Bias: Why Can’t It Just Get By Us?

EVERY sentence, at least, every sentence which does not begin with a complete explanation of the origin of things as justification for that sentence (including language; let that wrinkle your brain), is an expression of bias.

[If you do not like biased articles, then you may feel free to depart this blog forever.  I will not say that you will be missed, for fear of suggesting that I harbor some preference or, if you will, bias, in your favor.]

I mean, every time we speak, we presuppose that the objects about which we converse have some reality which may be apprehended by others and that our words are capable of impressing the senses of our audience with at least some of the meaning with which we seek to imbue those words.  Communication, then, involves a serious philosophical commitment, taking several definite positions on doctrines over which heavyweight philosophers have disagreed (I’m looking at you, Berkeley, although I admit that the word heavyweight may have been ill-chosen to describe a subjective idealist, in more ways than one).  While you may not intend to convince me to hold any of the above prejudices (a typical objective of ‘biased’ communication), any demand, request, imperative, or query which you might put to me both contains particular prejudices and relies upon my acceptance of at least some of them in order for your communication to be successful.  The rest of your success is probably dependent upon the volume and tenor of the communication, along with the attractiveness of the face from which it emanates.  But, I digress.

These tangled sentences are the result of a good friend’s facebook post.  Writing on another friend’s timeline, this girl, let’s call her Cordelia, observed that the total number of footnotes that she used in papers during her first semester was under forty.  Competitive soul that I am, I found it necessary to look through my freshman essays to see how many notes I footed during my first semester.  Cordelia, I crushed you.  But, more importantly, in browsing my freshman essays, I crushed myself.  Not only were every one of my papers atrocious from a purely stylistic perspective, they were filled with unsubstantiated bias.  I realized that the only reason I ever had trouble writing short papers as an underclassman was that I saw no reason to offer any factual, rational, or authoritative justification for my own opinions.

Then it hit me.  Not only is bias unavoidable in an abstract sense, it is incredibly useful in a practical sense.  If bias was completely eliminated from communication, there could not possibly be a career in journalism.  I’m not taking a cheap-shot at newspaper men.  (Newsie girls, you’re on your own.)  I’m suggesting that, when it comes to communication that must be constrained by time, copy space, and circulation place, it is critical that writers and readers cultivate a few common prejudices.  (I may be a lunatic, but I’m not alone.  See Christopher Lasch, Revolt of the Elites.)  It would be impossible to write a four page essay or a five hundred word article without relying heavily upon existing prejudices and it would be fruitless to do so without attempting to move the audience to a particular conclusion.  Sure, it might be a conclusion so innocuous as “it rained an inch yesterday” or it may be so controversial as “a little bias is a good thing,” but either way both aspects of bias always exist.

Journalism, then, probably shouldn’t be a pursuit of objectivity (since the very suggestion that “objectivity” should be pursued stems from a particular bias).  Instead, let our communication be admittedly biased but open to question.  We all have an agenda when we speak, so let’s at least be honest about it so that we can actually construct arguments which test the validity of our bias.  One cannot easily pick apart a supposedly “neutral” story about a particular event, even if it is biased.  When, however, a speaker clearly admits that he starts from a particular perspective with a goal in mind, his words invite fruitful discussion about the prospective from which he proceeds along with the manner of the words he employs.

No, I’m not advocating the communication of falsehood when I condone bias.  Yes, I’m aware that, sometimes, bias is understood as the selective use of truth to the extent that it constitutes falsehood.  I rely, as we all do every time we listen to another speaker, upon the discretion of the communicator as he speaks to prevent this much bias from being introduced.  It’s not a perfect world and nobody knows everything, so we can’t expect to communicate perfectly.  The problem is, communication is imperfect even when, if not especially when, we claim to pursue objectivity.  Thus, it’s far less deceptive (and far more productive, from a sociological standpoint), to promote robust discourse through the use of bias than to stifle dissent by the claim to neutrality.

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3 responses to “Bias: Why Can’t It Just Get By Us?”

  1. a two-bit Jeremiah says :

    Eh, I think Berkeley counts as a heavyweight. I mean, he’s no David Hume, but sources indicate the man had sufficient spare flesh to be classified as heavy.

    (in other news, I like this post but have nothing intelligent to add. also, hi, it’s Leslie)

  2. First says :

    …But what about common biases shared by a majority, do we still have to justify them? And doesn’t this force us to only practically be able to debate the most fundamental issues?

    • Rex Loganus says :

      Leslie: Hi!

      First: Good questions. In an ideal sense, every belief ought to be justified (or, ought to be capable of being justified). A culture is, however, built around a collection of affirmations which may be discussed without justification. This does not mean that a culture is incapable of critically examining its own foundation, it just means that it has identified enough common ground that it can proceed a little further from the general to the particular (this speaks to your second question as well). If we wished, we could demand justification for every principle which is invoked in our dialogue, effectively denying that we share anything in common with those to whom we speak. This would, however, be both nonsensical and impossible (for instance, it is impossible to establish an epistemology without first utilizing an existing epistemology). We should resuscitate the respect for authority that existed in the Middle-Ages (roughly summarized by the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). We should do so, however, without discarding the salutary skepticism which was born when Medieval authorities were disloged. If a traditional view (like Ptolemy’s cosmology, for instance) is clearly out of step with reality, even a traditional view which serves as a foundational pillar of culture, it should be open to reformulation. Attempting to maintain a pillar of culture which does not bear the weight of reality leads more quickly to collapse than replacing cracked stone with the reinforced concrete of a better-justified precept.

      To your second question: I think the opposite is true. Biases tend to be tools by which we tacitly assert/accept a particular account of fundamental issues. This acceptance allows for a more robust discussion of secondary issues, but in the light of the acceptance of those biases. (It is, incidentally, in the discussion of secondary issues that the extent to which those biases bear the weight of reality is best illustrated.) In a very mundane sense, I appear to be suggesting a scientific method for social discourse (this is mildly shocking to me that I would reach this point). In other words, common biases function like unspoken hypothesis, the validity of which is confirmed or disconfirmed as they are applied in more particular cases.

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