I usually make a clear distinction between an institution itself and the people who make up that institution, because I always feel uncomfortable when people criticize institutions based on what its members do. This might sound weird; after all, an institution is its people, is it not? Well, not necessarily. The personal example for me, of course, is people who criticize Islam – an entire religion with an entire book on what it, as an institution, expects and endorses – but people still defame the faith and all its followers based on the actions of a small minority of Muslims. Why does that small group of people get to be the representative?
An institution is definitely made up of people, but the people do not define it. Institutions are supposed to transcend the people and embody higher truths and goals. The people of the institution then try their hardest to reach those higher goals. Think of the United States as an example, with its higher goals written down in its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. We do not consider the Ku Klux Klan to be representative of the United States, even though, in 1924, we almost had a Klan member as a presidential candidate (an actual representation and embodiment of the institution of the United States).
Institutions usually do have representatives, though, whether in the form of a president, a board of directors or a CEO. As I see it, the role of those embodiments of institutions is to live up to the goals of the institution and guide both the members and the institution itself. Therefore the president of the United States must be the living, breathing, walking Constitution, and the Pope speaks with the authority of the Bible; in a sense, the President is the United States and the Pope is the Church. Donald Trump is currently the embodiment of the Republican Party in the United States, but many Republicans are condemning him because he does not uphold the truths and goals of the Republican party (at least as they see it).
They can claim that so-and-so is not representing their views because they belong to a democratic political party. They can – to a certain extent – elect leaders and guide policy by publicly expressing their agreement or disagreement. This power to influence the institution, however, comes with a corresponding responsibility to represent the institution. Thus we return to where we started: Where do the people end and the institutions begin? Can we separate our judgment of institutions from our judgment of the people that are part of it? How much can we blur those lines? How much responsibility do the people bear in regards to what an institution does?
What if you don’t have any ability to influence the institution, but you actively tried to join it? How much responsibility do you have then? Are Harvard students complicit in their university’s decision to pay their dining workers below a living wage? Immigrants who apply for citizenship are told to embrace their new country’s values, and if they don’t like it they can leave. By joining the institution of the United States, they are generally expected to stay in lock-step with official policy. After all, if things were so great back where they were, they wouldn’t be here. How much are not-yet-citizen immigrants responsible for the collective policy of the United States, compared to natural-born citizens? Immigrants actively petitioned to come here; natural-born citizens just happened to show up. But natural-born citizens can vote, while not-yet-citizens cannot.
We get judged by the institutions we belong to or choose to join. It’s rare that an immigrant or a child of immigrants hasn’t been told not to become too Americanized, not to buy wholeheartedly into the institution of the United States. And who among us hasn’t looked at a Facebook friend or distant relative differently upon discovering what political party they belong to? We assume that if someone belongs to an institution, they wholeheartedly are committed to it and support what we believe to be the core goal of that institution. And that’s how we end up with people who think Muslims are terrorists, Democrats want to take away our guns and Republicans are all woman-haters (even the women).
The lines between institutions and people are blurry because people influence institutions, and institutions influence the people. And while I very much want answers to the questions raised above, it may be far more productive to spend our energy simply changing ourselves and changing the institutions we belong to.
Contact Dabiyyah Agbere at bagbere ‘at’ stanford.edu.