A Response to Mr. M. about Bias

More than a year ago (17 months to be precise) Mr. M. emailed me a question. He had intended to post his question as a comment on the old blog, but ran into technical difficulties. His email has sat in my email inbox ever since. Today, at long last, I respond. Hopefully it will have been worth the wait. I am posting this discussion apart from its original post, which can be found here.

Mr. M: "To me, it seems that a textbook published in Utopia would actually have NO bias, and for those of us living on Earth, we should try to get as close to that idea as possible. Do you disagree, and if so, why?"

First, a definition, borrowing from Webster’s 1913: A leaning of the mind; propensity or prepossession toward an object or view, not leaving the mind indifferent; bent; inclination. It carries with it the notion of having a slant. It comes from the Latin bifax meaning “two-faced.”

Thus, the implication of the term seems to be that there is what is true on the one hand, and how you regard it on the other. That is, that bias causes us to see and/or to represent something as being something more or less – better or worse – than it truly is. We might consider that it pits Absolute Truth against Relative Truth. It’s true as we see it.

Perhaps this relates to our need to have a black-and-white world, even though we know, deep down, that it’s more complicated. I know that not all rap is socially destructive and aesthetically inadequate… but most of it is and that’s good enough for government work.

Perhaps it relates to our need to find hope and goodness in a fallen and sinful world, so we put the best spin on it so we can carry on. The alternative is to spend our life lonely, depressed, and cynical. We even do this with God. “Well, this situation really sucks, but God intends it for good.” Perhaps bias, when it is positive, is an expression of faith.

For God, truth just is. It is simply declared. God does not need to spin it. But does that lead us to think that we should strive for a non-biased world here? I do not think so.

We ought to favor our kin, our country, our way of life. We think (or, at least, we used to think) that ours was a far better society in which to live than most alternatives. So long as I hold that to be true, then I should be biased towards it. Similarly, if I take certain lifeways to be inferior, sinful, or destructive, I should be biased against them.

In this sense, bias acts as a social reinforcer that our beliefs – whether about moral or civic virtue – are true. This is not to say that we should excuse evil or support what is false; but it does mean that we present the world in the terms we strive for. We desire to be a nation of laws, and on our better days we are. That is a healthy bias.

Modernity was very concerned that we develop a world free of bias. Journalists were expected to report the news without personal bias. Teachers were to teach impartially without bias. One very positive aspect to this striving for non-bias was that it forced all sides onto the same stage whereon they had to contend for the truth. Anyone thought to have any bias at all was deemed to have lost credibility.

The question, of course, is how far to push this. I have a bias for classical music. Does this prevent me from listening to and appreciating the musical strengths or weaknesses of jazz? I am a Lutheran. Does this does prevent me from reading and properly comprehending and teaching about Calvin? Do I have to be one in order to talk about it?

I want to say no. Yet, broadly speaking, the answer seems often to be yes. The NAACP has a Black person as its spokesman. The Catholic Church appoints a bishop to represent them to the world. A military historian who has not carried a gun in the armed forces probably isn’t going to be hired at West Point. Almost nobody thinks any of this is a problem. There seems to be a universal understanding that being part of the group puts you in touch with certain biases which you cannot appreciate apart. Merely being knowledge about it somehow isn’t enough.

And yet, a bad idea is a bad idea, and I shouldn’t have to be part of the group which originated the bad idea to address it. My being Christian does not undermine my capacity to declare that Satanism is bad. To some extent, post-modernity has been a direct reaction to this sterility. The post-modernists rightly claim that a man cannot entirely separate himself from his bias. They are too deeply held to be suppressed entirely. On the other hand, we have the other extreme, as the CNN or FOX news journalist illustrates. They have leapt headlong into their bias to the point of (sometimes) imperiling truth. Clearly that is not a tenable position ethically.

Perhaps the correct path is the judicial one. A judge who recognizes he is to closely connected to a case recuses himself, if possible. If it is not possible then he is hyper-vigilant to judge the law carefully to ensure there is no basis for appeal. I think this is our best path. We cannot recuse, to simply leave cultural engagement behind. Better to admit the bias even as we strive openly for truth.

Lastly, to the specific context of the bias in a textbook. Should textbooks be unbiased? Should anything be unbiased?

I would ask you rhetorically – why don’t computers compose best-selling music? After all, what works musically has been pretty well known for a long time. Pandora® has made millions on the notion that it can predict what sorts of music you will like based on formulas and logarithms. So why is it so difficult for the box to compose music?

Because music – like all art – is a product of the deep bias which shapes us, including the composer, the performer, and the listener. A story without a narrative voice is flat. Music without feeling is wearisome. Art apart from passion fails. Bias is our connection to the real. Good art strives to be technically beautiful and true to our experience. We are programed to hear the voice of the Creator, and so we are keen to hear the voice of the creator. Only then does it resound with us and in us and through us. A man with no bias is a sterile man – he is illiterate, tone deaf, colorblind.

Textbooks are trickier because they often pretend to be unbiased when they are clearly not. This hidden bias is a danger. As in the judge’s case, a failure to disclose the bias is a sort of dishonesty, a lie of omission. Perhaps this is why the materials used to educate the young have been a hotly contested topic since the days of Plato. But a story without a storyteller is no story at all. And textbooks (like all books) are telling a story. It just needs to tell a true story.

Here is a thoughtful TED Talk on the nature of bias and prejudice.

Blerkins is an eclectic blog of scholarly reflection and cultural commentary for folks who still believe that Western civilization has merit; and that life is far too interesting to give up on, or waste on television.
Our audience tends to be people exasperated with the world but too idealistic to give up on cultural engagement; who swim in a world seemingly devoid of truth, yet are too ethical for hedonism.


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