Monday, March 24, 2008

Uncomfortable ruminations: A friend responds

A good friend read my recent ruminations and emailed me a thoughtful and perceptive reply, one that I felt was very much worth sharing with others. With his permission, and with small identifying details redacted, I post it here:


Don’t be so hard on yourself. Biases exist. How we handle them is what counts.

It’s one thing to accept a biased view of humankind, without question, and to act in accordance with those biases. It is quite another thing to be aware of unsubstantiated views or predispositions or beliefs – biases – that we actively and conscientiously seek to account for in our judgments so that reason and an absence of bias inform our actions and choices. The idea that one can be unbiased is as illusory as the notion that a journalist can be objective. Biases need to be acknowledged, either overtly when writing opinion columns, or internally, when acting as a citizen in society.

I think of myself as unprejudiced, that is, I would not let ethnic or racial or gender biases color my opinions or judgments about others. But that does not mean I have no stereotypes that inhabit my subconscious. It would be absurd to think that. I am a product of my times, my upbringing, my life experiences. Consider: If I were to delude myself into thinking I had purged biases from my psyche, does that mean I would be comfortable living in an inner city ghetto? (Indeed, isn’t my characterization of it as inner city and ghetto just biases?) I would no more be comfortable, at home, in the society of the inner city than I would be living amongst the Southies of Boston.

People are not all the same; they differ vastly in sophistication, social mores, education, interest in the arts, intelligence, sensitivity – the list can go on and on. I believe what we as enlightened citizens of the world owe to our fellow humans is an unconditional respect: I respect other people, I recognize their values (even when they are different than mine), and I grant them the absolute right to be different than I am and to believe differently than I do. But I have no obligation to adjust my convictions to meet theirs, nor do I have to accord their beliefs equal weight in my own thinking. I simply need to respect them, and tolerate the differences between us.

It is fashionable today to equate different cultures, i.e., cultural relativity. That’s nonsense. I respect the fact that the culture of others may be different, vastly so, from my own; and I strive to be tolerant of differences I can’t understand or that seem nonsensical. Again, I see it as a question of respect: every person, and his/her culture, if it’s different than mine, must have my respect for me to say with truth that I am not prejudiced. But all cultures are not equal. The culture of the Maori tribes is in no way of equal value to the great, long-developing cultures of Western society, of which I am a member.

Allah and Muslims may be a great god and a great culture, respectively. But can you imagine trying to live in a Muslim culture? I couldn’t! I’m different than they are, and I have absolutely no desire to submit myself to their cultural strictures. But – I have no desire to suppress, or outlaw, or restrict their cultures.

I think that, again, makes me unprejudiced. Unbiased? No. My biases here are plain: I think my culture is better than theirs. And, concomitantly, I’m sure Muslims think their culture is better than mine. That’s fine with me. That’s the way it should be.

The fact that certain biases stubbornly persist in your psyche, despite your discomfort that they are there, is not a surprise. Your biases, beliefs, values, were inculcated in you from a very early age, and produced the person you are, with the character and integrity that you possess. Your intelligence, and growth as an individual, allow you to identify what are unsubstantiated beliefs – but that doesn’t mean they fade away. It means you have the tools available to you to make sure you act rationally and in a modern, enlightened way, because you know how to reckon with your biases.

Curiously, in my Catholic school upbringing, I learned the phrase “the occasion of sin.” The definition of that term included “thinking” a thought that, if acted out, would be a sin. In other words, either committing a sin or thinking about a sinful act were the same: a sin. Bullshit! (Though it took me years of guilt to realize that was a cockeyed notion.) I love my wife, and am devoted to her. And if I pass a gorgeous woman on the street and the thought flickers through my mind what spending the night with her might be like, that is in no way unfaithful to my wife, nor does it mean my affection for my wife is a sham. It means I have chosen to be loyal to one woman, my wife, but the god-given nature of men to be attracted to females hasn’t ended just because I made the choice to restrict myself to my wife.

Biases are bad only when one either doesn’t recognize the bias and acts therefore in a biased way; or, recognizing the bias, fails to adjust his actions to effectively neutralize the effect of the bias.

We are imperfect beings. No manner of perfection is vouchsafed to us. How earnestly we seek to know our imperfections and then effectively deal with them is, I believe, the measure of our success as tolerant individuals.

I’m sure you don’t think [our mutual friend] was biased towards white people because she chose to move back to Hawaii, where she could be more comfortable. We humans are communal people; we need to belong to a community. You can’t “belong” to a community in which you are uncomfortable. Seeking “your own kind” is not a form of bias, but a recognition of the human condition.

In today’s America, it is a strong indicator of biases successfully overcome if you can happily vote for a black Presidential candidate or, if you are a man, a woman candidate. A truly biased person could not do that.

1 comment:

WereBear said...

Very thoughtful, and quite true.

We can't eliminate our biases, being human, but we can become aware of them!

And thus, defuse them.

My own thinking was shaped by the time I was twelve and had a paper route. At that time I had spent four years in the South, and was still puzzling over their racial attitudes.

I collected from a house which had always had the husband come to the door, a white man. But this time it was a Asian woman, his wife. I took the money and was tooling my bike down the road when I realized all the people around me were telling me black people marrying white people was wrong... yet they didn't think the white people marrying Asian people was wrong. (At least, I had not been exposed to this particular prejudice.)

So I figured they didn't make any sense, and I wasn't going to think that way.

And I have been striving to make sense ever since.