8.3. We Are Not Our Institutional Roles

Institutions aren’t capable of empathizing with people. Only people can empathize with people.

Every morning, we all wake up…and spend our day filling institutional roles.

Citizens. Workers. Customers. Clients. Teachers. Students.

Politicians. Police officers. Managers. Executives. Journalists. Pastors and other religious leaders.

We are not these roles.

We’re just people. But through our participation in society, we acquire these roles.

There’s a lot of pressure on us to fulfill these roles.

Heck, in the case of being a worker, your entire living wage is dependent on you doing a good job, working for the institution that’s paying you.

We are not these roles. But it’s not surprising—especially when we fill a role for a long time, and do a good job at it—that we start to identify with them.

After all, our social status—both within the organization we work for, and in our society at large—is the result of the roles we fill, and how successfully we fill them.

We are not these roles. But when you’re filling these roles…you aren’t supposed to let your personal baggage get in the way.

You’re supposed to put aside your emotions, your opinions, your disagreements—and just focus on doing the job at hand.

When you go to work, what you’re effectively paid to do is step out of your own personhood, and become an institutional agent.

You’re paid to adopt an institutional mindset. To donate your time and energy not to what you want to do, or what you think is best—but to what the rules and directives of the institution tell you to do.

We even praise people who do that well for being “professional.”

And sometimes, this is all well and good.

But where we run into problems is when our institutions become corrupt, exploitative, or dysfunctional.

We run into problems when the personhood that you’re supposed to just set aside temporarily doesn’t come back—and an institutional mindset takes over your own personal mindset.

Because institutions suck at seeing people as people.

They can only see people as roles, as resources, as objects useful to their institutional goals…or obstacles standing in their way, making their jobs harder.

As numbers, scapegoats, targets, pawns, suckers, sources of revenue, people who need to be disciplined or punished.

Anytime we see people in this way…we aren’t really seeing them as people. We’re seeing them through the eyes of institutional agents.

So many of our societal conflicts boil down to a conflict between some group of ordinary people, and some group of institutional agents.

Usually, the institutional agents are victimizing the ordinary people. And usually, they feel totally justified in doing so—because the institutional mindset has so taken over the people who work for that institution that they can’t empathize with the people they’re oppressing.

Because institutions aren’t capable of empathizing with people. Only people can empathize with people.

As Upton Sinclair famously said, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

We are not these roles.

And no matter what roles you fill, and how devoted you are to their mission, I hope you can still step out of those roles, and be a person.


This is the 127th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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