Bias and its Discontents

The other day, flipping through the comments section of a news and opinion website, I noticed that one of the posters was upset because the writer of the article was “biased.” It wouldn’t have caught my eye, except that recently someone wrote into my local newspaper with a letter to the editor decrying the obvious biases of the opinion page. Then, I got onto icanhascheezburger, of all places, where an anti-bigotry meme had been blasted as “biased meme is biased.” Why all the hate for bias?

It got me thinking. Bias is intrinsic to us; we can’t avoid it. I only have my own set of experiences to draw conclusions from. As I gain more experiences, I expect to temper my conclusions. Then again, the order of those experiences matters, too: if I took the same general set of things that can happen to a person in a lifetime and jumble them up and place them in a different order, the “meaning” that emerges from that pattern changes. For just one obvious example, a person who has sex for the first time when they’re sixteen will likely come to different conclusions about sex’s role in life and society than a person who loses their virginity at thirty.

And yet, we hear it every time we write an essay in grade school, high school, and much of university-level instruction. “Cover every side of the argument. Do not be biased.”

Why is this? Well, for one thing, despite the efforts of Texas Republicans, critical thinking is a skill that needs to be taught in school. An awareness that multiple sides exist in an argument is crucial if we expect young Americans to grow up to even be able to take part in the national conversation, much less if we expect them to make an impact in it. If you’ve ever argued something with a true believer, you know what I mean – if there’s only one side of a debate that can possibly ever be true, then there can really be no dialogue, and violence is almost certainly sure to follow.

So our teachers want their charges to take a moment, weigh the evidence, and ultimately come down on the side that better espouses the student’s values, or the one with the better argument, or what have you. The danger of this instruction is not completing the circle, though: you still have to make a decision. You do actually have to pick if you think that gay Americans have the right to form legally recognized families. If you think they should not, then you are biased. If you think they should, then you are biased.

And trying, in no matter how small of a way, to purge discourse of any veneer of bias, is to be wrong every time, sometimes in embarrassingly public formats. Telling someone to be quiet because they’re spreading bias is, in fact, to implicitly support the opposite bias.

So please, everyone, embrace your biases. Remember your experiences and your pasts, use those lessons to help you make good decisions about the future of our communities and our nations.

But – and there’s always a but – you can’t let it so consume you that there is never any room for revision in your thinking. It’s not bias that’s the problem, it’s static bias. So before you dismiss speech as nothing more than a product of bias, ask yourself if your mindset is an equal and opposite product of bias – and whether you’re part of the dialogue or part of the problem.

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3 comments

  1. Thank you for this post! It is so easy to forget that we all have our biases and prejudices and it is good to be reminded sometimes, so that we can figure out what they are and challenge them to prevent them taking over our life.

    1. Glad you found it helpful! Thanks!

  2. Yes! Ask questions always, even of yourself. Please check out my blog on education if you have the chance. Thanks

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