Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

A Linguistic Habit We Should Toss

“Biased?” Of Course. We are not capable of neutral observation. Human perception is an instrument of approximation powered by personal experience. It follows that our rhetoric always has ‘tendency:’ personal, political or social. It cannot be otherwise. 

There are many words in our language that have outlived their usefulness, but none more so than that old standby, “biased.” We hear it all the time. ‘People are “biased;’ ‘The story was biased;’ ‘The research has a built-in bias;’ ‘His attitude shows a bias;’ and so on. Someone recently reminded me that another project I am working on is “biased toward the 12-tone system of music.” (Guilty, obviously, but annoyed and unrepentant.) And, of course, a given news outlet is said to be “biased” toward Republicans and another one is biased toward liberals. In any conversation about media, the use of the term can take off like popcorn in a hot pan. And, given the lack of precision that usually comes with the ways it is tossed out, its only one more step to note that the ocean has a bias to flood low shore towns, or that dry forests have a bias toward burning. In the interests of full disclosure, I also have a bias toward food. Can’t kick it and won’t try.

The point of all of this is that the term is mostly an empty word being used as an observation. Even if the term was nailed to the floor in the middle of a room with a spotlight overhead and encircled by a velvet museum rope, I’d still wrench it out and toss it in the trash.  It has gotten to be that irritating as an ostensible insight.

The obvious point is that we are never neutral observers. Humans are not measurement instruments. Human rhetoric always has tendency: personal, political, linguistic, or cultural. It cannot be otherwise. There is simply no way to excise bias from humans using ordinary language and preferred behaviors. We can design instruments for precision.  But, except for mathematicians, its not a value we usually emulate.

The problem here is that the user of the term presumes a purer version of events. But even this presumption has a problem.

Since even hard “data” rarely speaks for itself, we must narrate its meaning in ways that justifiably skew in various possible directions. My office thermometer tells me that is 50 degrees outside. But I’m a member of the jabbering species, so I might interpret this simple data to a friend as a “warm” early spring day. That’s a judgment made in relation to the fact that I’m in the northeast, not balmy Sarasota.

The term “biased” is also used as a blunt instrument of dismissal. There is little going on behind the remark other than the obvious point that someone’s narrative doesn’t match another’s preferred narrative.

This means there is nearly always one simple answer to another’s charge of bias. It is a straightforward “of course,” with an addendum: “Could it be otherwise?”

All of this suggests it would be more intellectually honest to not hide behind this one word.  Go ahead and explain the specific attitude or behavior that is bothersome or seems wide of the mark.

Curating our Memories

If we had the obligations of institutions like museums, all of us would probably have to periodically amend the landmark narratives in our lives that we have incorrectly remembered.

There are no shortage of examples of museums and archives that have been forced to correct their narratives about past events.  Was a painting in a gallery actually the property of a Jewish family who had to forfeit it to the Third Reich? Is that tribal dress portrayed in an exhibit of an indigenous group really accurate, given recent and revised histories?  Do our textbook descriptions of the American Constitution adequately treat the deference to slave-owning that historians and progressives now see in some of its provisions, including the electoral college?

Remember the Lerner and Lowe song in Gigi sung by an older couple?

He: We dined with friends.
She: We ate alone.
He:  A tenor sang.
She: A baritone.
He: Ah, yes, I remember it well. That dazzling April moon.
She: There was none; and the month was June.
He: That’s right. That’s right.
She: It warms my heart to know that you remember still the way you do.

On big and little matters, we tend to curate our own histories with details that still seem clear. One personal example: I was certain I witnessed the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention in front of a television set in a basement playroom on Quebec Street in Denver. I can still picture the black and white images of the horrors unfolding on Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton Hotel, vivid as if they were yesterday. The “clear” mental image stays because it marks the sinking feeling that must come to most young Americans when they first encounter a national trauma that pushes aside a simpler faith in national invincibility. The storms of American political and cultural life are an unintended national birthright, forcing amendments to exceptionalist narratives that finally must give way.

But I digress. The problem with my memory is that I could not have been in my parent’s basement in Denver. In 1968 I was living in Sacramento California, where almost no one has a basement. And I was a senior in college, not the higher schooler I remember.  The dates are irrefutable markers. If we functioned like public institutions, all of us would probably have to rework the landmark events in our lives that we have curated as mental exhibits. This amounts to the same kind of historical refurbishment that now happens regularly, using the tenets of critical race theory, the #Metoo movement, and other redefining perspectives. At institutions like the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the creation of amended narratives must now go on all of the time.

I have not checked, but I wonder if the National Constitution Center In Philadelphia has tempered its assessments of the founding document to reckon with the last President’s trashing of what seemed like well-established norms. The emoluments clause prohibiting the use of the office to make money is a case in point. Similarly, writing history texts for grade-schoolers has become an occupation that now leaves some school boards and publishers figuratively bloodied. The question of who gets to tell the stories of our collective past has turned into its own kind of battlefield.

Psychologically, we are not well-positioned to abandon inaccurate narratives. As has been much discussed through the recent election and its aftermath, Americans are like most people who resist new corrective narratives that bump up next to older inaccurate ones. As noted elsewhere, the tension between the two creates an uncomfortable form of dissonance we would like to avoid. And so we often take the avoidance route: only considering evidence that confirms what we already believe.