Society’s Welcome Convictions

by NB Armstrong (May 2013)

There are numerous imperfect but telling shorthand filters for judging a society. A people's general driving standards, the nature of the bureaucratic processes involved in starting a business, its foreigner visa restrictions, or even its pornography might all be semi-seriously invoked by the outsider wishing to explain the country he has recently visited, been deported from, or ripped off. To try to insightfully apply the above to modern day rural Uruguay or Denmark two hundred years ago is, perhaps, to immediately disprove the technique. But still, there is something general to be excavated from the particular of these limited phenomena. Another such way to gauge a society is to examine the way it summarizes itself: its news headlines. However, just as with drawing big broad conclusions from driving, pornography, etc, this is a less than scientific approach and prone to misreading. For example,

Suspension of Death Penalty Fails to Quell Rising Murder Rate

you might think had been coined by a baffled liberal stunned that a more humane punishment of murderers had not discouraged them from proceeding in their moment of revenge, sadism, drunkenness, or collectivism. This example, however, is a headline taken from the relatively conservative Korean broadsheet, the Chosun Daily. What is more, it is in translation, with all of translation's concomitant issues of interpretation. Although “Suspension of Death Penalty Fails to Quell Rising Murder Rate” is not as amusing as, 'Typhoon rips through cemetery, hundreds dead,' it is still, in some way, laughable. Less laughable are those occasions when headline writers painfully reveal the consensus of assumptions by which a society fools itself. Consider this:

Rise in Rape Convictions Welcomed

Don't ask me how, for that would be to dispel the magic of the family bond, but I could have told you that this headline came out of Britain had you announced it to me in Korean on the dark side of the moon. The headline's internal logic quickly becomes apparent. There has been an increase in the number of people successfully tried for sexual assault, meaning perhaps the judicial process is getting tougher on offenders, or the police are pursuing complaints more rigorously. But there is a pause in getting to that conclusion, or at least there was for this reader; a moment in which one's synapses trip over a moral point of confusion, and something -call it your conscience, your own internal media monitor, the sensor of your everyday fears, something- says hang on a minute: are we on some level being asked to welcome an increasing quantity of officially handled rape activity? Are we putting a positive spin on the very many instances of what is agreed to be the ne plus ultra of assault crimes?

“Around 473,000 women and men are sexually assaulted each year, with one in 20 women reported as being a victim of a serious sexual offence.”

These are peacetime figures. The report mentions that only 54,000 of these cases result in prosecution, for numerous reasons, some of which are peculiar to the dreadful effect on the victim of these crimes. There, surely, remains the “story.” But one of the figures in the detail describes a positive tendency, and so our government-spun headline adopts the widespread and convenient interpretive approach which the government uses for so many moral questions: statistics. Presumably if 54,001 cases are prosecuted in the next twelve months we can look forward to another positive headline, with the heartwarming addendum that this is the second year in a row. It is the crime section equivalent of, Liverpool Beach Hawkers Welcome Sudden Desertification Event. Only in that instance, no one would have any problem discussing the process, the harm done, or the event itself. Indeed the whole country would run its enquiring mind over the reasons for what happened and, especially, who was to blame; because it might, for heaven’s sake, effect the Premier League schedule for the following Saturday. 

But something smack bang at the ethical description point of a society, such as its extreme crime figures, is to be handled numerically. Of late the stories out of India on the prey-like status of its women have not been lacking in narrative or, it must be said, color photographs. They are images – even in the self-censoring mainstream – that cannot be unseen. The British media is very clear on the carnival of abuse going on over there. And yet you would struggle to conjure up a single image of any one of the British 54,000, let alone the 473,000. On some level this is to be welcomed, say, for the average person trying to get through the day undisturbed. But on another level, that average person is being deceived by the media’s image proxy, by statistics.

Some grand (and admittedly specious) conclusions might be drawn about the reasons for the prominence of the statistical approach, aside from enhanced modern measuring techniques. There is something going on here, in his cluelessness to make any kind of assertion without numbers, of the decline in authority of western man. Statistics are the last and therefore first means of his remaining ascendancy, a sublimation of all other means of assertion, certainly in Britain and Europe. An announcement of statistical results will provide him a stage on which to attest, to wear a power suit, to give a power point presentation, to declaim how this year’s column is shorter or longer than last year's column and how we can all agree this is a good thing or something that must be placed in a greater statistical context. There is, even within this apparently staid scene, the whiff of male crisis, of columns of numbers as property and possession, as power to be wielded. The presentation of statistics is the administrator's equivalent of the blue collar man’s habitual jangling of a heavy set of keys. Entering into a meaningful meditation on why and how 473,000 women and men are being assaulted this way would, by comparison, be a dire retreat into femininity and soul searching, not to mention a real downer which power point isn't going to aid.

Other more straightforward reasons suggest themselves, such as what is popularly called “dumbing down.” There has been much talk about how the internet effects the way we read, how it accretes and disperses the way we follow text, but very little about how that jumpy attention spans perverts news providers into shaping a story not primarily through an article or a paragraph or a headline or even in language, but numerically, through means graspable in bare figures. Related to this is pure idleness. Can we not just agree that six hundred and forty one is more than six hundred and forty and all go home? Present too is the baleful influence of economics, with its numbers-based explications of everything.

The sight of a government minister opening his brief in a televised parliamentary debate to begin spouting statistical proof over the competing statistical proof of the party opposite never fails to make me draw negative conclusions about the minister, his or her (aptly entitled) opposite number, parliament itself, and the chances of any meaningful alteration in a whole raft of status quos. When the shadow chancellor recently became tongue tied over statistics during his rebuttal of a government financial statement, it was as if Kate Middleton had been caught urinating in a Newcastle street, so exposed did he leave himself without the correct numbers to draw on, and so pitiless was the media’s subsequent ridicule.

And that brings us back to the man at the departmental press conference jangling his statistical keys, deciding, without much logical contortion – but enough to give pause when reading the headline – that the increase on which we want to focus when discussing the latest batch of sexual assault numbers is a welcome one. Does he understand that numbers chart decline as much as they chart growth, even when a figure rises? Does he also understand that if you use only numbers to describe something, you need not describe people, and what they actually do to each other?

In other good news the conviction rate for domestic violence was up 1%.

NB Armstrong is a writer and translator. His latest books, Korean Straight Lines and This Gangster is One of Your Own, are now available.

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