Statistics too often sideline lived experiences

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Whether demonstrating the number of victims of sexual violence or the percentage of people experiencing mental illness, statistics lend weight and merit to any given issue. But they do so at the risk of inducing apathy within the general public and diluting people’s lived experiences.
 
Last semester, I took an English seminar on human rights where we read testimonies from survivors of various human rights violations, including the Holocaust and South Africa’s apartheid regime. While most students were familiar with the background of the course material, I was shocked when I heard the personal stories of the people these tragedies affected. 
 
Their stories upset me, and I was shocked by the lack of effort in commemorating hardships experienced in our communities. There was an overwhelming discrepancy between what I learned and what I previously thought I knew. What tends to come into focus in mainstream media and discussion are the statistics of tragic experiences, rather than the stories of those who’ve lived through them.
 
Hearing these stories evoked compassion in a way that facts and statistics hadn’t done before. Determined to pursue change and action, I thought of the people we’d read about and longed for a better world for their benefit. Rather than associating the events covered in the seminar with numbers, I now associated them with names and people.
 
I learned, by reflecting on ourselves, that it’s the stories of others which hold legitimate merit when it comes to changing the world.
 
When we emphasize statistics over stories, we negate the uniqueness of individual experiences, and we thread distinct stories together as one. Moreover, we convince others that the problem is already too big to be worthwhile of their intervention. 
 
We make our audiences powerless.
 
It’s tempting, when explaining a specific cause, to use statistics to demonstrate the immensity of an issue and the necessity for intervention. But numbers should be an accessory in this pursuit, not an anchor. 
 
If you’re trying to raise awareness about an issue and inspire others to make change, it shouldn’t matter whether four in 10 people are affected, or five in 10 people. 
 
One person’s suffering should be enough to warrant help, and is more persuasive than a statistic in fueling progress.
 
Samantha is one of  The Journal’s Features Editors. She’s a fourth-year English and Psychology student. 

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