.

*They go on to “prove” their strawman by revisiting historical horrors, as if the hundred intervening years never happened and as if there is nothing more to history than what they point at.

To merely accept the claim that police forces, since their inception, have protected law-abiding citizens from crime involves the neglect of several crucial factors. It neglects the long history of police abuse and the specific intentional abuse of people of color; it neglects the role that the police have played in breaking strikes, in silencing dissent and in keeping the social order safe from resistance or change. It also neglects the early history of policing in the United States that took the form of slave patrols in the 1700s and the enforcement of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many horrible things happened in our past, in the past of humankind. But the question isn’t what happened in the past, whether it’s accurate or not, but what’s happened between then and now, and what relevance does history, to the extent it isn’t twisted to fit a narrative, matter.

10 thoughts on ““System” Failure

  1. Dan

    There will always be people who violate societal norms (how anyone can believe in “the inherent goodness of humanity” at this point is beyond me). Consequently, societies (at any scale) will want to enforce those norms, but most people are too lazy to do it themselves. So they’ll farm it out to a sub-group–which sounds a lot like the police, whatever you decide to call them. Something like the police, with or without legal sanction, is inevitable–and we’d very much prefer it be *with* legal sanction, as that provides at least some degree of accountability.

    1. SHG Post author

      As we’re seeing, people dispute the propriety of societal norms and justify why they shouldn’t be bound by them. Others just want shit for themselves and are happy to take it from others. And still others are, well, bad dudes. Who you gonna call? (Yes, I’ve teed it up. You don’t have to swing.)

      1. Hunting Guy

        Robert Heinlein.

        “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”


        “God Created Men and Sam Colt Made Them Equal!”

        1. LocoYokel

          It’s amazing when I read sci-fi from the 50s how many stories and authors wrote with the presumption that most, if not all, people would be carrying some type of firearm or a descendant thereof as a matter of course in what was their future. Kinda gives pause to the notion that personal carry of firearms was uncommon as a historical fact.

      2. Dan

        They dispute particular societal norms, but they have others, as we’ve seen in CHAZ/CHOP/whatever it’s called (theft is fine, it’s just an “involuntary donation”–but murder still isn’t). And there they have their own band of armed thugs to replace the police, even if they still call the police when something serious happens.

        1. SHG Post author

          Be careful about drawing a one-sided conclusion. Theft wasn’t all that fine to the guy whose stuff was stolen.

  2. B. McLeod

    “Go to Hell” is hardly a threat. It’s basically how people say “good morning” in New Jersey.

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