Tolerance in Social Systems


Unfortunately, we don’t like complexity in our society; we’re always looking for the quick fix.
— Dr. Daniel Taber

There are many instances in our society when we resort to ‘quick fixes’ for social problems. If someone commits a crime or acts out, we punish them. If educators struggle to evaluate school performance, we implement standardized testing. We often reach for a counteractive policy or punishment, like a band-aid for a wound. But, these ‘quick fixes’ come with many unintended consequences, which sometimes exasperate the problem they were designed to solve.

These consequences happen because social problems lie within many interrelated systems, so there is no isolated or linear way to approach them. They are ‘social’ problems after all, meaning they depend on connection and people; they depend on networks to reach a solution. In social systems, connection creates opportunity.   

Connecting people is about creating more possibilities by looking at the world in three-dimensional, not two-dimensional, form.
— Paul Shoemaker

Connection will break down barriers within a network, giving people access to more relationships, interactions, feedback, and growth. Strong and weak ties within a network help the network itself to evolve and grow alongside each person, or individual agent.

So, if connection strengthens social networks, why do we constantly resort to rejection or isolation as a way to “resolve” social issues?

When using this tactic, we create a cycle of deflection, where the person or ‘problem’ is consistently pushed out of one system and into another. But, this mindset which is geared toward eliminating the problem, is in itself, a problem.  


As an example, think about the “Zero Tolerance” policy in schools, which is “a school or district policy that mandates predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses that are intended to be applied regardless of the seriousness of the behavior, mitigating circumstances, or situational context.” The majority of young people who are affected by zero tolerance policies are often labeled as "problems" because of their daily life struggles, like poverty, neglect, and racial discrimination. Ironically, these students require the most support and tolerance for error. They are not "problems". They are disconnected, lost, and frustrated. They need a support system to help them navigate through their learning journey. 

Sadly, many of the students who are punished according to the vague guidelines of the "Zero Tolerance" policy, are expelled from school or placed in juvenile detention. Once they are cast out of the educational system into the criminal system, they fall behind in their studies and struggle to graduate. They become trapped in an ongoing cycle, which inhibits learning and growth.

The highest result of education is tolerance
— Helen Keller

When it comes to social systems, it appears that the more we reach for quick fixes, the more off-track the system, and the agents within it, become. How can we expect any growth to occur in a system which leaves no room for mistakes? 

When dealing with social systems, we must practice tolerance. We can't expect to find resolutions to our social problems by holding on to pride and prejudice. No policy or punishment will "fix" human behavior, but well-designed systems can provide enough support for people to reach opportunity. They just have to chose to take it.  

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. In our new episode, Haley interviews Dr. Daniel Tabera scientist who specializes in food policy and systems research. -- Let's Work Happy!

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