A few times a year I head over to my favourite day spa for a massage and a facial. It’s always something that I really look forward to, and my most recent expedition was no exception. But something unexpected happened this time. You see, a few months ago my partner and I found out that I was pregnant with our first child. So, when I arrived at the day spa, and not really thinking anything of it, I mentioned that fact. I’m not visibly pregnant, I’m still sleeping on my tummy, and I figured that I’d let my therapist know in case I wanted to roll over.
“Well we can’t do the massage, then.” The therapist announced.
“Why not?” I asked, confused.
“It’s not safe, to have you on your tummy.”
“But I sleep on my tummy.”
“It’s our policy.”
“Hang on. Am I not able to make this decision for myself? Can I not sign a waiver that says that I am happy to take on this risk?”
“No, that’s not an option.”
I couldn’t believe it, and it became the straw that broke the camel's back: there was a moment of silence before sheer frustration and disappointment caught up with me, and I started to cry. This (being denied the ability to make decisions for myself and my child) isn't a new experience for me since becoming pregnant - any woman in this boat will find herself coming into contact with systems that are ostensibly built to serve her and her needs and the needs of her baby, but which consistently deny her individual experience in favour of universalised standards.
As I chewed over what had happened, I realised that this concept is relevant beyond pregnant women and systems, to all individuals and systems. And it got me to considering:
Why it is that our systems - our organisations, our public institutions etc - are so bad at accomodating diverse individual experience?; and
How could we do this better?
We can understand human beings in two ways - by looking at the individual, or by determining a standard that seems to be true for the majority of individuals
There are two ways to understand how human beings work:
The individual approach: This is done by looking at an individual, and measuring things about that individual in order to understand him/her; or
The universal approach: This is done by looking at multiple individuals, measuring the same things about those individuals, plotting all of those results on a graph, and determining a line (or a range) of best fit. This line (or range) of best fit creates a standard that systems can be built off of.
We build systems based on the universal approach, which has a number of benefits
Systems that need to respond to more than one person - like our schooling system, welfare system, and all of the systems that we use in our organisations - are inevitably built on the universal approach. That is, they take what we deem to be ‘usual’ about human beings (or a certain type of human being), and they build from there. (Please note: what is deemed to be 'usual' about human beings inevitably reflects the values of those who are making that determination, which means that they will reflect those individual's biases).
This approach enables standardisation. Standardisation, as anyone who works in a cost-control function knows, has a number of benefits that tie in to our prevailing institutional values of 'profit maximisation' and 'certainty' and 'accountability':
It's cost effective. The less variables we have to respond to, the simpler and cheaper something is to run.
It assuages our very human fear of uncertainty, by giving us certainty. It allows us to say “THESE are the parameters of this system; THIS is what you’re meant to do in this situation” etc. It simplifies our (and others') very complex reality, and, in so doing, makes us feel psychologically safer.
It enables us to predict the outcomes that institutions care about with greater accuracy: in organisations it will be profit and the likelihood of being sued; in schooling systems it might be test scores; in welfare systems it might be 'money out'. On this point, check "Teacher" out. It's an incredible book that goes into the impact that standardised testing in Australian schools has on both the teaching and learning experience of individuals.
But the universal approach inevitably excludes/ignores individuals and individual circumstances, which isn't so cool
The universal approach has a very major flaw: very few individuals ever actually sit on the line of best fit, and a heap of individuals will sit outside of a range of best fit, such that every system will inevitably exclude certain individuals. The closer you are to the line of best fit, the better the system will work for you… but, if you happen to be a bit of an outlier, you’ll have a regular experience of your individuality being totally invalidated by that system.
Think about trans people, or fathers with their little daughters, and how those groups are forced to navigate gendered bathrooms (male/female being the thing that we've decided is 'usual' for humans, and thus what we will base our systems on).
Think about how doctor's are likely to respond to those who are chronically ill with a disease that science hasn't yet diagnosed (particular groups of symptoms being the thing that doctor's have decided is 'usual', and thus what we'll base our diagnoses on, and thus what medical insurance responds to). On this point, check out this amazing TED talk to learn more about a real life example of this.
Think about people with disabilities and the ongoing access issues they face with being meaningfully included in normal schooling or work arrangements (a certain standard of 'able' is the thing we've decided is 'usual', and thus what we'll base our curriculum or work-participation on).
So, is there a way to build systems that accomodate the individual experience of everyone who interacts with them?
What we believe about ourselves, others and "how the world works" becomes the basis for our values. And our values show up in the systems that we create - that is, all systems reflect the values of their creator.
What we would need to believe
Do we even believe that it might be possible to accomodate the individual experience of everyone? Or are we stuck in a belief that says that there are right and wrong ways of being in the world and thus everyone shouldn't be accommodated, or it's simply too hard to even try, or, or, or...?
Because until we believe that everyone can be respectfully accommodated, we won't try for it.
Until we believe that the individual experience of people is equally valuable, even if it is not our experience, we won't try for it. And until we believe that that experience is worth the opportunity cost of, say, more profit or our own beliefs about how to be in the world, we definitely won't try for it.
Until we believe that we are all inextricably connected, and what hurts one hurts everyone, we won't try for it.
What we would need to value
We would need to value:
everyone's experience equally in order to design systems that flexed to accomodate individual experience; and
the rights of individuals to make decisions for themselves, and to live with the consequences of those decisions.
Things to ponder
This is a complicated (potentially emotive) topic, and I'm interested in other people's views on this.
Thoughts that I've had include:
I don't think that we can move away from building systems based on standardisation, but I do believe that the range of best fit that we build our systems on could be significantly widened to actually reflect the diversity that we see in our communities. This would require there to be diversity at the highest levels of decision making, because we all see/speak from our own perspective: boards and governments should compromise more than just middle aged white men and their token female counterpart, but people from all different races, ages, sexualities, genders, and religious orientations.
I think we could loosen the dictates of our organisational policies to accomodate individual experience and circumstances - rather than treating all of our employees or customers 'the same' and thinking that's what equality looks like, or applying blanket approaches to narrowly defined criteria without considering whether it's applicable in this particular instance.
I think that people should be given more rope, and there are ways to do this which don't expose our institutions to prohibitively high levels of risk. But we have to honour the rights of individuals to make choices that we potentially don't agree with.