Statistics are political

Today is the New Zealand Census. And if that comes as a surprise to you, your surprise is not a surprise to me. If that makes sense.

I’m obviously a political nerd, and have heard almost nothing about the census. Officially, at least. We’ve had the one letter to our household with the access code (which was … not particularly well written), and there was a Stats NZ stall at the Newtown Festival on the weekend, but besides that, I’ve only heard from people having trouble with it.

People who haven’t received access codes, and have been on the phone to Stats NZ multiple times trying to get one – which can’t be authorised by a first-tier support person, it has to be bumped up to a supervisor, and which can only be sent by snail mail, not email, or maybe it can be sent by email, but it takes a week? Nobody seems to know.

(Let’s take a pause here to remember that New Zealand Post, under the guidance of awesome progressive statesman Sir Michael Cullen, shut half its processing centres and halved the number of deliveries throughout the country, which is why it takes so long to get mail from Wellington to … Wellington.)

People who will not be able to fill out the census because Statistics NZ, in its pursuit of cutting costs and pushing everyone online, has completely screwed up the process for people who are blind.

I suppose I have the option of being out of New Zealand on 6 March. Maybe a quick trip to Aussie is in my future, so I can boycott the Census without breaking the law. It’s a sad situation where I must contemplate being a refugee from my own country to make a critical point about the need for Government to own its responsibilities.

And then there’s the perennial issue, the issue Stats NZ have been aware of since well before the previous census: its complete erasure of trans, genderfluid and any other people who don’t fit neatly into two boxes marked “male” and “female”.

It feels like Stats NZ has not only dropped the ball on sex, gender, orientation and identity, it’s kicked the ball as hard as it could and shrugged as it went over a fence. Its own justification for the lack of questions demonstrates that it’s incredibly easy to explain the difference between biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. But they won’t. The very scientific and unbiased conclusion they’ve come to is “well, it’s too hard and there aren’t many of them anyway, so who cares?”

I care. I care about marginalized groups being represented and included in the official records of our society. I care about the huge amount of work done by gender diverse people and groups who have tried so damn hard to help Statistics NZ get this right, and who have been ignored for years because some platonic notion of statistical propriety trumps their existence and welfare.

I care that it took four years for our world-leading source-of-much-nationalist-smugness health system to find one surgeon who can provide gender confirmation surgery and wonder if maybe that would be different if we didn’t erase trans people from our premiere official population count.

I care about the message that is sent when the Minister for Statistics blames people’s “silly answers” in test surveys for the lack of decent gender and sexuality questions – yet “Pastafarian” – a parody specifically created to mock our attitudes towards organised religion – is not only permitted but gets its own autocomplete suggestion on the online form.

Screenshot from Twitter.

I also care about the assumptions our society makes about sex and gender and childbearing. At the last census I recall, but cannot confirm (damn Google) that Stats NZ stated they “impute” people’s sex based on their answers to a range of questions – so if you ticked male but said you’d given birth to two children, they would “correct” your sex to female. This is obviously completely unproblematic and hunky-dory as long as it makes the data ~clean~.

At this stage, there’s an outstanding OIA request on FYI.org.nz asking if Stats NZ continues this practice. It will clearly not be answered before the census closes today.

It simply irks me that for all the head-patting and condescension the LGBTQI+ community gets from Stats NZ, and the hand-wringing over ~reliable data~, the census is a shambles anyway. They’ve even re-jigged the meshblocks so apparently it’s going to be hell for anyone doing long-term research to match this census to previous ones (edit: though I’ve also heard they recalculate previous census data to match the new meshblocks). A couple of additional questions to shine light on an underrepresented and marginalized community whose health, legal and social needs are often ignored and diminished was hardly going to ruin everything for the data nerds.

This is something we should all care about. Not just because of the particular concerns around gender, sex, accessibility, and a government department’s ability to get the basic logistics of its primary job right.

Statistics are political. Data are political. They do not exist in a vacuum, because they are shaped by human perceptions and decisions from day one. Decisions about who should count, or what should count – religion but not political ideology; (assumed female fertility) but not sexual orientation – are political because they have political impacts.

A minor but illustrative point: the census includes motorcycles and scooters under “Other”, not “Motor vehicle”, for commuting options. What about a scooter makes it not a motor vehicle? How does this data reflect assumptions about how people commute, or should commute, or want to commute? How does this reinforce our preconceptions around policy to reduce congestion or address climate change?

I’m sure there’s a reason. I’m sure there’s academic papers and statistical standards and longstanding taxonomic principles in play. And every single one of those exists within a simple context: our society has been car-obsessed for a century with all the consequences for urban design, social behaviours and infrastructure spending.

It’s very nice to think you’re able to sit above the world everyone else lives in and observe it like a wise man atop a mountain, but it’s bullshit.

(This is also why groups (*cough*TOP*cough*) who try to claim neutrality or objectivity, because their policies are “evidence-based”, are either lying or kidding themselves (*cough*TOP*cough*). The only thing more dangerous than having biased data is having biased data and insisting it is not biased. If we willfully ignore the role of unconscious bias and attitudes in shaping the data we collect, decisions justified by that data will only harm people.)

It does make it wonderfully easy to ignore the existence of the queer community and then say “oh no, we made that decision on entirely statistical grounds” though.

The problem is, census planning takes a hell of a long time. The work putting together the 2023 census is likely already well underway, and making the kind of significant shift that’s clearly required – producing modern, relevant information with modern, relevant and inclusive processes – may simply be beyond the capabilities of a department which couldn’t even take decisive action moving its staff out of a lethally unsafe building.

Recommended reading

Have a great weekend!

The Human Rights Commission must show it has its own house in order on sexual harassment – Toby Manhire

The last week has seen another woman at the centre of allegations over sexual harassment in the public centre. There has been no chiding statement from any commissioner at the HRC, however – however much they may wish they could. This is because the complaint this time is at the Commission itself. The way it has been handled casts serious doubt on whether the HRC is practising what it preaches, and risks staining the moral authority upon which it depends.

The Great Stink – Laurie Penny

I was among the ones saying that we should give him more time, no, he really does want to change, he’s trying to understand what he did wrong, and if we go hard we’re going to lose him. I had forgiven him the demeaning, dehumanizing things he had done to me long ago, and I had forgotten that it was not my job to decide whether anyone else should do the same. I was terrified that this man, who I loved deeply and still do, would end his life. I was angry at Twitter Justice Girl for forcing the issue. I thought she had gone too far.

I was wrong. She did the right thing. We only found out how much of the right thing she’d done when all the other stories started coming out. The guy had spent 20 years hurting women on three separate continents and — I find it hard to write this, so give me a moment — he wasn’t going to stop. He wasn’t going to stop until the women who loved him stopped giving him chances. He might have wanted to stop, but he didn’t have to, so he wasn’t going to.

Why can’t the Government be my landlord? – Julia Schiller

Especially in the wake of the latest report confirming what we already know about the state of the housing crisis, it is time for the Labour Party to remember that it is a democratic socialist party and that the greed of the rentier class is merciless and insatiable. We saw proof of that when owners of student flats raised rents by $50/week, the exact amount the new government had raised the student allowance.

Labour must stop crowing about that and other payments, such as the winter fuel subsidy, that the rightwing can justifiably criticise as handouts. These payments may potentially alleviate some financial distress in the short term but they do nothing to redress ongoing inequality.

Recommended reading

A few damn fine bits and pieces for your Sunday.

Representation – Megan Whelan

I didn’t know how to be fat in the world, because even though I saw people who looked like me all the time, there was no instruction manual on how to look like me and be happy. All the women I looked up to – whether popular or powerful – were smaller than me. And even then, the ones who were bigger than a size 12 were the object of ridicule. I learned that if I did something wrong, the first thing people would comment on was my weight.

So I learned to hide.

Could New Zealand’s tough media laws silence our #metoo moment? – Tess McClure, Vice

In the United States, where much of the ‘Me Too’ reporting on sexual misconduct has occurred, the situation is very different. The First Amendment provides a fierce protection of free speech for journalists and citizens, and defamation cases are much more difficult to get over the line. If you’re a public figure, winning a suit generally requires proving the media outlet in question knew either that the information was wholly false or that it was published “with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”.

Considering a case like Harvey Weinstein brings those differences into sharp relief. As a public figure in the USA, it would be up to Weinstein to prove the allegations published against him were false, or published with reckless disregard. In New Zealand, it would be down to the media outlet to prove every last claim. The nature of sexual harassment cases is that they’re often covert and occur without witnesses. It’s not unusual for sexual assault victims to wait several years before making an allegation. They tend to leave little in the way of a paper trail.

Related: The Al Capone theory of sexual harassment – Valerie Aurora and Leigh Honeywell

Organizations that understand the Al Capone theory of sexual harassment have an advantage: they know that reports or rumors of sexual misconduct are a sign they need to investigate for other incidents of misconduct, sexual or otherwise. Sometimes sexual misconduct is hard to verify because a careful perpetrator will make sure there aren’t any additional witnesses or records beyond the target and the target’s memory (although with the increase in use of text messaging in the United States over the past decade, we are seeing more and more cases where victims have substantial written evidence). But one of the implications of the Al Capone theory is that even if an organization can’t prove allegations of sexual misconduct, the allegations themselves are sign to also urgently investigate a wide range of aspects of an employee’s conduct.

And finally, some happy news to see you through to Monday: Ditching Andrew Jackson for Mary Jackson – Marina Koren, The Atlantic

An elementary school in Utah has traded one Jackson for another in a change that many say was a long time coming.

Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City will no longer be named for Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, whose slave ownership and treatment of Native Americans are often cited in the debate over memorializing historical figures associated with racism.

Instead, the school will honor Mary Jackson, the first black female engineer at NASA whose story, and the stories of others like her at the space agency, was chronicled in Hidden Figures, a 2016 film based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.

2017 rewind: Thank you, Metiria.

Well, here it is. No surprise that this was the most-read post on Boots Theory last year, because Metiria Turei’s “downfall” and resignation was by far one of the most significant moments in New Zealand politics – not because like Jacinda Ardern’s ascension it led to a change of government, but because it addressed a fundamental question in our society. Are we willing to acknowledge that our welfare system is utterly broken, in a way that’s more than just shaking our head at the sad stories of strangers? Can we forgive a woman, a staunch Māori woman, for the “crime” of feeding her child – if she occupies a potential position of power?

It seems not.

But that’s nowhere near going to be the end of the story.

Originally published 9 August 2017

It was always a possibility in the back of my mind that Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud – and the absolute flood of hatred, hypocrisy, bullying and mucky insinuations unleashed upon her by people who’ve never faced a truly hard choice in their lives – would cost her her political career. I had hope we would be better than that, especially after she had so much support from the members of her party, her co-leader, and the public.

And now she’s gone. And I’m heartbroken.

But let us be absolutely crystal FUCKING clear about this. Metiria did not resign because her admission was political suicide. She did not resign because it ~wasn’t a good look~ or whatever nonsense my commentariat comrades want to spin.

She resigned because her family, any family, could not withstand the appalling, personal, vicious abuse being hurled at them.

And I just hope all the people with loud public platforms, who absolutely dedicated themselves to destroying this wahine toa over the past weeks, are feeling proud. You’ve done great work. You dragged a young woman’s parentage into the dirt for a political hit. You positively salivated at completely minor youthful transgressions and told the nation, unequivocally, that they were the blackest sins. You gleefully reinforced every terrible stereotype about solo mums being lying sluts on the make.

You refused to let the issue die and then turned to the camera to narrate dispassionately: “this issue just won’t die.”

You’re the real winners tonight.

There was an issue people wanted to die, though: the brokenness and heartlessness of our social welfare system. The reality, which has now been exposed and brought into the light, that we as a nation are not looking after the poorest and most vulnerable. We are not making sure every child born in Godzone gets three square meals a day and shoes to run the school cross country in.

We are failing children and their parents, and it is by design, and has been for thirty years. And boy, is it clear after the firestorm of the past few weeks that y’all do not want to talk about it.

Well, too bad.

I’m not letting this issue be put back in its box, to await the magical day when a progressive, socially conscious government, which somehow defies the odds to gain power without ever letting on that it’s a progressive, socially conscious government, pulls the rabbit out of the hat and says “ta-da, we’re going to fix the welfare system.”

The question of social welfare is literally the entire point of government. How does the government ensure people live a good life? Does the government do this at all, or merely ensure the poorest and most vulnerable get just enough gruel to make them useful cogs in the economic machine? Do we give a damn about babies? Yes, even the babies whose parents made a few mistakes in their lives?

Those are the questions we must answer. This is the policy which must be changed, and changed right down to its core, not tinkered at the edges for fear of frightening the middle-class horses.

This is the conversation which we are going to have, New Zealand, because there is solidarity here. #IAmMetiria does not go away just because you’ve bullied the woman who sparked it off the scene.

Thank you Metiria. I am so, so sorry that we are not the caring, compassionate country we like to pretend to be.

2017 rewind: Who has to apologise?

We’re into the top 5 most-read posts on Boots Theory in 2017. First up, we revisit the Metiria Turei story, and ask ourselves why so many people’s lasting impression is, “well she didn’t apologise, that’s what made it so bad.”

Originally published 3 October 2017.

An excellent piece by Maddie Holden at The Spinoff on the sexism of the 2017 election got me thinking. She writes:

Enter Metiria Turei. We’re all familiar with the story of her ousting from Parliament for a forgivable, decades-old mistake that shed light on the glaring deficiencies of our welfare system, but perhaps it’s not immediately apparent that her treatment related to her gender. It’s simply a matter of honesty and trust, we’ve been told, and charges of a racist, sexist double standard have been dismissed using fine-tooth comb analysis. It was her attitude, they said, and any MP who broke a law would be expected to pay with her otherwise flawless career in public service.

On the Sunday morning after election day I was on a panel for Radio NZ’s Sunday Morning, where the topic of Turei’s resignation came up. Fellow panelist Neil Miller said it “rankled” with many people he knew that Metiria Turei didn’t apologise, or appear contrite enough. Now, I stand by what I said then, i.e. “what the hell did she have to apologise for?” (weka at The Standard has helpfully transcribed some of my comments in this post, and here’s an awesome round-up of posts analysing the real reasons Turei resigned.)

But with the lens of Holden’s article, another thought struck me: the sexist double standards of apologies.

If you are a woman, especially a poor Māori woman, and you do something wrong out of the noblest of motives – providing for your child – let’s be honest: no apology would be enough. If you didn’t cry, it would be proof you weren’t sincere. If you did cry, it would be proof you were a weak feeeeeeemale and unfit for politics anyway. Whatever words you use, they will be found wanting; it’s all well and good to say sorry now, the talkback twerps would sneer, but why did you do it in the first place you awful bludger?

But if you’re a man? Well.

If you’re a man, you can shrug your shoulders and say “oh, those things I said weren’t actually my view, or even factually correct, soz.”

If you’re a man, you get to say “my lawyers told me it was okay” or “I reckon it’s pretty legal” and this does not in fact rule you out of being Prime Minister or Minister of Finance (but then, even blatantly lying about budget figures apparently doesn’t rule you out from being Minister of Finance).

If you’re a man, you get to say “oh well my life was just really hard back then when I physically assaulted my partner repeatedly” and pillars of the community will queue up to denounce anyone who doesn’t give you a second chance even when you continue to propagate violent rhetoric and label yourself the victim.

If you’re a man, you get to demean survivors of sexual assault live on air, refuse to take personal responsibility for it and get handed plum political roles while other people insist that we should just take it on faith that you’ve changed, even as you offer more non-apologies.

Hell, if you’re a man you can say “I’ve offered to apologise” when your government utterly screws up the handling of a sexual assault case and that’s somehow the end of the matter, and even if you subsequently refuse to apologise you get damning headlines like: “PM not keen on apology”.

Not.

Bloody.

KEEN?

Can you imagine it? Can you hear the shrieking that would have ensued if Metiria Turei had called a press conference, sniffled a bit and said “Look, I feel bad if anyone was offended, but I only offer apologies when there’s a serious reason for me to do so, I obviously never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it was a long time ago and has been taken out of context”?

Because that’s all a man would have to do.

It may well “rankle” for some people that Metiria Turei never apologised, for something which requires no apology from anyone with a heart. But let’s not allow this to become the received wisdom, as though any apology would have satisfied the critics. They are not fair-minded even-handed assessors of a complex situation; they are hateful troll-monkeys who would always be able to find some reason to demonise a Māori woman whose true crime was surviving and challenging the status quo.