We are more than just numbers

We live in a time of division. Out of fear, we’re dividing ourselves more quickly than ever among binary choices that diminish and deny the richness of human experience and identity by demanding complete conformity. It’s as if in our own desperation to belong, we try mightily to create belonging… rather than let it happen on its own, turn into something we don’t recognize and can’t relate to.

In Possum Kingdom, the therianthrope characters stay literally as well as figuratively underground, peripheral to the human society they protect. The division means safety, but also risk. And all of Theo’s, Abby’s, Emilia’s, even Aislinn’s decisions are instinctive, grounded in survival.

I think a lot of people are in survival mode these days, reacting against what they perceive are existential threats to their safety, culture, religion, the home they’ve always known and the home they’ve dreamed. Which has, perhaps naturally, led to one of the most subtle, but cruelest binary divisions: between those who respond rationally, and those who respond emotionally:

  • Rational, data-driven people discount emotional responses as having no basis in reality, therefore, they cannot be true; therefore, disagreement reflects an outlier at best, an echo chamber at worst.
  • In turn, emotional people cry out louder in response: the data don’t show the truth they live; therefore, it cannot be trusted, either.

Who’s right? Both; neither. There’s no question that crowds can be dangerous, on both psychological and physical levels. Neither is there any question that good business and policy decision-making demands good data.

But pure rationality is dangerous, too. We’re more than just numbers, the trends we contribute to or the statistics we generate. Our demographics, what we can or can’t pay for medical care, insurance risk, grades, costs we cut, revenue we raise, don’t form a sum equal to our whole. Any suggestion otherwise may be a form of social gaslighting: a way to avoid the inconvenience and discomfort of personal truths.

It should be clear by now that people will not listen rationally to evidence-based anything unless and until they believe they have been not just heard, but listened to, understood, validated. Empathy, not data, offers common ground from which to move forward.

We live in an age when sociologist Zeynep Tufekci so astutely pointed out that the glut of information serves as an effective form of censorship, a barrier to fact-checking. With data itself so shaky, however compelling it may be, we need the narrative of individual truth — through poetry, essay, fiction — now more than ever.

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