People and systems

Do people change systems? Or are systems more likely to change people? The answer is yes to both. But it’s also pretty complicated too.

Individuals can’t change a system on their own. Systems are made up of people. A really bad person, even someone who is evil, can’t change a system on their own. They need others to comply with their demands. Without anyone complying, the system won’t change – no matter how forceful someone might be. There has to be compliance of others in order to change a system. There has to be a willingness to see the change – regardless of what kind of change happens.

We elect good people to office hoping beyond hope that they will go in to an unhealthy and in many cases abusive system and change it. But we make the mistake of putting it all on the shoulders of one person. One person can’t change a system. Too often what happens is that the system they are thrown into changes them instead.

We make other mistakes. We think that someone with good intentions can use an unhealthy system for good ends. But that doesn’t work either. Unhealthy systems make the people in them unhealthy. No one is strong enough, on their own, to with stand the strain of an unhealthy system. They will succumb to that unhealthy system eventually and be changed by it.

The reason for this is simple – systems exist for self-preservation. Systems are whole groups of people who comply with the expectations of the system. They may not like the expectations, but they still comply with them.

Often unhealthy systems contain many people who don’t like the system they are in – many of theme wish it would change. But they don’t see how they can make a difference. They think they are alone. And that’s the power of the system – making people feel that they are alone and therefore any change is impossible. You’d have more luck moving Mount Everest than you would in changing an unhealthy system. And so people give up, they comply. Because it is easier than going against an unhealthy and abusive system that will punish anyone who tries to change it.

The key to changing unhealthy and abusive systems is this – find others who seek the change these systems. Then find more. And more. And just do things that don’t comply, things that you can do that refuse to give your approval to. But don’t do it alone. The pressure is too great.

Martin Luther King, Jr wrote about this in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” (Source:

When an unhealthy or abusive system is considered the norm, then it must be treated like any incumbent in office. The only way a challenger wins an elected office against a sitting incumbent is by getting the attention of the incumbent and getting the incumbent to respond. At that point the incumbent has done what any challenger was incapable of doing on their own – the incumbent has given the challenger credibility and the incumbent sees the challenger as legitimate and a threat to their power. And when the incumbent takes notice and responds, then so will others. And they will listen. And change is likely to happen.

That’s how unhealthy and abusive systems change.

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