By Tim Hardy
“I can’t do anything – it’s the system.”
These are the words that fill the heart with dread. As anyone with a problem who finds themselves faced with intransigent bureaucracy knows too well, “the system” is the ultimate excuse. An organisation may be ruining your life with their incompetence, attempting to cut off a service you’re entitled to for reasons that baffle the operative as much as you or threatening legal action over unpaid phantom charges that nobody who works there can explain – but still the person on the phone insists, probably truthfully, that they are powerless to help you. Such organisations reduce those who work in them to robots, listlessly walking callers through a flowchart of scripted questions. They reduce those who engage with them to impotent rage.
But the systems and structures of our society create more than frustration.
The right-wing love to conflate damage to property with damage to people yet hesitate to face the truth that the political systems they so enthusiastically embrace require the misery of the many to enrich the few. A protester who smashes a window is charged with violence and denounced by politicians and the media; a trader who causes tens of thousands to starve while enriching himself by speculating on food commodities is lauded as a role model. The way that the political and economic systems of our world condemn millions to short, brutal lives of misery can be described as structural violence.
Structures kill and they can do this because structures also silence.
In an excellent recent interview, Arundhati Roy claimed that the world’s media conspires to hide the truth about the insurgency in India. Interviewer Stephen Moss was deeply sceptical but conceded:
We hear very little of the Maoist insurgency not because of instructions to ignore it and report only India’s economic boom, but because reporting on guerrilla wars in the forests of central India is expensive, time-consuming and has [a] tricky narrative. Modern journalism wants instant results: a month of insurrection in an Arab state and then the dictator falls is ideal. Reporting a 50-year insurgency is trickier, especially when you don’t really have people on the ground.
It’s not journalists fault, it’s the system. It seems self-evident but it needs reiterating: how people see the world determines what they will accept from those to whom they delegate responsibility for their lives. Reality is mediated by newspapers and television. Nobody has time to inform themselves of everything that is going on. We rely on others to give us the outlines. When the media fails to explore alternatives with time-consuming or tricky narratives because such stories don’t fit their existing structures, people begin to believe that there truly is no alternative.
It’s the system, you see. The way things are.
(Image via A Users Guide to Demanding the Impossible.)
Existing social media is not a magical solution to this structural censorship. Even though the cost of entry is lower and the range of voices they enable far wider, twitter, facebook and blogs all promote novelty and popularity above all else. In the competition for attention, the pithy triumphs over the profound, the sensational over the thoughtful, the already-famous over the unknown.
Unless we can overcome this, then the realm of the possible for most people will remain restricted to narrow reconfigurations of what already exists. We need new systems in which issues that don’t promise instant results can be explored and discussed. It is not enough, however, that we merely recreate facebook and twitter as decentralised platforms outside of corporate control. We need to build new tools that defeat the structural censorship of forced simplicity. It’s time to stop blaming the system and to start rethinking it.