As a student of political science and international relations, I once had to take a statistics course, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that I managed to get as much as a C grade. I never could figure out how to do a spreadsheet, let alone compute the numbers. Perhaps the teacher didn’t have much faith in us, to begin with – a bunch of social scientists-in-the-making – for one of the texts he’d set us was Statistics for Dummies.
Fortunately for me, the international relations department of the university where I did my PhD didn’t care much for quantitative analysis, or hard facts to support a thesis. It was all about being able to make a good argument.
Statistics, I’ve since discovered, aren’t always the hard facts they’re made out to be. There’s subjectivity in numbers too; data is often interpreted in such a way as to support people’s theories and preconceived notions about the state of things. Used skillfully, the same set of data could end up being interpreted very differently, depending on the agenda they’re supposed to serve.
That’s not to say that statistics are unimportant, far from it. In a world where fake news and alternative facts are permeating almost every aspect of our lives, we need hard facts, and we need numbers, we need empirical studies.
There’s plenty of data telling us that the world is a better place today than it was 10, 50, 100 years ago, and in some ways that’s true. Child mortality is down, global living standards are going up, more children than ever have access to education, etc. That’s all great news. So why does the world look so gloomy when I open up the newspaper in the morning?
I think we forget one huge factor when assessing progress and development: human perceptions, attitudes and behaviour.
For, while we’ve sought to legislate away racism, discrimination, antisemitism, hate crimes, etc, the underlying attitudes and perceptions of people vis-a-vis ‘the other’ haven’t changed all that much.
The recent Windrush-scandal, for example, has laid bare the racism that still affects policymaking at the highest level of the British government. Similarly, antisemitism is too prevalent for comfort within the Labour party.
Over in Scandinavia, Sweden – which prides itself on being one of the most gender equal countries in the world – is reeling from a sexual harassment scandal involving the Swedish Academy, the crème de la crème of the nation’s literary elite.
Legislation alone won’t do away with racism, antisemitism or misogyny. Prejudice, as Albert Einstein said, is harder to crack than an atom.
But discrimination, hate crime and prejudice extend beyond race, religion and sex. People with disabilities have long been subjected to all kinds of discrimination and abuse, and this week, Changing Faces, the UK-wide charity that supports people with facial disfigurement, launched a new campaign to raise awareness of appearance-related hate crimes. For, while hate crimes against people of different colours, ethnicities and religions are well-documented, it’s lesser known that abuse, threats and intimidation against a person based on their appearance, may also constitute a hate crime.
During my time as a volunteer for Changing Faces, I came across many people with a facial disfigurement who reported being abused and harassed on the street or public transport because of their appearance. As a child and teenager, I too suffered such abuse, and to this day I get very nervous around groups of teenagers on the underground.
Anti-discrimination laws and policies, aside, genuine human progress will only be realised the day when skin colour, ability and appearance no longer determine people’s place in society.