Monday, May 23, 2011

Individual VS Institutional, or Me Against the World.

One of the first and MOST important lesson anyone doing any kind of social justice/anti-oppression work needs to learn is the difference between an institutional problem and an individual problem. Actually, most people understand the difference in a vague sort of way. Where they get tripped up is on the solutions to those things.

Institutional problems are structural in nature, meaning they aren't the result of one person going wonky but of the whole system being skewed. All oppressions are institutional, ALL OF THEM. That means that no amount of bootstrapping will end poverty, no change of clothing or teetotaling will prevent rape, no new technology or drug will stop abelism. Suggesting that some individual action will fix an institutional problem is like putting up new curtains so your neighbors won't see your house burning down.

(Mild aside- when I was a wayward teen I used to like the song Institutionalized by the SoCal punk rock group Suicidal Tendencies. Back then I just thought it was a great fuck you to silly grown ups. While thinking about this piece I got that song stuck in my head and now I am thinking that perhaps there was more to that song. Perhaps.)

Some examples of institutional problems and their "common sense" individual "solutions" (yes that's an overuse of scare quotes. Suck it.)

Climate change- let's all recycle!Become locovores! Drive hybrids!. The truth is that without institutional reforms that drastically change the structure of society (how we make energy, what requirements we have for manufacturers, etc etc) then we can all sort all the trash, compost and recycling that we want but we're still going to have climate change. Doesn't mean you shouldn't recycle at all, but don't let that small individual action obfuscate the bigger institutional problem.

Teen Pregnancy: Use condoms. Yeah that's only part of the reason for teen pregnancy. Poverty, birth control sabotage, older boyfriends with coercive power, a (usually realistic) view that there really isn't really any benefit to waiting till later to parent, and lack of abortion access are all part of it. Notice that most of these things can't be solved by an individual, let alone a teenage girl child. This doesn't mean we shouldn't provide comprehensive sex ed and access to birth control, but it does mean we should shut the fuck up when it comes to shaming teenagers who decide to parent. That shit don't fix the problems.

Disability access: Let's find ways to unbind the wheelchair bound! Wheelchair users aren't bound. They're not some damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks by Snidely Paralysis waiting to be rescued by Dudely DoWright and his Be Healed and Walk Again powers. They need the same things everyone needs, to be able to get through doors and into buildings, to cook meals and take showers and clean their clothes. New technologies are great for individuals, but the focus should be on ensuring universal design practices are universally applied. And disability doesn't begin with blindness and end with wheelchair users. There are so many different ways a person can be cut off from the basic world that a one size solution would fail.

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