Defend Truth


Census 2011: Telling stories

Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

Even before questions were raised regarding the internal consistency of StatsSA’s Tuesday release of certain census data, their interpretations were hotly contested. A national exercise in the gathering and interpretation of data is really just one more battlefield in our war for (and on) the truth. 

There is fiction in the space between / The lines on your page of memories / Write it down but it doesn’t mean / You’re not just telling stories 

Tracy Chapman’s song Telling Stories is not so much a ballad as an accusation against an unnamed antagonist. This mystery story-teller is a liar and a dissembler, spinning fictions. On the surface it’s a mournful j’accuse in a minor key. 

There is another reading of this, and that is that the song is an act of self-recrimination, the index finger pointing inwards. Telling Stories is the title track off Chapman’s studio album of 2000, and we are, all of us, tellers of stories. As Elie Wiesel famously said, “God made man because he loves stories”. 

The video to the song supports this interpretation: Chapman sings at the back of a bus as it fills with various characters, each carrying their own secrets and telling stories to the outside world, each one hiding something good or bad, sacred or shameful. 

A girl writes her story to a boy on the back of a postcard, a young couple hold each other and share their story of pain. Three YGs posture and side-eye their way through the bus and a shaven-headed man walks purposefully with his hands behind his heavy trenchcoat, all hiding their stories under their clothes. A blind man’s sight is restored by the money that accidentally falls from his neighbour’s pocket.

Watch the music video

On one level, the national census of 2011 and its results are a routine exercise of modern nation-states. A central statistics agency collects and processes data about the national population. These data are used by various government ministries to plan and budget. There’s a benefit to the general public, to the researchers, journalists, NGOs, civil society, lobby groups and others who use the same data for their work. 

On another level the census, any census, is made up of the stories about the people behind the census forms, and the stories that we tell about them. It is about the hopes of the migrant workers who leave one province for another or the successes of a particular age cohort in the labour market. 

These two views are hardly mutually exclusive: the stated purpose of a census is to provide information that can be used in a normative sense i.e. what should be done to improve the economic and social lot of the population. Any normative position, by definition, is a subjective one. Ten social scientists may approach the same data set and arrive at ten different policy positions with ten different lists of suggestions of What Is To Be Done. 

Not only are these views of the census not mutually exclusive, but there may be little to distinguish them on a basic, epistemological level. We know from research (and books like The Tyranny of Numbers that the way we understand and process quantitative data is not objective, rational or free of bias. We interpret the raw data with our personal filters firmly in place. To paraphrase Anaïs Nin, we don’t see the numbers as they are; we see them as we are.

There is fiction in the space between / You and me

It’s a great irony that, as the only animal with the power to communicate through stories, we are such poor listeners, that we are happy to dismiss the stories we hear if they’re too different from our own. If the heroes and villains in our personal stories are subverted, inverted, juxtaposed by someone else, then we just don’t want to know. 

Since the release of some of the census numbers on Tuesday, we have been telling stories to each other and trying to get the other to listen, really listen to our stories. Some of my colleagues have tried their hand at stories set in the not-too-near future where there is income parity across race groups. Politicians have claimed that the census supports their story of needing a little bit more for their constituency, a la Oliver Twist.

The most hotly debated stories have been centred around the differences between races (or population groups as measured by StatsSA). The most widely bandied-about and misunderstood numbers have been the mean household incomes across different groups, which have led to some humorous and bizarre extrapolations. 

There are sober, legitimate sidebars to how we tell and receive these stories. Many people (libertarians are also people) question the need to conduct a national census at all, or at least to make it so extensive and include questions of a highly personal nature. They don’t like the idea of a faceless state entity knowing their private details and they question the practical benefits of giving bureaucrats ammunition to interfere ever more frequently with the market. Their concerns are real, but they aren’t questioning the value of telling stories, just the value that these particular editors are adding to the stories. 

There are those who don’t think it’s particularly useful to tell these stories through the lens of race, and to perpetuate the social engineering experiment by trying to reverse its ill effects. They argue that no good ending can come from a bad beginning. Some of them are genuinely motivated by a desire to see a happy ending to this story but think there are better ways to identify poverty and underdevelopment than through the lens of a centuries-old social construct that is unscientific and has no place in adult policy-making. Some are just deeply uncomfortable with stories about race and would prefer to turn the page quickly. 

To them I would say that skipping too many chapters ahead increases the risk of losing the plot. Analysis by race is suspect and is easily abused for political aims. But the intergenerational effects of wealth creation, education, and stability of the family unit means that those who were deprived on the basis of a social construct continue to be deprived, whether we choose to continue to believe in that social construct or not. 

The problem is not that we negotiate our way through each other’s stories with difficulty; it’s that we refuse to hear the stories at all. Comparisons between the incomes of white and black households were met with ad hoc and anecdotal counterexamples, incredulity and open hostility. 

It’s true that the census data in their current form leave a lot to be desired but I am confident that the discrepancies can and will be reconciled in the months to come. The mistakes and oversights made by StatsSA cannot and should not be conflated with a wholesale rejection of trends in income, education, and health that we’ve known about for years.

The gap between the mean household incomes of white and black households is not a ghost story. It’s not apocryphal; it is here, now. A more thorough analysis might reveal that the difference in incomes is only of a magnitude of four or five, rather than six, or that the gap could narrow in only 20 or 30 years, rather than 60, but it won’t make it magically disappear. 

There’s a science fiction in the space between / You and me / A fabrication of a grand scheme / Where I am the scary monster

We are not unique as a society in being fractured, polarised and unable to listen. We do happen to start each day a fair bit behind countries of similar population or ability. Poor people still live literally on the peripheries of the economy. We can tell stories of an uncaring and incompetent government or of personally only having been born in the third act of this play. Those stories are true but they are only a part of a bigger story. They are not the whole truth. 

As our collective stock of stories multiplies, we cling ever more tightly to our personal versions, and we tell them more and more loudly in an attempt to rise above the growing cacophony. Our stories are the only ones where we can be sure that we’re still the protagonist, where we haven’t been painted as the scary monster. 

StatsSA’s actions this week haven’t done much to boost the public’s confidence in its ability to tell stories or to help us choose which ones to read. Maybe there is no objective truth, no grand narrative that includes all of us. 

Even if there was no vested bureaucratic value in the census and we just valued the stories being told for the stories’ sake, could we ever find ourselves reading on the same page? 

Sometimes a lie is the best thing. DM