On second thought, yes I can. Because we live in the era of the “30,000 foot view.” In our modern age, data is available and accessible, and big systems-wide analysis dominates our media. But when we reduce humans to data points — whether it’s Jake Fuentes writing about a systemic power takeover, Nate Silver forecasting election outcomes, or Barrack Obama assuring us we’ll all be fine — we lose sight of the individual experiences and stories that actually matter.
Mr. Fuentes might have a point about the Trump team testing America’s appetite for fascism. In fact, I think he does. But what he might regard as a “head fake” or dry run does serious harm to actual people.
Dozens were detained in airports nationwide, some for days. Reports say they were subjected to interrogation tactics, and pressed to sign away their rights Others, fleeing religious persecution and fearing for their lives, were turned away and sent back into harm’s way. Seniors, some with very little language access, were kept from family members waiting for them right outside of customs.
All of these are real human beings, experiencing real suffering, at the hands of a government whose sole rationale for existence is to protect the rights and well-being of the innocent. They are more than data points, more than pawns in the game of global politics. To describe the policy that harmed them as a “head fake,” to imply it is a distraction, is to minimize their experience.
Closing the Empathy Gap
The world is big, and data analysis can reveal illustrative trends that are useful to governance and policy. When we let that data stand in for actual lived experience, however, we initiate a kind of cognitive dissonance that sews distrust and disdain for government.
This was likely one of President Obama’s greatest shortcomings. Time and again we watched our President stand at a podium and tell us what a success the ACA was, or how job growth figures revealed the strength of our economic recovery. And those things were certainly true, from a macro-analytic scale. The trouble is, it wasn’t the whole story.
For those people whose premiums were skyrocketing out of reach, or those in communities folding up for lack of industry, macroeconomic trends are at best meaningless. At worst, they sound like outright lies.
Imagine living in a bombed out Rust Belt town, surrounded every day by the signs of industrial collapse and economic ruin. Every time the President talks about the economy, he’s touting job growth numbers, and record GDP. Contrast that with your lived experience, and of course you are going to feel passed over. Of course you are going to feel resentful.
To be clear, I’m not joining the ranks claiming we need to “listen more to the White Working Class,” which is most often code for endorsing white supremacy. What I am saying is that macroeconomic analysis has its utility, but that a government is obligated to also understand the human stories behind the figures.
A Product of the Shrinking News Media
I suspect that the movement toward macro-analysis is, like many of the issues that plague our current political discourse, a result of the reduction in staff and scope of the modern news media.
It comes down to simple math: With fewer beat reporters available to meet and interview individuals, it’s easier and more cost-effective for editors and anchors to rely on data analysis. Why send reporters to talk with laid off workers, when you can cut together a serviceable story from the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site?
This is not to suggest there aren’t dedicated journalists out there doing the hard work of speaking with actual humans. Trump’s Muslim Ban yielded a particular outpouring of real human stories, possibly because those victimized were condensed into major city airports, convenient for networks and newspapers. This is one thing that makes Fuentes’s “head fake” argument so wrong-headed; for once, the human cost of a bad policy was readily visible.
That said, there are reporters working to get those stories every day — there just aren’t nearly as many as there used to be.
It’s increasingly questionable whether Americans really know our country at all. The tendency to substitute broad demographic statistics for individual engagement lies at the heart of many recent narratives —the Democrats’ failure to recognize Rust Belt disenchantment, liberal America’s shock at the power and prevalence of white supremacy, White astonishment and denial at the abuse of Black communities by police… The list goes on.
We have an obligation, as a society, to focus not only on the big picture but on the millions of small pieces that make it up. Humans are not data points. Families are not clusters. Trends are not universal.
We need to take more time to pay attention to one another, to recognize and value the lived experience and inherent value of each individual human. We are, after all, a government of the people, for the people, by the people — not “a statistically significant sample” of the people.