Saturday, January 21, 2017

Unconscious Bias and Humility

Daniel Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State.  He is a frequent video-blogger on Bloggingheads, and I enjoy his conversations.  After a wonderful recent conversation he had with David Ottlinger on the philosophical roots of classical liberalism, he provided me with this link to a piece he wrote on liberalism and the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, which he argues is vague and only helpful as cannon-fodder for the PC police (I'm paraphrasing).

I agree with him that the test itself is of limited utility in that it can't possibly give you much detail into what, why, how or where specifically your biases lie, beyond a general score that you might have some. But it is scientific in that it measure responses to  certain stimuli.  It is logical that you would be able to measure unconscious bias. In behaviorism, we would look at it in terms of stimulus control, where certain stimuli have been paired with behaviors (either thoughts or actions) which have then been reinforced. In my practice I do a lot of desensitization with children who have very heightened emotional responses to various environmental stimuli.
I do agree that the test could be misused, its results overblown with some kind of moralistic, shaming agenda. But personally, I found it fascinating. I readily expect myself to have all kinds of biases against gays, blacks, women, fat people - you name it. I found it a simple confirmation of what I already know to be the case.
My stance has always been that we need to remove the shame and stigma from bias - to accept that it is simply part of living in our society , and in many ways a natural human process coming out of how we learn. It is in many ways a helpful heuristic, but it has its downsides, and we can take steps to correct for it. For instance, the more I know about stereotypes, I can then notice them coming into my mind and I can recognize them.
My favorite example of this is the tendency of some people to become upset about "black english". I've seen facebooks memes arguing that you should say "ask", not "axe". However, this is is highly selective and racially biased. I've never once seen such memes directed towards colloquial english spoken by ethnic whites, who constantly speak in "poor english". We say "ummana" "instead of I'm going to", or "whataya" instead of "what are you".
If you are a hyper-grammar partisan, OK, maybe. But I think this is a case of ethnic stereotyping and shaming. I think the vast majority of bigotry is simply an extra sensitivity to the foibles of out-groups; you have a lower tolerance of it because it is easier to spot and an easy target of ire when your grumpy, afraid, stirred-up, etc. But it's totally human, and helpfully remedied with reflection.
I wish more PC-minded liberals would be more forgiving and lighten up. I wish more anti-PC people would be more forgiving and a little self-reflective. This combative stance is unhelpful I think in light of the fact that we are all subject to unconscious bias, and we can just try to be better people. Lord knows we all are constantly trying to be kinder, nicer, more forgiving, etc. in other areas of life.

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