Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Saturday, February 16, 2019

Letter to the editor: Humanity is about more than data

In his recent opinion piece, Austin Cirillo provocatively claimed that the acceptance of Syrian refugees into the United States is inhumane. He takes care to absolve himself of the responsibility of engaging in an actual conversation, hoping not to “begin an ideological debate.” However, there is absolutely no care taken to understanding the issues beyond the presentation of useful data—and I mean useful in the sense that it fulfills a predisposition or confirms a bias.

Care is especially crucial in conversations of this kind, in which human life is at stake. I see a lack of care for Syrian refugees in Cirillo’s piece (and in our new presidential administration), and I also see a lack of care for getting to the truth of the matter. Numerical data, like the taxpayer dollars referenced in the piece in question, is easy to misread and abuse. The weight numbers carry can be so compelling that their context is often overlooked completely.

For example, Cirillo’s op-ed asserts that welcoming refugees in the U.S. is 12 times as expensive as relocating them in some neighboring Middle-Eastern countries. What is brushed over is the stark differences in standard of living between the U.S. and those neighboring countries. The perspective of the study Cirillo cites is also brushed over; the Center for Immigration Studies’ executive director, Mark Krikorian, is a pioneer of the concept of self-deportation.

Cirillo also references the “brain-drain” of educated Syrians to Western countries, thus depriving the Middle-East of intellectuals. He reluctantly cites the “New York Times” for more statistics on the high emigration of educated young people from Haiti—which, I hope it’s clear, is not Syria. There are real problems for countries which lose many of their educated people, but these structural issues should not bear on the status of American refugee acceptance.

The other major data-driven point Cirillo makes is about rising rates of crime in European countries like Sweden. He cites a report that provocatively declares Sweden the “Rape Capital of the West.” Cirillo neglects to mention that the report acknowledges the dearth of recent and robust information on immigrant-targeted crime, and also that it references websites like to support its claims. It is important to remember, too, that there is precedent in America for stoking fears of rape by foreign people and people of color.

I’d like to mention the rich well of data that suggests immigrants in the United States commit less crime than Americans born here. But, I want to make a larger point about Cirillo’s method, which I see as uncaring. Ironically, in advocating to maintain a distance between Syrian refugees and American soil, there is absolutely no recognition of the apparent disconnect between the position of Syrian refugees and the author’s own subjective position.

The use of data affords those of us at private universities, sitting behind laptops, an immense privilege to make determinations about people attempting to escape a life-threatening environment. The abuse of data in this case further distances them from us, further defines them as other-than-us.

The power of this distance cannot be underestimated. Cirillo’s use of information allows him to not only tell Syrian refugees what is best for us, but also what is best for them. One step further: it allows him to tell Syrian refugees who they are.

His op-ed would of course not be complete without warning liberals of the impending “culture clash” between tolerant, open-minded Americans and homophobic, misogynistic Syrians. Like Cirillo says, “Syrian culture also forces women into marriage.”

By reducing these refugees to data points, to homogenous vessels of intolerance and sexism, their lived experiences are completely erased. Additionally, it pretends that American society is also homogenous in its openness, tolerance and safety. It pretends that gun violence and rape are not epidemics in our own country, perpetrated by our own people. These problems go completely uncared for in Cirillo’s piece.

The fetishization of numbers and data notoriously caused trouble for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton this past election. Statisticians and people relying on statistics were shocked when the results started coming through.

What was learned is that data alone cannot inform our decisions. Our judgements can never be isolated in pure math, because as it pertains to politics, there is no pure math isolated from our ideologies. Sorry, but I am making this an “ideological debate;” I demand we at least recognize our ideological context and positions in society. Without that recognition, it’s too easy to abuse data. It’s too easy to mobilize issues like rape against people of color. It’s too easy to exclude people from our country.

Certainly, numbers and data are important. I am still deeply disturbed by the current administration’s comfort with “alternative facts.” But in the press, politics and daily life, we have to challenge ourselves to take that slightly nuanced position between Trumpian lies and the uncritical regurgitation of numbers.

We have to care about how we use information because we are in a privileged position of being able to use that information. We also have to care about Syrian refugees whose experiences are embodied, felt and lived, not just calculated.

Jake Ephros is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Public Affairs.

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