I’ve Done my Census. Can I Go Now?

I have complied with my ten-yearly legal obligation to take part in an Orwellian information gathering exercise. I decided to complete the paper form rather than doing it online. It’s easier to swear that way.

Curious business, censuses, censusus, censi?

Curious business, this census.

I don’t like being legally compelled by the State to provide information unless there is a good reason. Going back to lesson 1.01 of my Civil Liberties module at university, I recall the cuddly, bearded prof. telling us about this crazy concept that in a free society, the onus is on the State to demonstrate why it should have your information, rather than on you to demonstrate why it shouldn’t. That made a lot of sense to me. Ok, I know. I was young and maybe I was a bit of an idealist. (I might even have inhaled by mistake.)

If you’re shouting at your computer screen right about now, “What have you got to hide? The innocent have nothing to fear”, then can I politely ask you to defoam your mouth and put down your Daily Mail, just for a second, so we can explore that argument. I’ll try and make it easy for you, because I know you like that.

Put yourself in the following position. Each night, just as you’re unwinding by worrying about the consequences of the Japanese nuclear crisis on North London property prices or how many thousands of Albanian illegal immigrants are hiding in your garden shed, you get a knock on the door from a policeman, and every night he demands to have a really good look around your house.

And now picture me there, too. Each time you protest to the policeman, I’m standing there, poking you in the ribs and slapping you in the face, asking you what you have to hide. I reckon you would get pretty annoyed before long and conclude that maybe, just maybe, the onus shouldn’t really be on you to demonstrate that you have nothing to hide.

The relevant question to ask in the context of the census, or in the context of any compulsory collection of information, is, What has the State got to gain?

On balance, if someone simultaneously twisted my arm and tickled my balls, I could just about accept that the type of information requested in the census provides useful information to enable the government to plan its public services for the benefit of the people it has been elected to govern.

My criticisms of the census, though, are that the government should already have enough information to do this, I’m not confident that my information will be safe, and that the religion question is poorly phrased and unnecessary.

    1. Enough is Enough

The government holds an enormous amount of information about you and me but that information is held by different government departments (and private companies) in different formats and in different places across the country, if not the world.

Once every decade the government tries to establish the optimum method of collating that information in such a way that it might be useful, so a meeting is convened and a brainstorming session takes place.

Someone asks, “How about we build better I.T. systems so that all these different bits of information can be accessed easily from anywhere, and analysed in a useful way?”

Everyone rolls about laughing (even that strange guy from Archives who always holidays in Cambodia, alone) and a few of the old hands fondly recall the time a huge I.T. contract was awarded following a “rigorous, best-practice” procurement process and how the final cost of the “end-to-end solution” was almost endless itself, spiralling to about 600% of the original price. Then someone else says, “and it was delivered really late”, before Maneesh from I.T. corrects him: it still hasn’t been delivered.

An agreed conclusion is rapidly reached that this option = one massive ballache.

Someone from the Blue Sky Thinking Department chips in with a better idea: “Hey guys, just thinking aloud here, how about we do a census?”

A while later, a menacingly large form penetrates your front door and you’re threatened with prosecution if you don’t fill it in. It’s an extremely rare form of extreme lateral thinking by the government: an obscure model of outsourcing where the people doing the donkey work are law-abiding, unpaid members of the public who are providing the service on the basis that completing a large form is very annoying but not as annoying as jail time. Oh yes, governments are ruthlessly efficient and effective, when they can be bothered to be.

    1. Is it safe?

In all fairness, information security is a tricky thing to get right.

On the one hand, spreading information over different locations is a good way of minimising risk because if something goes pop, or if something gets nicked, there’s a good chance you haven’t lost everything, or that the thief has only managed to get part of the picture. Unfortunately, though, having information spread everywhere also makes it more necessary for the people within an organisation to constantly move information around in order to access the right bits. End result: USB sticks are left in Starbucks, laptops are left on the 0627 to Kings Cross.

On the other hand, though, having all the information in one place has obvious risks: leave the bloody doors open and someone has access to a hell of a lot of highly useful information.

Listening to the government telling you your information is safe is like watching someone eating a banana. However hard you try, you can’t help laughing, because there’s just something intrinsically hilarious about it.

The government doesn’t have a good track record of keeping our information safe. They love losing our information; it’s what they do. Although this certainly isn’t a problem that only exists in the public sector, it’s probably just about fair to generalise that standards and accountability in the public sector are lower than in the private sector.

The census is the statistical equivalent of putting a lot of valuable information eggs in one basket. The government, like any large organisation, has tremendous difficulty keeping information safe. But whereas they usually lose a bit here and a bit there, the census enables them to lose a lot. All in one go.

    1. God help me

I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue. I know the religion question was optional but that’s not a good enough reason for including it in the census.

The responder is asked, “What is your religion?” and then given a number of options, the first of which is admittedly “No religion”, followed by all the well-established, big-name brands: Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and then “Any other religion” (and a space to say what that is). I take exception to the question on three levels.

Level 1: Hint, Hint

Notice the blatantly leading nature of the question – it suggests the responder does in fact have a religion. When faced with a leading question like this, many people instinctively associate themselves with one of the big-name brands, even though they might not actually be religious. So they tick Christian, Muslim, or whatever, and this skews the statistics to indicate a higher element of religiosity than is often revealed by other, more carefully worded surveys.

In the lead up to the census, there was an admirable but unsuccessful lobbying effort to restructure the religion question as follows (the attempt to remove the question altogether having failed, presumably):

A. Do you see yourself as belonging to any particular religion (Yes/No)
B. If so, which?

And remember the context in which the question is being asked, even though it’s voluntary: you are legally compelled to complete the census form and to complete it truthfully. If someone chooses to answer the religion question, I believe there is a reasonable chance they will feel under pressure to “tell the truth”. If someone was baptised as a nipper, they may feel obliged to tick the Christian box, even though they might not be in the slightest bit religious. They might conclude, on the basis of not having gone through a formal debaptism process (not as crazy as it sounds, by the way), that they must in fact still be Christian, and that to tick any other box would actually be untruthful.

I’m trying to be polite here, but some religions have seriously fucked-up membership rules. It’s not just the actual rules themselves that are weird, it’s also that the person becoming a member often doesn’t seem to have any say in the whole thing. Here are some examples:

      • If your mother’s Jewish: you’re Jewish
      • If your father’s Muslim: you’re Muslim (God knows* what you are if your mother’s Jewish and your father’s Muslim)
      • A sprinkle of H2O on the head when you’re bollock-naked and screaming: you’re Christian
      • Irreversibly genitally-mutilated as a baby boy, because God says you should be*: you’re Jewish

* or does He?

The thing is, once you’re in, you’re in. It’s a bit like the Hotel California – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. What’s that you’re rudely muttering under your breath? Individual choice? Informed consent? Irrelevant. Didn’t you read The Rules?

Faced with the combination of a leading question, a possible obligation or pressure to “tell the truth”, and surreal membership rules not respecting of logic or fairness, some people will not realise that changing your religion, or deciding to have no religion, is one of the easiest things a human can do. And that it’s a fundamental human right.

Level 2: Choices, Choices

Er, why the religious smorgasbord?

Are religious leaders so riddled with paranoia they’re worried that their devoted, God-fearing followers won’t know which religion they belong to, given the free rein of the alternative wording above? Is the flock’s faith so fucking feeble they frequently forget? (Try saying that with a mouthful of holy water.)

And if we’re going to have a menu, how about some English fair play, please? In the 2001 census there were more Jedis than Jews, Sikhs or Buddhists, but “Jedi” was not one of the options in the 2011 census. Why? Please just spare a thought for those poor Jedis completing their census forms, thinking to themselves, These aren’t the religions we’re looking for.

Level 3: Just Leave it Out

The statistical anomaly produced by the question’s structure wouldn’t be a problem for anyone other than the statisticians but for the fact that statistics from this census, or any census, are often cited to justify a variety of public policy issues, whether it’s theocracy (“Establishment”), old men peddling fairy tales and superstitious bollocks in the House of Lords (“Bishops”), or the religiously-segregated education of our children (“faith schools”).

In any case, the statistical discussion is just a sideshow which misses the point. Even if the census were to portray a statistically accurate picture of religiosity, this should still be completely irrelevant. Religion is a matter of personal conscience and should not form the basis of public policy. And if that sounds counter-democratic, let me explain why.

Assume there were a couple of other voluntary questions in the census, concerning tarot cards and football clubs. If a certain percentage of people professed a belief in tarot cards, should we have publicly-funded schools with a distinctive tarot cards element, with pupil entry and staff hiring largely determined by belief in tarot cards and participation in tarot card events every Sunday morning? If a certain percentage of people professed a love for Accrington Stanley (and if you’re thinking, Who are They?, don’t worry, it’s not important), should we have representatives of Accrington Stanley sitting as lawmakers in the House of Lords, as a matter of constitutional right?

No sane individual would seek to justify those examples of public policy lunacy purely on the basis that they reflected the make-up of the population. There must be an underlying, objective justification for any public policy.

In principle, simply reflecting multiple choice answers from some cack-handed census is not one such justification. That approach might work well for the Dregs-Factor and I’m a Wanker Get Me Out Of Here Once I’ve Had Enough Publicity but it doesn’t work for our purposes.

More specifically, basing public policy on the religious make-up of the population is theocratic, non-secular, arbitrary and anti-democratic, because it discriminates by its very nature against those of other religions and those of no religion. And that is a shit recipe for a stable, cohesive society.

What I did

I had to think carefully about my answer to this question. I didn’t want to leave it blank, because I wasn’t sure what the default statistical treatment of a blank response would be, and I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t religious. When the law forces you to take part in an Orwellian, information überplan, it’s rational to fear that the statisticians will assign you the official State religion if you leave the religion question blank.

Drawing inspiration from an unlikely source, I did consider ticking the “Any other religion” box and stating that my religion was “Noneofyourfuckingbusinessism” but I decided against that on the grounds I would fall into the “religious” camp. (It also had too many letters to fit in the box.)

So, I ticked the “No religion” box but I might have accidentally scribbled the following on my form (I hope it’s ok):

“None of your fucking business anyway. Why the fuck is this question relevant even on a voluntary basis?”

I’m not 100% sure what happens next – perhaps a faceless, invertebrate technocrat from my local Politburo or the Department of Thought Control And Humour Eradication appears on my doorstep, clutching a replacement brain for me. Do I like to think that our public servants have better things to do than harass law-abiding taxpayers? Yes. Am I ever wrong in life? Yes, most days.

Finally, On a More Positive Note…

Depending on who’s holding the reins of power, it looks like we might be spared this farce in 2021, but maybe that’s just because we’ll all be walking around with compulsory, retina-embedded tracking devices by then.