In the never-ending war between conservatives and liberals, which is really no different than the war between Tories vs the Whigs, the Blues vs the Grays or Mounds vs Almond Joy, there is one argument that crops up all the time which I want to put an end to right here and now.
People get into arguments over their positions and try to come up with ways to prove the opposing side wrong. The most effective way of doing this is calmly and rationally pointing to facts and evidence which support their position and which cannot be refuted or disproven by their opponent. This doesn’t always work for any number of reasons, but it is still the best way to go about it. There are other things people do too and one of those is to say “Well you’re just biased” as though they are making some radical and important point that invalidates everything you had to say. Yeah…not so much. In fact, they might as well be saying that you’re wrong because you have skin or because you breathe.
Bias is a prejudice in favor or against some thing, person, group or idea compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. Basically it’s an idea that for whatever reason, a person or thing is different from others in some way and that difference matters, usually in such a way as to create distrust, fear and anxiety. The bias may or may not be true or provable or valid; that doesn’t matter too much. Biases are based on emotion as often as on facts or reason. Studies have shown that when someone can see that the differences they believe to exist aren’t real or don’t have to be a deciding factor in relations with others, trust can increase and reduce the anxiety that underlies bias. So education, social training and tolerance are key factors in reducing bias of all kinds.
It’s definitely true that bias can sometimes prevent a person from fairly looking at facts or reasonable arguments and when that is the case, they should be called out for it and the facts should be pushed in their faces again and again until they are forced to address them. But more often than not, accusing someone of being biased is really just accusing them of having an opinion. Is it wrong to have an opinion about something? Is it a logical fallacy to take a position and advocate for and defend that position? Does that automatically make your argument invalid? Of course not.
In fact, it’s impossible for any of us to be totally unbiased on almost anything. Human beings just aren’t built that way. We are practically walking bias machines, every one of us packed with ideas, opinions and attitudes about anything and everything, whether we actually know what we are talking about or not. One of the most amazing things about us, actually, is that we are capable of having opinions about things we know all but nothing about. You’d think there would be some kind of evolutionary mechanism in our brains that would keep us from getting in trouble all the time by putting our mouth on lockdown when we start talking about stuff we are wholly ignorant of. Yet instead we are built exactly the opposite and there are too many people who are actually proud to mouth off about things they know nothing about. When people in the know hear those people…well, let’s just say it can be pretty frustrating.
And it’s not like we are even aware of all of this. Most of our biases are buried deep and we don’t even realize we have them. The ones we know about are called explicit biases. These are the ones we choose to act on of our own free will. We see plenty of this across the social and political spectrum every day. When these words or actions conflict with our own biases, we usually become upset and disagree, whereas when these biased words or actions agree with our own biases, we cheer and say that person is talking sense. People hardly ever stop and think about explicit biases but if you sat them down and asked about their opinions and ideas, they’d be able to articulate them and explain why they feel that way. That’s all explicit bias.
Then there are implicit biases, which we are not so consciously aware of but which are just as powerful, if not more so, than explicit biases. Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit biases operate at a subconscious level. They are based on associations and ideas which are mostly established very early in life, sometimes before a person is even thinking in exact words or phrases and are developed and reinforced by direct and indirect messages a person receives from parents, friends and enemies, the media or just about anywhere else a person can receive information.
According to the Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, a few key characteristics of implicit biases include:
* They are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges.
* Implicit and explicit biases are related but distinct mental constructs. They are not mutually exclusive and may even reinforce each other.
* The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.
* We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own ingroup, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our ingroup.
* Implicit biases are malleable. Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques.
Implicit biases can be incredibly powerful and express themselves in surprising ways. For example, a 2012 study of pediatricians found that implicit racial biases affected their treatment recommendations. Pediatricians with a pro-White implicit bias were more likely to prescribe painkillers for white children than black children and they weren’t even aware they were doing this.
Judges are humans too and are just as much slaves to their implicit biases as anyone else. Research was done on criminal sentencing and Afrocentric features bias, which refers to the generally negative judgments and beliefs that many people hold regarding individuals who possess Afrocentric features such as dark skin, a wide nose, and full lips. Researchers found that when controlling for numerous factors such as the seriousness of the primary offense, number of prior offenses, etc, individuals with the most prominent Afrocentric features received longer sentences than their less Afrocentrically featured counterparts. This phenomenon was observed intraracially in both their Black and White male inmate samples.
Many things go into creating biases: culture, location, the nature of a person’s upbringing, education, genetic dispositions, hobbies, the kind of work they do and hundreds of other factors. In many ways, the words we use and the way we act are nothing more or less than an amalgamation of our biases. Implicit and explicit biases can feed off one another and be reinforced or negated by the environment a person is in.
Propaganda is written, spoken or visually presented material that is specifically designed to create or reinforce biases using appeals to our emotion. This is why it is so important when watching the evening news or advertising or listening to politicians speak, that we be very aware that we are not watching objective presentations. We are watching things which are designed to influence our decision-making processes to get us to like or dislike whatever it is that is being talked about.
When you are watching a politician speak, it’s not just the words they say that influence how you feel and what you think about his statement. The color of his shirt, his jacket, his tie, whether he’s even wearing a tie, the words and phrases and colors on any backdrop he’s standing in front of, the way his hair is combed, his ethnicity and mannerisms – all of these are part of the message. There are media consultants who are paid good money to decide on each one of these things every time that politician goes before a camera or makes a public appearance. All of this is overly manipulative, but most people don’t think twice about any of it. Yet these little things add up to feed on our biases and sway our decisions. These are not things to just ignore and think “well none of that influences me.” If you think that, I’m sorry but you’re simply wrong.
There’s been a lot of research done on our biases and more methods are under development every day. Some of this research is being done to understand our biases while other research is being done to exploit them. A person who is being honest and self-aware can talk openly about their explicit biases, but pulling out the implicit ones requires much more thorough and careful questioning.
So the bottom line on this is not that it’s good or bad or sideways to have biases. That’s like making a value judgement about breathing. It’s a fact of life for all of us that we have things we like, we have things we hate and we have things we are wholly indifferent about. There is nothing we can do about that and not every bias a person has is wrong or bad or awful. We learn pretty early to have an explicit bias against very hot metals because when we put our hand on the stove, it hurt. A lot. That’s not a harmful bias.
But there are many biases we have which do form the backbone of intolerance, hate and social discord. In order to get along, it’s important that we recognize these and act to temper their influence on our thinking, words and actions. It’s a very valuable lesson in critical thinking to learn to do this. Purposefully exposing ourselves to alternative points of view, listening to what other people have to say and asking them why they think that way, acknowledging that there are some subjects which don’t have right or wrong answers but just different ideas – all of these are good ways to overcome explicit biases and even battle some of our negative implicit ones too.
Telling someone they are biased is generally not a good approach in an argument, any more than telling them they think and therefore they are wrong. It’s always better to argue the subject being discussed than to make it personal to the person you are arguing against anyway. People are complex and have lots of different ideas. Many of those ideas we can probably agree with, even if we have strong disagreements on one or two things. So when discussing those points, stay on topic and stay off the person themselves. In the long run, this is the only way you will ever change their mind anyway. No one changes their mind because you call them names or make value judgments about their character or intelligence.
Just some things to think about. I hope this was of use. Thank you for watching.