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Is Data Dehumanising our Politics?

Over the last few months we have learned that people hate being boxed in. We have been stuck indoors for much of 2020, and are still having to adjust to our lives being regulated more closely. Obviously, these are necessary sacrifices for the good of the population.

However, people are also finding themselves unnecessarily locked down in political life. The US election took place a few weeks ago, and interest was rocketing with the stakes being so high. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, important decisions are being made on an almost daily basis regarding local lockdowns and tier categorisations.

These choices make a huge impact on the lives of individuals, yet this often seems to be lost on those in charge. Increasingly, it seems as if people are being homogenised in political discourse, with decision-makers focusing on statistics rather than humanity. There has been a paradigm shift towards data in political analysis, but the obsession with numbers can numb people to the real impact of their decisions.

Why are numbers so important?

In the US, media outlets bombarded us with statistics about how each candidate was performing amongst various demographics. Geography plays a huge part in this, with the electoral college system meaning that states matter far more than the number of votes. This makes it very easy to think about states as numbers rather than communities of real people. For example, there was a lot of focus on Iowa as a swing state in this year’s election, but not enough thought was given to how a Trump victory would affect the former agricultural state.

Similarly in the UK, we are prone to speaking about the R rate in different places, and the rules which may or may not apply there, without considering the human impact. The debate surrounding Greater Manchester has focused exclusively on the local leaders’ failure to come to an agreement with the government about tier restrictions. Yet this has had an overwhelming impact on the lives of real people who find their livelihoods and safety plunged into uncertainty.

Why is this a problem?

This is not a new phenomenon, either. Ever since the December UK election there has been endless talk about the so-called ‘red wall’. The Northern seats that the Conservatives won from Labour heartlands have been given extensive media coverage by analysts trying to explain where the Labour Party went wrong.

However, when these areas are talked about, people are invariably homogenised into lazy stereotypes such as being working class, white and low paid. By hemming people into these categories, they become dehumanised, serving as a group of numbers which only become important once every five years at election time.

Another generalisation which has haunted our politics in recent years has been the cliché of people who feel ‘left behind’. Much discussion has since been had about how best to reintegrate these people in the political system. However, they might not feel so left behind if they were treated as three-dimensional individuals, capable of forming their own opinions.

What can we do about this?

As much as the introduction of statistics and data has lent a new dimension to the way political parties and analysts can work, it has probably also deepened the participation crisis. Why would a person feel that they have a stake in politics if they are being viewed as one number among millions, rather than their needs and desires being considered.

It is no wonder that so many people feel that politicians and the media are out of touch, but we all must take some responsibility. I have certainly been guilty of homogenising groups of which I have little experience, as have most people. But if people like me – and, of course, those in charge – can make an effort to think about politics in regard to people rather than simply elections, this will go some way to rehabilitating the system.

Hopefully when we’re watching the US election results come in, or reading about the next set of restrictions to be introduced, we can take a moment to consider the real-life impact this makes.

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