Numbers fall out of my brain. I sometimes picture it: a sprinkling rain of dripping digits, tumbling through the sieve holes of my mind. Monetary amounts, dates, inventories, miles per gallon, even on occasion my own phone number – they drift mirage-like past my awareness. “Math is haarrd,” comments my husband in a facetious falsetto, mimicking an ill-conceived Barbie from the ‘90’s, whenever my number-block rears its head.
Math isn’t really my problem. I wouldn’t have made it (albeit kicking and screaming) through college calculus if I were unable to grasp mathematical theory. It isn’t the theory, so much as it is the numbers themselves that I am incapable of holding. Numbers, those little Arabic squiggles, have no intrinsic meaning for me. They are place fillers which inadequately describe sets of individuals. I need the shapes, the colors, the textures, the faces in order to give form to the quantities.
Glancing around the islands of the Arco station (a BP subsidiary) while I fill my gluttonous pickup, I begin to suspect that I am not alone in my abstraction of numbers. How many barrels? I’m an NPR junkie; numbers wander through the news. Yet, while an interview with a Gulf fisherman or a marine biologist may hold me captive with despair, horror, and guilt, the instant statistics are given on the order of magnitude of the BP oil spill disaster, my emotional slate is wiped clean. Numbers sanitize. The black and white impenetrability of a large number acts as an anodyne. The mind calibrates the degree of emotional response appropriate to the number, filters the response through the equation, and produces said response with the detached efficiency of a supercomputer. No mess. No fuss.
This numeric anesthesia isn’t limited to the hydra of an oil well. Look at any disaster: earthquake, war, storm, flood, fire, bombing, job losses, genocide, epidemic. The greater the numbers, the more detached we become. The individual faces of the suffering are lost in the incomprehensibility of place value. Thousands dead hit the brain and stop. The heart cannont comprehend orders of magnitude beyond double digits. Nine die in international waters and the world erupts. Hundreds face poverty, disease, homelessness, and the absence of basic freedoms in the destination of the boats, and the world continues about its business.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Spock’s Vulcan logic is incontrovertible, yet – for humans – the one garners the emotional response that we cannot muster for the many. I’m not decrying the need for numbers. They are valuable place holders for the intangible. We need to know how many homes were burned, how many have fallen in battle, how many feet of water cover the streets, how many have succumbed to disease, how many no longer have paychecks, how many face deportation, how many birds have oil caking their feathers. We need to know how many. But, even more, we need to know how and who.
NPR (did I mention that I’m an addict?) recently aired a segment profiling an Iraq-born artist. In an attempt to bring comprehensibility to the order of magnitude of the war in his home country, Wafaa Bilal is having individual deaths tattooed on his back. A map of Iraq engraved across his shoulders, he has the tattoo artist place one dot for each war casualty. Red dots represent fallen American soldiers, and, in ultraviolet ink, one dot is placed for each of the myriad “silent dead” – Iraqi civilians – invisible until displayed under black light. One could argue that the dots are simply another form of place holding, but Bilal holds the place of each individual beneath his own skin. And, as the dots are placed, the numbers are given faces. Volunteers read the name of each soul lost.
I’m not advocating that we brand ourselves with each victim of fate, but, as a society, we must delve behind the crawl-screen statistics; give air time and page space to the stories of individuals; give faces to the numbers. “All statistics lie and all liars are statisticians.” The platitude bounced so often through various college science classes that I have no idea to whom it can be attributed. But it underscores an important truth: numbers are tricky little devils. Deceptive in their absolutism, numbers lead us to forget that they are only as objective as those who measure and present them. Numbers blind us to the faces, allow us to forget that the “them” is comprised of individuals with lives much like our own.