Reality, in my opinion, is marked by a division between numbers and details which, I think, shouldn’t be divided at all. This plays a role most significantly in highly controversial events wherein the different sides of the story often take on either a focus on the details or on the numbers.
Both sides have their validity and, as always, I won’t pretend I know better than anyone on the subject, but the duality itself is intriguing. The focus on numbers normally takes on a statistician’s hat. Essentially, in any event, the approach can be taken by comparing the numbers of one situation to another, turning whatever is being compared into data points that can easily be quantified and evaluated. This approach is both highly efficient and highly impersonal and, as you can probably see already, has its benefits and drawbacks.
The focus on the details doesn’t value the numbers so much as the intimacy of the subject. This approach would emphasize learning as much personal information on the subject as possible and is largely a subjective way to look at the situation. Rather than making decisions based on the magnitude of numbers weighed against one another, one would make a decision based on what feels right, or even, what feels less wrong.
To illustrate the dichotomy, perhaps we can consider the use of nuclear weapons in World War II (what a fun topic).
Nobody probably few people would argue that the use of atomic bombs is inherently good, and about as many would argue that the use of atomic bombs in World War II halted the Japanese advancements against the United States. Rather than argue those points, I would say that it’d be more beneficial to argue to what extent were the atomic bombs necessary? (Please, pardon my literature class diction).
Taking the numbers approach, many would argue that the bombs, while undeniably causing many, many deaths, effectively halted a war that would have claimed countless more lives for who knows how many more attacks and battles. That argument is fair and valid. Had the war not been halted by a terrible advancement in military technology, the perpetuated violence may have lasted much, much longer and would have claimed many, many more lives. The total death toll on the pacific front of the war was over 30,000,000 casualties. Divided evenly over the approximate 1,300 days of the war (these are very rough estimates/calculations, forgive me), the average daily death toll would be just over 23,000 people, civilians included. Had the war lasted only 10 more days, the marginal death toll would have already been higher than the combined numbers at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those numbers are chilling and, logically, the two bombs could be justified in saying that they caused the death toll to be much lower to the alternative had the war lasted only a few more weeks or, frighteningly more likely, months and years.
The other side of the argument, and perhaps the side I’ve always favored in this particular debate, worries less about the numbers and more about the details at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The other day, NPR broadcasted a story about a young man who had traveled to the cities to talk to survivors of the very bombs that were dropped from his grandfather’s plane. The stories these survivors told were absolutely horrifying. They seemed to come straight out of a disaster film, but when the smoke cleared for them, there was no credit scene. One individual recounted her experience, remembering that the initial blinding blast had knocked her unconscious. She awoke to crying and screams. The city around her was destroyed and injured people lay all around her. She tried to help them by bringing each one water. One by one, they died, right in front of her. She was one person, but this memory must belong to many more, as survivors were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of less fortunate victims. With stories of people literally vanishing into thin air in an instant, erased from existence in the blink of an eye, the event becomes even more chilling when reminded that these were civilian cities. While their inhabitants may have supported the Japanese side and opposed the Americans, and many probably did, they were not themselves involved in the conflict. When ISIS kills innocent Americans, nobody argues that it is justifiable within the war on terror. Killing innocent civilians in this sense should not be justified within the Pacific front at all. Nonetheless, it was. A single moment ended thousands of lives before they even had a chance to acknowledge what was happening, and many more lives as they attempted to recover from the shock. Numbers aside, it would be inhumane to take the “details” approach and argue that the use of atomic bombs was justifiable.
Now, when decisions are made in the real world, they normally aren’t made solely on the basis of one approach or the other. Truman clearly favored the numbers side, but not because he didn’t recognize the validity of the details (and granted, being the first and only case of a nuclear attack on civilians or people at all, maybe the details weren’t completely drawn out for him). In real world situations, we tend to consider both sides before favoring one. Before the decision is made however, when we are arguing one side or the other, we tend to adopt one approach of the other rather exclusively. Take illegal immigration in the United States, for example. The conservative side tends to favor the numbers approach, especially when talking about taxes. They say that millions of illegal immigrants are taking advantage of the benefits of living in the United States without paying taxes. Even with legal immigrants, they play an often fabricated number game of things like terror attacks and crime rates. Looking at this argument, it would be foolish to allow millions of people who do not pay taxes, “mooch” off of the United States’ benefits, and bring crime and terror stay in the country.
That is, until we consider the details. Illegal immigrants don’t “have to” pay taxes. Many probably don’t. Many, however, do. Many have fake documents and use those documents to contribute their “fair share” to the country. Many pay their taxes, and none of them—or at least, very few—reap many of the benefits of citizenship, or even get tax returns. To want to remove immigrants who pay a relatively higher amount of their “fair share” than loop-hole savvy millionaires who enjoy an undisturbed stay seems to me, again, inhumane. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if being able to legally become a citizen wasn’t terribly difficult in the first place—a process that is incredibly oversimplified in the debates. Consider too the common argument that the United States is a country of immigrants. With the relative youth of the nation and the massacre of the indigenous people, there are really only a handful of generations that can claim to not be immigrants. The only real difference between an illegal immigrant and a citizen today is a timestamp, and a relatively short one at that. Beyond that, immigration to the United States is largely a reaction to a disproportion of power. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world and, as a result, has immense influence on both the politics and the economies of other countries—it isn’t a matter of intellect, but of ammunition. With the ability to wield this much power over so much of the world, it seems almost oppressive to deny the benefits of citizenship to a people so vulnerably under the influence.
Surely you see that both sides have validity to their approach (and I’m sure you see which one I favor in regard to immigration), but also it is important to note that a decision cannot be made entirely on one side or the other. Cutting off immigration entirely for numbers sake would ruin countless lives and stiffen relationships with other countries, potentially pushing the United States into a pre-global-manifest-destiny kind of isolationism (and that diction shows you what I think of U.S. history). However, letting all illegal immigrants enter and fully benefit off of the United States’ system isn’t a sustainable approach either (at least not until globalism has its way). For these reasons, the ultimate decision must be somewhere in the middle—a moderate one, one might say. Unfortunately, this isn’t a decision that the current administration is likely to stumble upon, but the potential decision is there, somewhere in between Trump’s immigration ban and Ellis Island.
Likewise, in any decision we come across, the middle ground is there. History is ridden with situations that can be praised or contested based on arguments of numbers or details. Modern events are too. Chances are your life is as well, I know mine is. It might be healthy then to consciously consider the dichotomy not only in grandiose life decisions, but in small, every day ones as well. When you’ve finished loading the groceries into the trunk, maybe you’ll be a MacArthur and leave your cart out because everyone else has as well, and the numbers dictate that it isn’t worth it (in South Florida, at least). Maybe you’ll be an Einstein, and refuse to be part of the cause of suffering to that poor cart return boy, and return the cart yourself. Maybe you’ll be a moderate, and push the cart halfway, ending up somewhere in between.