An Anecdote on Anecdotes


Anecdotal evidence is not evidence. Without further evidence, it cannot prove or disprove anything. We are constantly seeing stories from people, first-hand, third-hand, allegorical, all trying to get you to connect emotionally with a cause. And it works. It also, well, doesn’t work. Mostly it backfires because these stories are based on one person’s perspective. That perspective may be echoed by dozens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. But it also contradicts the first-hand/etc perspectives of their detractors. I’ll give you an example.

I’m sure you remember when the Redskins football team was receiving a ton of pressure to change their mascot to something less racist. Lots of First People protestor organizations have been trying to get professional teams to abandon mascots that are based off harmful stereotypes and racial slurs. Now, to me, a white woman, it makes total sense in the 21st century to ditch RACIAL SLURS when representing your teams. Especially when the live representative of that slur is a racial stereotype. Plus, if you change the team name, you get to sell so much new merch. Everybody has to rebuy their fave jersey or whatever. Now, I wasn’t following this story too closely because I don’t care about sports. I do distinctly remember a game where a group of First Nation Redskin fans were paraded on the field because they didn’t find the mascot offensive. Sort of a, “See? How can it be racist if THESE GUYS are fans?!?” thing.

I remember this because I felt betrayed. Which is weird for a lot of reasons (I’m white and not a sports fan, for example), but I thought here at last was a clear-cut moment in history where we can grow and move on from a dark place. And they pulled the classic But Some of my Best Fans are Natives excuse, with live examples. How could they (the Natives) betray their people like that?!? How could they betray ME?!? Because now I can’t feel good about the cause since there are people on the other side who have a right to argue against it. (Yes, I cringed writing that, I’m a narcissist and these are the types of “first thoughts” I struggle with.) What right did they have to demonstrate that First Peoples are not a monolith and can have widely varying views on things that have absolutely nothing to do with me?!? (Edited to add: boy, is this ever topical now.)

What’s my point? Ah, well, we are dealing with huge social issues this century. HUGE. POC rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, Women’s rights, and so much of it is bogged down with anecdotes. Now, it’s one thing for a person to share their experience (say a woman sharing her story of workplace harassment) and having it discounted by someone who has no right to comment (in this case, typically a man who thinks women love his sexist jokes). It’s another thing to have someone of the same stripe (in my example, another woman) contradicting the account because that isn’t something they have experienced.

To the first example, the challenge is pretty clear. Convince that person/s that THIS IS A PROBLEM when it is an issue that they will never be affected by and they most often have absolutely no reference for empathy. Take PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), for instance. There are women who have been fighting for years to convince actual doctors that they have a serious medical condition. They are told REPEATEDLY that they are imagining severe symptoms or just exaggerating what is simply a bad period. If you know nothing about PCOS, I invite you to google away because it is f*cking awful and has a wide range of debilitating side effects. But since the majority of medicine is focused on keeping white men healthy, there is a huge research gap in women/POC health. In order for concerns to be legitimized, a lot of people have to make noise about it. Continuously. Until people in the upper eschelons of medical research decide it is worth looking into. It’s pretty horrific that this is a problem in a modern, first world country, but it has a lot to do with the fact that a majority of doctors for a long time were men and had no first hand experience with POC or women’s health in practical applications. Medical texts were written by men. Medical students were taught by men. Medical care is so biased towards white males that it is NEWS that women have completely different symptoms for heart attacks. It wasn’t that long ago that the cure for anxiety in women was a hysterectomy. And we are just now beginning to dismantle the damage done by men taking over obstetrics from midwives (because a male doctor is way more qualified to handle reproductive health than a profession built on generations of female experience).

So you make noise by sharing your experience and then comes the research and statistics and whatever else to prove that you were right! And now you have to take that scientific evidence and cram it under the nose of Every. Single. Doctor and medical professional you can. And you share your story on social media, through blogs and Facebook posts and Twitter and whatever else. And AMAZINGLY, you find a huge community of people who say YES THAT IS MY EXPERIENCE, TOO. Even better, you receive empathy from people who are in that first category, ignorant of the issue because they haven’t been directly affected by it. You’re story somehow resonated with them! Faith in humanity restored, right?

Well, no. Because along with all those positive responses from people who are so grateful to have a word to define what they’ve been going through, to have their struggle verified by your experience, there is always someone who says otherwise. You’re faking it, you’re being paid, you just want free stuff, you’re just playing the victim, nobody actually suffers like you do because I don’t. And I know because I’m a woman, too (substitute whatever social group applies here). You are gutted. This is not only a huge blow to your cause, but it makes you question your own experience. All these people just like me are calling me a liar and a fake. What if I am?

Good news! I’ll say it again. Anecdotal evidence is not evidence. That means that their experience, however genuine, does not invalidate yours. And vice versa. There are 7+ billion people on this planet and whenever we speak in generalities we will fail to encapsulate the perspectives of every single individual. There are entirely too many different variables to take into account. So, when people say that they know exactly how you feel/what you’ve been through, you can take that as validation. When people say that “I’m a woman and my period isn’t that bad get over yourself,” that doesn’t invalidate YOU and your struggle.

Now you may be wondering about the flip side of this. Say you are a doctor who doesn’t believe PCOS is a serious issue. But you see all these personal accounts from people saying that it is a serious issue and you’re conflicted. Then you see some op ed by someone who agrees with you and IT’S A WOMAN so you are now validated, right? Well, no. You forgot about the research findings, where scientists and doctors did serious study and found solid medical evidence that proves PCOS is a legitimate health condition, one that should be treated with compassion and more research to discover the cause and the cure.

Science is the deciding factor here, in this case and many, many others.

The world is currently on fire. Still. There are protests all over the world right now aimed at bringing justice and reform everywhere. Millions of people are making noise right now, this very moment because one person was killed in cold blood, on video, in broad daylight. And still we are arguing amongst ourselves about the existence of systemic racism and white privilege. Despite overwhelming scientific/historical evidence to the contrary.

I am not going to apologize for my privilege. I didn’t do anything to come by it. That’s like apologizing for having blond hair. I acknowledge that while my life isn’t perfect, I benefit from a racist system that considers whiteness the default and POC the “other.” And that isn’t based on my experience. You can’t base experience on the absence of evidence. I’ve never feared for my life during a traffic stop or been pulled over because I match the description of a criminal. I’ve never dealt with people deciding that I was accepted to a school to meet a minority quota or been “jokingly” called a diversity hire. I’ve never been murdered in the street and had people say I deserved it because I was on drugs a few days ago or had a history of arrests. I’ve never been told I need to abandon the way I speak and dress in order to be accepted as a human being. I have never experienced racism. I am not overtly racist. I can still benefit from a racist system.

I didn’t come to acknowledge my privilege just because I’m a bleeding-heart liberal who wants to be congratulated for my wokeness and guilt. I became aware first through the anecdotes of BIPOC, yes, but then through the scientific research done on the subject, which goes all the way back to the early 20th century. Black people average twice the unemployment rates of whites. Blacks are killed at twice the rate (by population) by cops as white. These aren’t opinions. They’re researched facts. Black schools have significantly lower funding. Black on Black crime is not significantly greater than White on White crime. Blacks are statistically more likely to end up in prison, get pulled over and ticketed for minor traffic violations, less likely to be approved for a loan, and on and on. The statistics are staggering. And this isn’t to say that these are black problems, like they’re all criminals or welfare queens or any other stupid stereotype. No, if you take two college graduates with exactly the same degree and grades, the one with the less black name will get more job offers. Banks have been found to be statistically more willing to loan to lower class white families than middle class black families.

Most of the primary ways that BIPOC are handicapped in our society can be traced directly to Jim Crow and slavery. It will take generations to undo the damage. Again, not an opinion based on my experience. Facts.

Today, my conservative friends are sharing videos of prominent black conservatives speaking out against the martyring of George Floyd and the false narrative of white privilege, saying that he was no saint and white privilege is just a new way of saying I’m better than black people. White privilege just encourages victimhood by telling black people they’re still shackled. George Floyd was high on drugs and once held a gun on a pregnant woman. And those conservative black folks are accused of being traitors to their own race (lots of references to house slaves). I can’t speak to that because, once again, I’m white. My opinion doesn’t matter in that sense.

What they and others say is typically based on their own experiences, i.e. I’m a black man and have never had trouble getting a loan/been followed in a store/dressed like a “thug.” Which people will take as confirmation that stories from black people about the racism they experience every day, even when they have video evidence, are a false narrative. They will use the anecdotes from one black person to invalidate the experience of another and feel righteously justified in doing so. It can’t be real because THIS PERSON WHO FITS THE DEMOGRAPHIC SAYS SO. Additionally, white people will deny the existence of white privilege in the same way, i.e. I’m white and I’ve had xyz happen so where’s my privilege?

Last time hopefully pays for all. ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE IS NOT EVIDENCE. Voter suppression isn’t a problem because people are telling you how long they waited in line to vote. It’s a problem because states are systematically finding ways to legally limit voting to certain demographics, for which we have plenty of evidence from competent researchers who investigate civil rights violations for a living. Trans rights isn’t an issue because of all the heart-wrenching tales of kids rejected by their families, it’s because they are literally being murdered for existing. BLM didn’t start protesting because Michael Brown was a saint but because he was not the first black person to be killed without just cause by someone who suffered no consequences and they wanted him to be the last. And he wasn’t, unfortunately. It’s not that the lives are taken, which is bad enough, but that the barest excuse is sufficient to exonerate the perpetrator.

Unfortunately, numbers can be made to lie and even when accurate, they are hard to connect emotionally to. That is where anecdotes are vital. They provide a path to empathy, without which the cause is lost.

The important thing to learn is we need to do research and we need to listen. LISTEN TO THEIR STORIES. And before you discount the experience of another person, figure out if you are the exception to the rule or under the jurisdiction of an entirely different set of rules.

And you know what? I’m sick of hearing white people weighing in on the experiences of BIPOC, myself included. I am sick of explaining something I can’t fully understand because it is not my experience. I’m sick of trying to get it across to my white friends that IT IS NOT ABOUT US. This story, this time, this is about people who don’t get the space to speak and we are yelling over them to make it about us. Our feelings. Our experiences. Our opinions. And that’s just it. It isn’t our feelings or experiences or opinions that matter. So maybe just stop b*tching about how all this hurts/insults/bothers you. LISTEN. TO. THEM.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/my-white-friend-asked-me-to-explain-white-privilege-so-i-decide/ (From 2017, guys)

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