Gaslighting the Electric City

In politics, honest observation still trumps misleading statistics

jobs
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{Power/Lines]

There was a bit of good news a little while ago for all the people looking for work in Peterborough. Apparently Peterborough has the second lowest unemployment rate in the country, well below Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary.

This should theoretically make it much easier to find a job and, if you already have a job (and, if you live in Peterborough, the statistic suggests you almost certainly do), easier to get a raise, because a lower employment rate—second lowest in the country!—means employers have trouble finding people to fill positions, and will pay more to keep people from leaving for other opportunities.

It should also stanch the flow of people looking for work moving to other places. Six months ago, when Peterborough had the highest unemployment rate in the country, it made sense to move away to a bigger city and take a gamble on making enough to pay higher housing costs. But now. Stay put and live it up, job-seekers.

Finally, a super low unemployment rate, of the kind Peterborough definitely has, should serve as a wake-up call to all those who say it’s impossible to find work in town, or who lament that there’s something structurally wrong with the labour market in Peterborough such that finding work will always be a difficult slog. Such people are wrong, apparently, and if they’ve drawn this conclusion from their experience, then their experience is clearly wrong too.

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The numbers come from Statistics Canada, the same federal government agency that announced in 2014 that Peterborough’s unemployment rate was the highest in the country, in 2016 that it was the lowest, and in 2017 that was the highest again. The current placement conforms to a pattern whereby Peterborough has either the highest or lowest rate of unemployment at any given time.

What is truly remarkable about Peterborough having the lowest unemployment rate is that there are actually 100 more people unemployed in town than there were when we had the highest rate of unemployment.

The rate has gone down because fewer people are registering as active job seekers—who are the only ones counted by the unemployment figures.

So really, the news that Peterborough has the lowest unemployment rate in the country isn’t really news in that sense that it describes an event—like, say, a whole bunch of people who were unemployed getting jobs. It is a mathematical event, you could say, though these rarely make the news on their own.

If anything, the news is that fewer people in town are actively looking for work, and that’s almost certainly not good news. Maybe they decided to go back to school, or maybe they were struck with a serious illness and can’t work, or maybe they came into a lot of money and no longer have to work. Most likely, though, the vast majority of people who gave up looking for work did so because they were discouraged.

They were likely discouraged, if I can be forgiven for turning to my own experiences and observations to debunk a statistic, because they looked for jobs and couldn’t find them, and yet their completely understandable inclination to drop out of the job market for the time being is transformed by a mathematical formula into superficial denial of their direct experience.

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This process of denying people’s experiences and self-awareness is called gaslighting, from the 1940s film Gas Light, about a man manipulating his partner into questioning her experience of their relationship. The term is used most often in discussions of emotional abuse, when the abuser badgers the abused into believing a narrative that denies their experience of abuse.

Gaslighting in the context of bread-and-butter issues used to be called ideology, the manipulation of the victims of capitalism into believing they are its beneficiaries. The young workers who complained that a $15 minimum wage would actually hurt them (whether by triggering Weimar-era inflation or because a funhouse version of the tax code would leave them with less take home pay) were both the victims and the perpetrators of ideology.

But the word ideology fell out of fashion in recent decades because its old-fashioned insistence on a truth that was being intentionally obscured. Gaslighting is different. It denies a person’s experiences and observations—their truth—rather than objective reality.

Things like employment statistics were introduced partly to overcome ideology, to provide non-partisan knowledge about a country and its people, and to facilitate informed decision-making.

In practice, statistics tend to be cited when they support an existing impression or point to the necessity of doing something the speaker wants to do anyway. At their worst, they are trotted out to deny people’s experiences outright.

I’m aware of the risks of arguing for people’s experiences and observations over evidence collected and analyzed by experts. Dishonest political actors routinely appeal to people’s basic impressions (what anti-abortion thinker Margaret Somerville revealingly calls ‘the yuck factor’) rather than championing policies they honestly believe will lead to salutary outcomes.

We all do this to some degree. We cite numbers that purport to show that the things we care about are more important than the things we don’t care about. We yearn for corroboration that the thing we have experienced is not only bad as an experience but bad objectively. When we get that confirmation, we wave it around furiously; when we don’t, we return sulkily to the more uncertain ground of observations and feelings.

Ultimately, though, we should trust our own observations and experiences, and allow them to inform our political reality and guide our policy preferences. That, ultimately, is the surest ground of meaningful political awareness, not statistics, convenient or otherwise.

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David Tough

David Tough

david.tough

David Tough is a musician, scholar, and journalist from Peterborough, Ontario. He is Senior Editor of Electric City Magazine.