On systems

Systems are scientific constructs, but I’ll often be talking about them in terms of social justice and theology. I’ll connect them here.

A system is a collection of parts that make up some recognizable whole. That whole can be isolated from its surroundings and considered as its own thing, its parts interacting with one another according to certain rules that you trust are working, and the whole interacting with the system’s environment in a predictable and simplified way. Everything outside can be ignored, everything inside can be ignored — once you have a system, you have the thing in which you have some vested interest, about which you can say something.

In the sciences, some systems seem self-evident. A plant cell, for instance: it has a well defined boundary, a number of working components that have certain rules of interaction, and we can reduce the complexity in its environment to things coming in, things going out. Sunlight and carbon dioxide come in (by natural processes or Divine Providence we know and care not); then an elaborate dance is performed among parts of the cell (that we appreciate but with which don’t really concern ourselves); and then oxygen and energy go out (to a fate we can only dream of, but probably won’t).

Other systems are less obvious, but the observer makes a choice to mush certain elements together as a system in order to simplify things sufficiently and apply convenient rules. This is often the pivot of many a frustrating physics problem. For instance, two blocks are connected by a rope and being pulled up an inclined plane, and given this frictional constant and that force, you’re tasked with determining other forces, acceleration, etc.. You can consider each block and the rope individually, and beat your head against a wall mathematically — or you can consider all three together, and determine more about the system with less effort.

All you do is draw a little dotted-line box around what you want to know about, whether on the page or in your mind’s eye, and you have a system. Whatever’s outside works predictably, whatever’s inside works predictably — our little box is now in hand and knowable.

Science is often perceived as such an objective endeavor that its students are surprised to find that their choice affects what they can find out about a system. I once tutored a student in physics, and drew that little dotted-line box around to create the two-blocks-and-a-rope system that I described above. As I proceeded to do math at this New-Thing-in-the-World, she asked:

“Wait…you can just do that?”

Thus she saw the worldview of science at work for the first time. Much learning happens with a reorientation that is marked only by, “oh.” A single bubble rises to the surface. Continents are shifting in the depths.

On one level, it is completely obvious that a system is determined by a choice. If you’re interested in DNA, choosing the system of the whole cell is not helpful. Likewise if you’re interested in psychology, you likely need to investigate a system much larger than a single cell, or even a group of cells in the brain.

On another level, this reveals an important dependency of scientific exploration on the observer, and can be (glibly) summarized as, you only see what you’re looking for. What you call evidence is not evaluated neutrally, but in a preexisting collection of other evidence. I think many assume that science is just the study of what’s there, but scientific knowledge can only be developed once you’ve made broad assumptions that boil down to the selection of appropriate systems.

That’s why a plant cell only “seems” self-evident. There is nothing a priori self-evident about looking at a plant cell as a plant cell and making that The Thing that described a plant most sufficiently. This has happened, not because of pure Reason, but because of reasons. That optics improved sufficiently at about the same time in European intellectual history that natural systems were viewed as machine-like; that that way of looking at things happened to bear the kind of fruit that the patrons of early-modern empirical investigation found useful; that a scientific worldview and its analytical frame subsequently became the dominant paradigm in the West — these are all accidents of history. It doesn’t make observations about that chosen system less accurate or useful, but it’s not self-evident, either — it’s only evident in a context that seeks exactly that kind of evidence.

Choosing a system is intimately related to understanding the context of a situation, and deciding which elements of the context is relevant, and which can be ignored. It is also fundamentally determined by the observer’s attitude and worldview. Also, as my nod above to the patrons of empiricism suggests, it has a lot to do with self-interest. And money. And power.

So we come to racism.

There are…many things to say through this lens about racism. (Class and other social justice struggles as well, but let’s stick to race for the moment, since we seem to be in a moment for race.) I’ll spend a lot of time talking about them, both as a theologian and educator, but also as a white man living in this country, at this time. But for now, let’s consider this.

What system do we choose when we talk about racism? What context is appropriate when we want to explore the pernicious, persistent influence of race in this country?

Attack dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham. Police cavalry(!) driving black religious leaders and laypeople into a desperate retreat in Selma. The husk of a firebombed church, a sign that says “Whites Only” with a lunch counter in the background, Freedom Riders evacuating a burning bus. Etc.

Images are powerful, but we can see the context at play in how we choose these images. Confrontations from the Civil Rights Era, between peaceful protesters and overt racists, the latter supporting segregation with violence.

Obviously this is one vignette that I’m choosing intentionally to make a point (J’accuse!), but it is not a hard sell to say that that conversations about race in America, particularly among white people and particularly in primary and secondary education, starts with the common ground of “racism was a thing that started with slavery and then Jim Crow and then the Civil Rights Movement happened and racism is not a problem like that anymore.”

Which is true. Racism is not quite a problem “like that” anymore. But that frame represents a choice. Why MLK, and not Malcolm X? Why the dream, and not the ballot or the bullet (or even the letter from a Birmingham jail)?

What’s the system we’ve chosen there? We’re paying attention to the enforcement of racially motivated public policy, backed by white agents who hold a view of race that compromises the dignity of blacks. We’re focusing on a group of people who “are racist” and their actions that come from their orientation toward nonwhites. These racist people are often conveniently located in the South, with a few notable exceptions. Because racial utterances have also become universally prohibited in civil society in the last half-century (which is a good thing), racist people also mostly exist remote in time, as well as space. The occasional offhand, derogatory comment by your Grandma, maybe some state assemblyman from somewhere. That’s it.

So we’ve drawn the little dotted-line box around racist people and decided that the way this system interacts with its environment represents all of racism.

Which perhaps leads you to a conclusion that racism is no longer a problem, since the activity of that little system is not nearly what it used to be.

Now — there seems to be enough noise around racism today, in the news and on social media, and in every major and minor municipality with a police force, or a school, or a college, or a prison — that our conclusion doesn’t quite match the evidence. What should we ask of our racist people system?

For whom would such a system be convenient? What larger system of evidence does it fit into? What preexisting system of knowledge does it reinforce? Here we could talk about whiteness.

Is it possible to describe the activity of racism without racist people? For instance, might there be racist actions, instead of racist people? Would those racist actions be overt, or would they be subtle, likely unnoticed by the perpetrator? Here we could talk about microagressions.

And if the law of the land no longer abides institutions and laws that discriminate and separate on the basis of race, how might those racist tendencies, now underground and unspoken of in civil society, find outlet or expression? Push it underground, where does it go? Does it find its way into education somehow, through testing and still-trenchant segregation of communities? And then, does it find its way (or continues to operate as it always has) in the decisions made around housing policy, and real estate? Does our capitalist system somehow maintain racism, because it lends objectivity (i.e. “the market”) to people’s subjective and biased preferences? Maybe there’s something happening in the criminal justice system, from the way laws are enforced to how people are processed to incarceration rates to recidivism, and then beyond to drug use to mental health to health care to poverty to the media to public perception to…

When we find that the previous, racist people system is no longer sufficient to describe relevant evidence, we need the system that talks about all the systems. Here we could talk about systemic racism.

Because persons, real living individuals, live their lives in all of the systems.

And it is in that lived context, with all of the systems, that theology must be rooted. It makes theology powerful that it can take the individual seriously, and the overlapping contexts seriously. This is why theology is also dangerous — it is a voice for the powerless, who trust in faith that they are wholly valued, but know in this world that the little dotted-line box either ignores them inside of it, or leaves them out of it entirely.

A theological engineer cannot help but be interested in systems.

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