Why is the system’s thinking different from the that of individuals within the system?
by Sun Liping
[ This essay was published when I first launched a public WeChat column. Now, I’ve made some revisions, and am publishing it again as follows. I’m doing this because people have a hard time comprehending a few recent events because they were incredibly unreasonable. It’s hard to understand why people, who are clearly smart and have gone through great travails, are screwing things up so badly. This essay attempts to explain this phenomenon from the perspective of the thinking of the system.]
( January 22, 2018, Beijing, Sri Lanka Guardian) About 20 years ago, I once said: Sometimes the system is more stupid than individuals in the system. That is to say, people within the system may all appear to be shrewd, but the system as a whole sometimes nevertheless behaves foolishly. Certain academic big shots were unhappy about my comment.
Below I’ve recounted a story I told in 2008 during a lecture at Tencent’s Yanshan Lecture Hall (腾讯燕山大讲堂), which says something about the truth of what I said.
Around the late 70s or early 80s when I was studying at Peking University, I came upon a short story in a provincial literary magazine. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten the title of the story and the name of the magazine; nor do I remember the author, and haven’t found any other mention of this very meaningful story. But I remember vividly the plot of the story, nearly 30 years later.
The story involved a soldier who was about to be demobilized. In order to be able to find a good job after he left the military, he wanted to secure Communist Party membership (at that time, the kind of work you could find and whether or not you were a Party member were directly related). So, acting on suggestions from friends, he started to give presents to his political instructor, spending a lot of money on the effort. But up until the day before he left the army, he still didn’t have his Party membership.
One evening, he charged into the instructor’s office and got into a big argument. Suddenly, he spotted a gun in the office, grabbed it, and pointed it at the instructor’s head. The company commander, who was nearby, heard the altercation. The moment he opened the door, he saw the soldier pointing the gun at the instructor’s head.
What to do? If the company commander forcibly seized the gun, it was likely to accidentally discharge and kill or injure the instructor. In such a state of emergency, he thought of the plot of a movie he’d seen not long before, involving the use of psychological deterrence. Accordingly, he walked towards the soldier while shouting “Go ahead and shoot!” “Shoot!” The soldier was stunned: How could the commander be yelling at me to shoot? Meanwhile, the commander slowly walked over and pushed the muzzle of the gun toward the floor, preventing a tragedy.
Now it was time for the incident to be handled. That the soldier would be punished was inevitable. The next to be punished was the commander. The reason for punishing the commander was because he was telling the soldier to shoot when the gun was pointed at the instructor. The commander defended himself: “It was to deter him psychologically.” But the system is incapable of acknowledging the law of psychological deterrence, because in the only political logic recognized by the system, there is no way to put the law of psychological deterrence in an appropriate position. What the system could acknowledge was a fact that could not be simpler –– that “when the muzzle of the gun was pointed at the instructor’s head, you said ‘shoot.’” As independent individuals, the people who were handling the case perhaps understood perfectly well the true intention of the commander, but the system in which these individuals operated had no way to do so.
What’s my point in telling this story again? I hope to point out the difference between an individual’s thinking and that of the system. Some years ago, a well-known British anthropologist, Mary Douglas, wrote a book titled How Institutions Think. The title implies that systems are able to think. Indeed, systems are able to think. Such a proposition gives us an even greater recognition and understanding of systems. But regretfully, in the end, scholars still often attribute the system’s thinking to human thinking; that is, they suppose that the thinking of the system thinking is carried out through individuals. In this way, individuals and the system are again rather simplistically confounded with one another.
What I want to emphasize is that the thinking of the system is not the same as the thinking of the people within the system. In fact, the thinking of the system is sometimes quite different from the thinking of the people in it. Every person in the system may understand a matter, but the system does not. For another example: during the Cultural Revolution, a man accidentally broke a statue of Chairman Mao. Everyone understood that it was an accident, but the system does not allow such an event to be an accident: If you broke a statue of Mao, you must be punished.
Why is the system’s thinking different from the that of individuals within the system? Because the thinking of individuals depends on the individual’s intelligence and knowledge, and institutional thinking depends on the logic and circumstances of the system. And so to the question raised in the title of this article.
Sun Liping (孙立平) teaches sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing. This is an unauthorized translation of his WeChat post 《孙立平：体制的思维与个人的思维是不一样的》 by China Chanage. (Archived here.)