Numbers Matter? Examining the Quantification Narrative

As I sit and try to figure out how to round out the rest of my Labor Day Weekend, I made a point of catching up on the news & world events, particularly as they pertain to social justice and civil rights.  Oh, and hey, if you are reading this on Labor Day, I got a show tomorrow night - Click Here.  Anywho, going through the headlines as well as my finely tailored Twitter feed entitled #JusticeForAll, a theme presented itself that I’ve actually been wanting to kind of tackle for awhile now.  When folks talk about civil rights, often times you will see detractors from the movement use statistics to fence the importance of advocating for marginalized and oppressed people.  I’m sure everyone has seen the multiple memes and screen captions denoting the mythicized issue of so-called “Black on Black crime.”  I call it mythicized for lots of reasons, the largest being that crime will, in many cases, happen within the direct vicinity of the criminal, and since the United States remains a country with strongly segregated neighborhoods, most violent crime will occur between two or more people with similar ethnic backgrounds.  I could delve deeper into that, but so much has already been written.  If you want an easy breakdown of why so-called “Black on Black” crime is a myth, you can start with some hard insight by Tim Wise - Click Here.

But the other meme I see alot - the one which actually prompted me to write about the numbers associated with social justice - is the one about this country’s double standard with quantification as it pertains to time, body count, and percentages.  Some of you may have had something like this gem shared on your social media timelines in recent years:

If you can’t tell, the objective of this meme is to illustrate the double standard by which the American public, as well as mainstream media, strongly suggests we keep certain tragic events near & dear to our hearts, while “letting go” or “forgetting” others.  In the US, this “letting go” is often tied to struggles experienced by marginalized groups of people, as opposed to the majority, and yes, it is often levied at the struggles or hardships experienced by the victims of the Middle Passage, the African Diaspora, and the American slave trade.  While I could take another ten paragraphs to explain why the moral implications behind this duplicity have lent themselves to our nation’s current state of affairs, again, the point of this piece is to deal with the numbers tied to this dichotomous status quo.  Specifically, how quantification has not only served as justification for institutionalized racism, but how our shrewd understanding of numeric data-collection continues to aid in the social stigmas associated with the assessment of People of Color here and across the world.

As I view it now, it’s evident, though subjective, that since we live in a society where numbers matter, we have been indoctrinated with the concept of using the number of things to determine how to process any and all events associated with those things, whatever they may be.  More pointedly, we are a society that assigns intrinsic value to an event based on whether or not there are “more” or “less” of the things/people involved.  The easiest example of this comes in the form of our capitalist economy; obviously, in most cases, we assign more value or worth to things/people/organizations/institutions that are worth more money, and that have more wealth to spend or share than others.  Education is also a product of this phenomenon: we determine that a student who gets a higher score on a standardized test is more worthy of continuing their education, or, in the case of specific fields of study, more qualified to advance in said fields than those who score lower.  Many of you are reading this and probably saying to yourselves, “Well, duh.  Is this new?  And why is that a bad thing?”

In a sense, you’re right.  On the surface, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  With the many complex social, economic, and political aspects of a developed nation, it is understood that in order for it to run, we need guidelines, benchmarks, and assessments to be able to balance out and filter those aspects so that they function to the best of their ability.  Numerical value can be an easy, no-nonsense way to do this.  But as I’ve said, the problematic, and, indeed, more insidious nature of this number-based system, presents itself within the internal layers of this societal standard.  Why?  Because, IMHO, not only do we adhere to the accolades or punishments rendered by the results of numeric assessment with an almost blind complacency, we now also assign value or worth to practically everything about our lives using numbers, how they add up, and how they’re taken away.

Everything.  Including things that should never be tied to that kind of value system.
I call it the ‘Quantification Narrative.’
Sidebar, going forward, I’ll be using QN to make this a bit more streamlined.

Now, after reading this, you’re probably asking how this concept, this Quantification Narrative, comes into play when we talk about social justice, civil rights, or human rights advocacy?  The answer, I think, is very simple, and you can use the meme above as a guide.  Part of the reason why so many social justice denialists take issue with the bringing up of US slavery as part of the argument for advocacy on the part of People of Color is the time differential.  I’m sure you’ve heard people constantly say this: “Slavery was over 150 years ago!  Get over it already!”  

And guess what?  They’re right - about the timing, anyway.  History points out that the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the US Civil War, and the ratifying of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution all happened roughly a century and a half ago.  But this is where the Quantification Narrative becomes destructive.  The prejudiced view about chattel slavery by the majority is tied directly to the number of years between the end of its institution and the present day.  The thought process that goes into people comfortably saying, “Get over it,” in response to the discussions about slavery and its generational effects spring from the decades, indeed, centuries of time that separate us from the horrors of the slave trade.  One could argue that the bigotry associated with denialism as it pertains to the time differential here has more to do with the fact that because so much time as passed, and the memories associated with slavery are not fresh in the narratives of the general public, that it lends itself to people feeling comfortable speaking about this tragic era with bold ignorance and condemnation of those who would speak of its bloody components.

This may be true, but the fact remains that deniers of the effects of slavery are very much prone to using that ‘150 years’ defense as a specific rebuttal to those who would try to bridge the gap between slavery and modern day institutionalized racism.  They make a point of using the QN to downplay the unconscionable practice of forcing displaced human beings to work without pay under pain of torture, persecution, and death, as if time, as a numerical assessment, should somehow justify the damage & genocide associated with slavery.

Kind of sucks when you look at it that way, right?

The QN also rears its ugly head when tallying the body count associated with acts of genocide and systemic oppression.  In my view, it is bad enough that people continue to compare the plight of People of Color in the US to the grisly account of the Holocaust in Europe, my reason being that it automatically forces people to decide which atrocities were more severe, or more worthy of our sympathy, while completely disrespecting the individual hardships associated with either event.  Put simply, it is a logical fallacy.  But the QN adds to this terrible comparison because we are continually presented with the well-documented ‘6 Million’ Jewish Europeans who were systematically murdered as part of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.”  Our society, our thought process, forces us to assign that number to this heartbreaking series of events, as if that number alone will bring the correct weight & depth of these nightmarish crimes against humanity.

Lastly, in light of recent social justice issues, the Quantification Narrative has served as the perfect defense for US citizens to rail against specific movements like #BlackLivesMatter.  As I previously stated, denialists are all too happy to trot out statistics about issues such as crime occurring in Communities of Color, citing body count, murder rate, frequency, and overall tallies to bolster the idea that advocacy for marginalized people like Black & Brown Americans is something that does not deserve national attention, but should instead be relegated to the Community itself.  I could go into the myriad of memes, stat posts, and numbers-sharing that go along with this idea, but I’ll leave you to that, with the promise that all you’d need to do is type in “Black on Black Crime” in a Google Image search to see what I mean.  Fat story thin here, the numbers used to denounce civil rights for People of Color in the US in the 21st century are proof positive that the QN can be - and oftentimes is - a dangerous, detrimental method of sidelining and altogether putting down efforts to hold this country responsible to all of its citizens, and not just those who it deems to be deserving of the freedoms and justice outlined in its Constitution.

So!  With all of this said, and all of the feels I know are going through your mind right now, your next question may be something along the lines of, “Now what?”

My very honest answer to that?  I’m really not sure.
(It’s OK to click the ‘X’ button if you read that sentence and just got mad ;-) ).

But it’s the truth.  I’m not sure how we as a society can collectively counter something like the Quantification Narrative, because we’re talking about a global, pervasive, ever-present, and ever-useful way to make some sense of our lives.  We’re talking about a kind of thought process and discourse that makes it far too easy to compartmentalize and categorize just about anything, instead of actually unpacking those mental boxes and figuring out what to do with the contents inside.  We have become way too complicit in looking at those contents maybe one or two times, throwing them in said box, and shelving them, using their numeric value to determine whether or not we’ll come back to them.  And most times, we don’t.

THAT’S how deeply-rooted the QN is.  THAT’S what a movement like #BlackLivesMatter is fighting on a daily basis.  Numbers, their value, and how it all adds up - or doesn’t.

Having admitted to this, I offer you, faithful reader, some hope in this seemingly hopeless status quo, in that while society may take ages to disconnect its general consciousness from the negative components of the Quantification Narrative, you yourself can start the process right now.  It begins with making the conscious choice to think about why you care about…well, anything.  In this moment, my concern is about how we can move forward in advocating for the rights of People of Color in the US without constantly relying on numbers or the QN as a go-to defense of our position.  We know, for example, that in instances like the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sam Dubose, and Walter Scott, the behavior presented by the law enforcement officers involved in their killings is also representative of a larger, historically problematic way in which institutions like law enforcement view & assess the value of Black lives.  The QN insists that there be a mass number of those lives lost to that misconstrued assessment - namely, that Black lives present a threat to a civil society, thereby rendering a summary execution by law enforcement as justified - before national attention is paid to the underlying problems that far too often lead to tragic deaths such as these.  

But if “All Lives Matter,” as denialists have continued to state in their ignorance of this particular problem, then we should, in essence, refrain from the QN unless it produces constructive results, since the taking of even one life as the result of institutionalized racism should be a call to action by our society to a.) cultivate + solidify policies to ensure that it does not happen again b.) offer compassion and support to those already affected by this problem.  If we truly believe that every single person matters, then in this society, where too many people become a numerical statistic, we should focus on those persons who are most at risk, and not allow our skewed view of numeric value to deter from that focus.

In closing, dear reader, I don’t want my observations to somehow be misinterpreted as a call to destroy our numbers system or rally against mathematics (could you imagine? “Hey hey, ho ho, these calculators have got to go!” Yikes).  It should go without saying - but I don’t mind saying it - that in spite of the dangers that total adherence to the Quantification Narrative can present, being able to assign order & value to things is a crucial component to our survival and, dare I say it, prosperity.  But it should also be said that we really need to reexamine where & how we do this, and realize that some things - like people’s lives & livelihood - should neither be identified, nor determined, nor prohibited, by just a number.  And yes, even though we know that major social justice movements are the result of the subjugation, vilifying, and murder of millions of marginalized humans like Persons of Color, Indigenous Peoples, LGBT citizens, Women, Muslims, the Refugee, the Immigrant, the Poor, and the Prisoner, we must never forget that every single one of their experiences is important, that we shouldn’t devalue their individual importance in favor of their collective struggle, and that understanding this while showing solidarity for their causes is absolutely the right way to go about doing so.

You can count on that.