The Destructive Use of Percentages

I remarked that there are almost 100,000 children in foster care in the UK. On top of that, there are 125,000 children being looked after not by their birth parents but by other family members or friends.

That means there are two hundred thousand children who are, in one way or another, in the UK care system. I am told that if there are one hundred thousand in foster care, there is probably another one hundred thousand on the “At Risk Register.” In other words, children are in danger of going into foster care.   So, conservatively, three hundred thousand children in the UK are at serious risk.

My listener responded, "But ah! that is quite a small percentage of the UK total population."

The current population of the UK is 67,756,193. So, I guess that all those children represented by my figures above are a small percentage of the total UK population. Another note is that the number seems to go up yearly.

Now I am not sure what you think about this.

First, I want to say that I find percentages interesting. However, on this occasion, the reply that it is “a small percentage” offends me.

I am sure that if you are one of those young people who have been traumatised, now being looked after by a locum “parent”, who at first will be a total stranger to you, you would not be interested in the fact that you are currently being regarded as a percentage, a number – and a small number at that.

I am old enough to remember “The Prisoner”,  a 1967 UK science fiction-allegorical television series about a man (Patrick McGoohan) kidnapped from his London home and awakens in a secret location known to its inhabitants as “The Village”, where he is known only as Number Six. The Prisoner constantly complains that he is “not a number.”

The problem with the destructive use of percentages is that it dehumanises people. “You are not a percentage. You are a person.” I know the names and stories of many of such young people - and turning them into a number is frankly destructive and disturbing.

I guess we people do not like to face specific awful situations, so we dehumanise people. In war, it is not dead people. It's “collateral damage”. For the surgeon, you are often not a person but, “My appendix patient.”

Politicians love it.  Those people dying on the boats seeking safety are not people. They are “illegals” (which they are not). The 6 million people on the planet currently displaced from stable homes because of war, famine, and bad politics are not, after all, “people”. They are “refugees” or “aliens” or merely “undocumented immigrants”, or other worse descriptions.

Maybe, we should think again about our word usage, and casual dismissal of, “well, it’s only a small percentage.” We should perhaps think again about what Martin Niemöller often said and often called “The Bystander's Credo”:

“First, they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews, but I was not Jewish, so I did not speak out.

And then they came for me, and no one was left to speak out for me.”

Adrians Blog

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