Applying POSIWID

Stafford Beer famously said that the purpose of a system is what it does, the POSIWID principle. Here’s an example of it (if you want some more, try my Politics of the Call Centre series). It’s fairly common for atheists to express amazement at the idea that anyone would expect religious people, especially Catholics, to actually obey the rules that their religions impose. Further, they tend to observe that a lot of people don’t obey them. They then conclude that the whole thing is hypocritical and also ridiculous.

But the purpose of a system is what it does. If you break the rules, what happens? You are expected to be profoundly ashamed of having become a sinner. You can emerge from this state of shame by carrying out the rites the religion prescribes. Therefore, because actual observance is unlikely, there will always be people seeking relief from their shame, and both the survival of the institution and its influential position deciding what you ought to be ashamed of are guaranteed. The product on offer is absolution, not obedience. It is the management of consequences, not prevention. The purpose of the system is what it does.

See also, Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah for a Protestant-inflected version of the same theme. It’s mistaken to wonder why people put up with Southern Baptist state governors who are endlessly transgressing with airport toilets and needing rebirth. The point is, very publicly, that they choose to manage their emotions through a particular institution, and if you know what I mean, the choice of the particular institution is connected with the original Peculiar Institution. The purpose of the system is what it does.

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