Quantification bias in language: The late Tony Judt grabs the Human Mic

CC-BY-2.0 by Timothy Crause

Woman at Occupy Wall Street, October 17, 2011. Photo by Timothy Crause on Flickr

I wanted to have something more to say about the Occupy Wall Street protests going on in my city (and now, apparently, everywhere else) and some of the linguistic roots of the present economic/political griefs. But historian Tony Judt spoke to this point in Ill Fares The Land, published as his last book a few months before his death in 2010, much better than I could:

Markets have a natural disposition to favor needs and wants that can be reduced to commercial criteria for economic measurement. If you can sell it or buy it, then it is quantifiable and we can assess its contribution to (quantitative) measures of collective well-being. But what of those goods which humans have always valued but which do not lend themselves to quantification?

What of well-being? What of fairness or equity (in its original sense)? What of exclusion, opportunity — or its absence — or lost hope? Such considerations mean much more to most people then aggregate or even individual profit or growth. Take humiliation: what if we treated it as an economic cost, a charge to society? What if we decided to “quantify” the harm done when people are shamed by their fellow citizens as a condition of receiving the mere necessities of life?

In other words, what if we factored into our estimates of productivity, efficiency, or well-being the difference between a humiliating handout and a benefit as of right? We might conclude that the provision of universal social services, public health insurance, or subsidized public transportation was actually a cost-effective way to achieve our common objectives. I readily concede that such an exercise is inherently contentious: how do we quantify humiliation? What is the measurable cost of depriving isolated citizens of access to metropolitan resources? How much are we willing to pay for a good society?

Even “wealth” itself cries out for redefinition. It is widely asserted that steeply progressive rates of taxation or economic redistribution destroy wealth. Such policies undoubtedly constrict the resources of some to the benefit of others — though the way we cut the cake has little bearing on its size. If redistributing material wealth has the long-term effect of improving the health of a country, diminishing social tensions born of envy or increasing and equalizing everyone’s access to services hitherto preserved for the few, is not that country better off?

As the reader may observe, I am using words like “wealth” or “better off” in ways that take them well beyond their current, strictly material application. To do this on a broader scale — to recast our public conversation — seems to me the only realistic way to begin to bring about change. If we do not talk differently, we shall not think differently.

Much as a shouting voice can be carried further when a hundred people are repeating it in unison, the value of injecting a catchy word into the lexicon (and amplifying it once it’s there) is evidenced by the clarity of the terms the European and American press have been using to talk about Occupy Wall Street. All year, the French press has been referring to “los indignados” of Spain as “les indignés” in their own pages, using the most plain translation. When OWS began, headlines in France immediately began calling the movement “les indignés américains” — seeing not something new, but rather a link to existing activities in Europe, while the American press has been a bit slower and more reluctant to draw the connection. But as the Times article linked up top shows, I think this context is already filtering through.

About Andrew Levine

Andrew Levine is an ATA-certified freelance French-English translator from Brooklyn, New York.
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3 Responses to Quantification bias in language: The late Tony Judt grabs the Human Mic

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  2. Phil Nugent says:

    I would love to know what Judt would say about the current protests. I’d love to what he’d say about a lot of stuff.

  3. msangeljohn says:

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