Sociology is a frustrating subject to have mastery in. Few people will ever read a book by an actual Sociologist on any subject, so cocksure is everyone that they have Society all mapped out. Then there are people like me who after reading literally thousands of books have come to only one very definitive conclusion: people are fucking weirdos.
In fact, I am an expert primarily in knowing just how much we don’t actually know about people.
Now, admittedly, most of what comprises humanity is inane, insufferable and boring as hell. And, unfortunately for all of us, measuring the inane, insufferable and boring as hell has become the primary concern of most Sociologists — which is part of the reason why no one reads us.
Numbers are distracting. I feel like I can say this, having spent several years of graduate school entirely distracted from my qualitative research, required to take graduate-level statistics courses. And really, all I can say about it is that numbers have this profound way of weaponizing bullshit. I mean, I don’t need to tell you this — just consider all these insipid public opinion polls pundits now use to legitimize whatever steaming pile they pull out of their asses. If there’s anything that should be disproving the utility of statistical reasoning, it’s this egregiously ridiculous election.
It’s a myth that all qualitative sociologists are just bad at math. I’m actually fairly good at math. I just really hate numbers.
Personally, I broker in feelings, thoughts, wishes, fears, dreams, pains, doubts, anxieties, dreads, hopes and every other thing you can do with your brain that’s so erratic and fantastic, trying to quantify it would be patently absurd. Why? Because I theorize sex and power, a human ocean so vast, no economist will ever capture it with even the most convoluted of models.
But we live in a neoliberal dumpsterfire of an epoch where everyone insists everything must be objectively measured. And once things are measured, they can be objectively ranked. And when things are ranked, then rewards can be objectively distributed. And then when people suffer, assholes can claim everything is justified because we distributed resources based on rankings which in turn were based on measurements. (Which, if you know me, you know what I’m about to say here: this is tautological as fuck.)
Numbers are power. The ability to confer measurement onto someone is a socially legitimized way of dehumanizing them. Boys learn very early the power of rank and waste no time using it to hurt. I remember when I was in middle school, boys delighted in rating all the girls on a scale of 1 to 10 on slips of paper they’d cheerily pass around to each other. Inevitably, the girls would find out their “objective” ranking and emotionally implode. It’s a rite of passage for girls to realize that their entire worth as a human being can be so blithely reduced to a number. And much of their teenage socialization — from GPA to SAT — will be more of the same psychic torture.
By the time you’re 25, you’re probably so used to being ranked, judged, prodded, weighed, and assessed that you have long stopped questioning the legitimacy of measurement. After all, you just spent the past ten years jumping through x number of hoops in your efforts to solve for y. And you probably judge your own y value against that of everyone else’s y value and so on and so forth until we have so thoroughly quantified the fuck out of our lives that I’m genuinely amazed that anyone still has the audacity to live.
For most of my life, I was ruled by numbers. I grew up in poverty, so counting change for food was my introduction to the power of metrics. I became anorexic at 13, so my weight measured my worth. I needed a scholarship to afford college, so my SAT score determined my future. And when I found myself 23 and single, 30 was a deadline.
But none of that makes me unique. Millions of girls are born into poverty, develop eating disorders, struggle to pay for college and worry that if they’re not married by 30, they’ll never have families and will die unloved in a ditch. I mean, by all these measures, I’m profoundly ordinary.
And yet I nevertheless felt compelled to live the first 25 years of my life entirely according to the numbers. I had suspicions, of course, that much of the rationale that lay behind them was oppression. But the rewards for sticking to them were so plainly evident. At the nadir of my anorexia, when I weighed 91 pounds and nurses were struggling to find my pulse, a modelling agent gave me a card at my shitty summer job at an ice cream shop. “With those eyes,” she said as I handed her a 670-calorie cone, “I could do something with you.”
I knew then as I do now, people with power and resources make it their hobby to fuck with the powerless and resourceless. But that doesn’t change the fact that the people with power and resources have them and so they get to dictate sanity for the rest of us.
I knew the power of numbers, for good or for bad. I knew that if I lived by the numbers — if I weighed under 110 lbs, if I scored over 1400 on my SATs, if I was married by 28 — I’d be ok. As a poor kid, I put a ton of faith in those numbers. I knew them all. I bet my life on them.
When those college admissions officers read my perfect file and delighted over my perfect numbers, what they never saw — and frankly they would not care to see — was how depressed and unhappy I was acquiring them. By 17, I had attempted suicide — twice. While I was ranked first in my graduating class and knocked out perfect 800s on my SAT IIs, I was a profoundly broken child. And of course I got in everywhere I applied! (Except Bowdoin! Good call, Bowdoin!) Numbers hide so much, don’t they?
I don’t like numbers because they are so obviously reductive. I hate numbers because they are so often used as a means of vicious self-control. I resist numbers because the powerful maintain their power by dictating the acceptable range of y outcomes for everyone else.
I think there are several things going on in Society that contribute to our collective submission to statistical tyranny:
- No one knows what the fuck they are doing at any point in the lifecourse so numbers (specifically salary) lend some kind of social proof that one is not a complete fuckup. Earning more than a starvation wage? Success!
- With so much garbage being made now, no one seems able to discern what’s worthwhile without some kind of crowd-sourced rating. You probably won’t buy a book off of Amazon with fewer than 3 stars. You can’t just be funny, you have to have 50,000 followers on Twitter so everyone actually knows.
- Similarly, no one actually trusts their own judgment. They instead defer to “experts” who direct them to other experts’ numbers because they don’t trust themselves either. It’s like a circlejerk of numeric insecurity.
- Lastly, inequality needs to be made palatable somehow and people blindly accept the morally heinous if it’s hiding behind statistics.
Let me expound on this last bit because it is my point here. IBM made serious profit building early-model computers for the Nazis to calculate — down to the calorie — the mass extermination of the Jews. And because the Holocaust was hiding behind so many numbered punchcards, most Germans did not feel like they were killing anyone.
And similarly, inequality hides behind numbers. The numbers somehow allow so many of us to forget that there are people trying to live behind them. When I say one out of five American children lives in poverty, that probably means nothing to you. If I presented you with five children and pointed to the one who is poor, you might shrug. If I told you his name and asked him to tell you about his favorite teacher, maybe you’d listen. If he tells you he struggles to fall asleep at night because he’s so hungry, I hope you’d start feeling uncomfortable. If I show you the cockroaches that crawl off the walls into his bed at night, I’m making one out of five very fucking real for you.
I know the power of numbers. I know how they are used to occlude injustice. But I also know the power of stories and the role they play in liberating us from statistical tyranny. That’s why I prefer stories to numbers. Numbers are numbing. People quickly feel that once something is counted, it no longer counts. It’s been sorted. Someone else is handling it. Whatever.
Stories usually don’t let you get away with that. Stories humanize. They develop character. Stories inspire empathy in a way numbers never can. I can’t make you feel one out of five. But if I told you about his life, his friends, his dreams, his hopes and his fears, you might understand child poverty. If I told you his whole story, maybe you’d cry.
At least that’s what I thought until this weekend.
We are living in a country right now where thousands of comfortable people take it upon themselves to tell the poor how to suffer their poverty. They even go to absurd lengths to break down the numbers so that they might insist that were they in similar circumstances, they could quite easily eke out a miserable life and thus the poor have no rational basis for complaint.
But this math is grotesque violence. Its logical proof invalid from the start, motivated not with the intention of proving anything of value but only to silence the remainders of a truly fucked up equation.
At this point, no doubt, you’ve realized you’re now at the end of yet another response to the many responses to talia jane’s letter that I’m sure you would have never clicked on had I opened with that pretense. Because that’s the numbing power of numbers, isn’t it? After so many derivatives of the same fucked up equations, you stop caring, bored with the effort of concern. Like Justin Keller, you step over so many superfluous bodies every day, you just want them to disappear.
San Francisco, there’s a truly alarming bias in how you’re setting up your problems. I see you making the same moral errors and so you keep arriving at the same shitty answers. Given this sweeping quantified-self problem you’ve got going on here, I’m starting to suspect that the only thing you’re disrupting out there is your own sense of human decency.
I’m disappointed and sad and disgusted by a community I’ve come to take quite a liking to these past few months. I have no tidy conclusion to this. I want to leave it a mess.
But I do want to leave you with one thought. I don’t know if it’ll help.
Adulting means demonstrating compassion, even if no one’s willing to pay you for it.