Since becoming really active in social justice activism (at least online), I have noticed that it’s really easy for me to view the world as this horrible, depressing place. So, I have to remind myself that everyone, even the really racist, homophobic, ableist, sexist, whatever-ist people, are doing their best. Unfortunately, for some, it’s hard and uncomfortable to learn and accept new perspectives. It would mean admitting to themselves that they have been wrong about a fundamental belief that they’ve held for most of their life.
The most important thing I learned from graduate school and researching intersectional feminism is to view things and people in terms of systems. Everything and everyone works as part of a system. We’re all responsible for our individual faults and behaviors, but if we view those behaviors as a result of the bigger system, it’s easier to be more compassionate toward people’s faults and behaviors.
For example, people struggling with addictions choose every day to use whatever drug they’re addicted to. They are responsible for that choice as well as the behaviors and consequences that follow. When I talk about systems and viewing people as part of a system, I mean taking a look at how the addict got hooked in the first place, why they continue to use, and what’s preventing them from stopping. Most well-adjusted individuals don’t decide to take meth one day just for kicks and then get hooked on it to the point where it destroys their life. Some set of events led up to that choice to use.
Addiction is an illness. So, when I see or read people making disparaging remarks about homeless people using money for drugs or alcohol or about people on government assistance still smoking cigarettes or about refusing government assistance to anyone who tests positive on a drug screen, it makes me sick. We wouldn’t do these things to anyone with a physical illness, so why do we do it to people addicted to substances?
And this is only an example of how systems work. Racism, sexism, poverty… these are all factors of a larger system at work. So, the next time you consider solely blaming an individual for some negative social consequence, also consider whether there’s a larger system at play. See if that helps you gain some insight and compassion.