Why have so many law-abiding citizens come to resist the census?  What are they afraid of?

Those hiding from the law, clearly, don’t want to be seen and counted.  That explains the worries of illegal immigrants – but they are not the ones resisting the census.  And those who fight the presence of the illegals or resist their acceptance into our society might argue that including them in the census is a step towards normalizing their existence.  But that’s just a fraction of the problem as a recent Newsweek article points out (see “Anti-Census Sentiment”).

Most of naturally resist scrutiny. We all like our privacy, and most of us have some secrets we’d rather keep hidden.  We don’t want our phones tapped.  The many thousands of surveillance cameras that dot our streets make us uneasy, that is if we become aware of them. It’s not so hard to be suspicious of what others want to know, or why they want to know it, or to worry about what will be done with that knowledge that’s collected.  Such “normal” suspicions don’t make us paranoid.

Moreover, we all have learned to mistrust government.  We have been lied to and misled.  The ways in which I suspect the government may be different from the ways others do, but I can hardly affirm that we should take what our elected officials say at face value or trust them to have our best interests at heart.  So as the Census Bureau probes into our lives, it inevitably arouses such fears.

But maybe the underlying problem is not so much our anxieties about being known as it is about knowing.  Perhaps the resistance has to do with what we fear finding out about ourselves.

The Census is mandated by the constitution, and its primary purpose is to up-date the apportioning of our congressional representatives.  But over the years it has been seen as a valuable opportunity to find out much more about ourselves, information useful to government as it keeps track of the population.  But maybe we don’t want to know what we could know about ourselves, how different we are from what we’d like to think.

Decades ago, it was an opportunity to find out how many residents owned their own homes, had refrigerators, cars and bathrooms.  But, today, do we want to know how racially and ethnically varied our households are?  what new forms of co-habitation and child rearing we have improvised?  how our employment histories have played out?  how wide the gap is between the rich and poor?  our general levels of health?  education?  indebtedness?

Frankly, I am inclined to believe that the professionals entrusted with the survey do a good job conscientiously, but it may well be that their good faith effort to tell us who we are goes against the grain.  What we don’t know we know may be exactly what we resist finding out.