One of the perennial conundrums for people seeking social justice and working for social change: is it better to work inside or outside the system? A few weeks ago I asked that question of some colleagues and others via a short, quick survey.
“They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom,
Source: oddsock (Ian Burt), Creative Commons
For trying to change the system from within.”
-Leonard Cohen, First We Take Manhattan
The number of people replying means that the findings cannot be interpreted as statistically significant. However, they do give us thoughts to ponder. Also, the complex question of what constitutes “the system” (and hence “inside” and “outside”) was defined very loosely. Thus, when considering these thoughts “working inside the system” generally means working in governmental bureaucracies (local and national), working for political parties represented in parliament, a local or national politician and working for quasi-governmental agencies.
So, if you are working for social change inside the system is it, as Leonard Cohen bemoans, boring? Furthermore, if it is boring, is the boredom worth it by being able to affect meaningful social change?
Humans work not just for financial gain but also for the sense of self-worth we gain, for human interaction and also for the feeling that we are contributing in some way to society. Working for social justice is no different, although perhaps the desire to contribute to society plays a more significant role.
Amongst the thoughts suggested as to the benefits of working inside the system are that it is possible to gain a greater understanding of how the system works, being able to find colleagues of like mind and having access to resources and decision-making that can help people make changes.
Many of the comments about the down-side of working inside the system could be grouped under the heading of the impact upon individual psychology. The system can be seen as an inflexible, unresponsive, inhuman juggernaut that brain washes the individual. Working in the system means that one is constantly in danger of becoming tipsy with power, yet at the same time being conscious that this power is minimal and transient.
Bureaucracies and similar systems attempt to paint the world in rosy, bright colours. If the individual is not careful then it becomes easy to slip into a self-serving attitude where it is comfortable and nice. One respondent noted that this was the classic scenario of separation and divide, so that the individual becomes concerned only with themselves.
The scorecard then regarding working within the system is mixed: some degree of ability to assist people, some comradeship. Opposed to this a sense of being part of a non-human system from which it is difficult to escape without some loss of what it is to be a human (full of compassion and a sense of social justice).
Part 2 of this three part posting will look at the pros and cons of working outside the system. Part 3 will then explore the effectiveness or otherwise of working inside and outside the system. In the meantime, if you have any other thoughts regarding the pros and/or cons of working within the system then please add your comments.