We hear a lot of tragic numbers. With the pandemic came number of cases, number of deaths, number of unemployed. Before this there were already tragic numbers including the number of children living in poverty, the number of homeless people, the number of people in prison.

The numbers may sound tragic on their own, but when you start putting names and faces to the individuals that make up the whole of those numbers, the tragedy becomes more clear, and more human.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis and their supporters in other countries murdered more than 10 million people because of their race, religion, abilities, sexual orientation, and political affiliations. Today, a Twitter account shares information about the individuals who were killed or survived these atrocities as a way of putting faces and names to the numbers. Seeing in a book that almost 60,000 Americans military personnel died during the Vietnam War isn’t the same as seeing those names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  Much the same, if you hear that more than 30 million people have died of AIDS, it sounds horrifying, but seeing just a small percentage of those names on the Names Quilt is a different experience. 

The NY Times recently had the names of 1,000 people in the US who had died from COVID-19, this is less than 1 percent of those who have died in the country from the virus thus far. They put names to the numbers.

I recorded a podcast with Professor Robin DeRosa just last week (it will go live this weekend) in which we talked about the need for universities to be more human. What does this mean? 

The university where I work has more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students. That’s 25,000 plus individuals, with 25,000 individual stories related to their pasts, what their lives are like today, and who they will be in the future.  The same is true for faculty and staff.

We can also talk about the millions of “front-line” workers including health care providers, grocery store employees, delivery people, and those who work in public safety (firefighters, paramedics, police, etc.), but each and every one of them is an individual human.

 Brené Brown has written about “Dehumanizations” in her book Braving the Wilderness as well as on her blog. In a 2018 post there she describing it as:

“Dehumanization has fuelled innumerable acts of violence, human rights violations, war crimes, and genocides. It makes slavery, torture, and human trafficking possible. Dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit, and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith.”

I think when there’s a danger in the focusing on the numbers. I don’t think we should ignore them, but when we get caught up in the number of deaths, the number of students, the numbers coming from Wall Street, we risk dehumanizing the individuals who are behind those numbers, and I think that when we do that we become numb, we risk forgetting the humans and losing our humanity. 

We need to ask about the people behind the numbers. Who are or were they? What are their stories?  While the numbers matter, the humans matter more.

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