When systems thinking goes haywire

"Systems thinking" is an essential component of a progressive worldview. When analyzing a difficult situation, a systems thinker sees how all of the components fit together, rather than focusing on finding the one component at fault.

Take, for example, the problem of school shootings. The conventional approach is to identify the shooter as the problem, and then propose solutions to eliminate the problem. "The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a [bigger] gun." So some right wingers have proposed arming teachers. I can't imagine, though, a more terrifying nightmare to conservatives than the prospect of an armed National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

So some conservatives have turned to the powerful weapon of systems thinking to analyze the problem of why young, white, male students kill their fellow students. It's actually a very good question. It is a very good start to name that there is a school shooter system. It is a complex set of people, institutions, customs, and relationships, and now, it turns out school shooters as predictably as an assembly line turns out automobiles.

How does that school shooter production system work?

This is when we see that putting powerful tools like systems thinking in the hands of immature ideologues results in mayhem.

The conservatives have come up with a cockamamie analysis of "a sexual marketplace". This is no surprise in the they tend to see everything as a marketplace, in which a library is just a bookstore with a bad business model.

Their theory is that in the competition for sexual access to women, men with high status get all the girls, while men with low status are forced into a life of involuntary celibacy. The "incel," the involuntarily celibate man, becomes so alienated, and angry, and isolated, and resentful, that he turns eventually to revenge against the women who have denied him, and the men whom they have chosen instead. Well, that is their theory.

What is a surprise, in fact gob-smackingly amazing, is that conservatives want to interfere with the normal workings of this marketplace, to create a more equitable result.

It doesn't bother them that people with lots of assets live in penthouse apartments and mansions while those with the least assets are forced into homelessness. It doesn't bother them that people with lots of assets have access to superb healthcare, while those with fewer assets end up in the emergency room. Any intervention in the normal workings of the housing or healthcare marketplace would be anathema, but the plight of sexually frustrated young men demands action.

And starting from there, the systems thinkers of the right are coming up with all sorts of cockamamie solutions, but in the end, they come to "enforced monogamy", which is another name for the sexual system of the 1950's. Pre-marital sex is officially forbidden, which pushes people into early marriages, mostly to avoid the shame of an unplanned pregnancy. In order to work, enforced monogamy requires limiting access to contraception and the outlawing of abortion. Sex has to be shameful.

We all know that the 1950's didn't work out so well. It seems that the most common theme in popular culture since the end of WW2 has been the misery created by that system of enforced monogamy.

There are systems which turn out school shooters. Those systems are called patriarchy, rape culture, porn culture, and gun culture. Notice I said "cultures", not "markets." Cultures and markets are related and mutually reinforcing, but not the same.

What's missing for some young men is not the assets to successfully compete in a sexual marketplace. They lack the relational skills to function competently in the lifestage when people are forming intimate relationships. Their ability to develop those relational skills are limited by culture.

Porn culture teaches that satisfying sexual desires is the highest value in life. Rape culture teaches that the use of coercive power to compel women to satisfy sexual desire is justified, for its own sake. And gun culture ensures that a tool for expressing your rage in a public theatre of death is always available.


  1. Such truth here! Thanks for writing this. Renee Hills, Brisbane UU Fellowship, Australia.

  2. Deeply pondering your post. These are new thoughts for me on the ways this system fits together. The piece that seems missing is about the "need" for these young white men who become shooters to feel powerful. How power is defined, what they will do to get power etc. Where fragility fits in to the concept of power and this stew.

    I'm trying on your ideas, with a large dose of power hunger added and it seems right. Thinking of it as a recipe for school shootings that needed a bit more of one ingredient to make it complete.


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