The Bias Against Bias

By Jennifer Fletcher

Students sometimes feel like they can pull a mic drop on other writers by calling them out for their bias. Labeling a writer “biased” is an ethos slam. One Oxford English Dictionary definition describes bias as “prejudice.” Another mentions “slanting” or “distortion.”

It’s hard to read for understanding once you’ve decided a text is prejudiced or distorted. Labeling a text “biased” also implies that there are some texts that are “unbiased”—which, I guess, would mean devoid of all personal values, interests, and needs. Such a text would also be devoid of purpose and exigence, so I’d wonder why anyone would bother to write it in the first place.

In place of narrow understandings of the word “bias” that fuel defensiveness, we can help students explore the idea of “partiality”—the belief that all of us have only partial knowledge of an issue, which is why we need diverse, multiple perspectives to arrive at a fuller understanding. Partiality carries the sense of both preference and incompleteness. We’re partial to certain views and attitudes, and we see only a part of the big picture.

Much research has been done that suggests we all carry hidden biases based on widespread attitudes about gender, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, language, and religion, among other identity components. Blind Spot (2013), by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, offers an engaging overview of this scholarship.

Communication studies professors Josina Makau and Debian Marty are among the many scholars who challenge the ideal of absolute objectivity, which they say flatly “doesn’t exist” (112). As individuals with distinct experiences, emotions, beliefs, and attitudes, it is impossible for us to be utterly impartial when engaging diverse views. “Everyone is partial” (112), say Makau and Marty, and I agree. We each see through a unique interpretive lens.

While we can’t be impartial, we can be respectful, informed, and fair-minded. We can be responsive and responsible in our treatment of others’ views and ethical and effective in our communication choices. We can be aware of reactions that impede our ability to listen empathetically. Marty and Makau note several:

  •  judgments—determining whether the speaker is right or wrong
  • distortions—our personal biases and preferences change the meaning of what the speaker said
  •  stereotype—pigeonholing speakers or ideas based on our preconceptions
  • resistance—focus on faultfinding (115)

A commitment to evidence-based reasoning should increase, not limit, our access to evidence. If our bias against bias makes it difficult for us to understand a viewpoint on its own terms or engage multiple perspectives, we might need to take an honest look at our own partialities, including our preferences for ways of communicating and reasoning that privilege the appearance of objectivity. Critical thinking is most useful when it helps us understand ourselves and others at a deeper, more authentic level.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at jfletcher@csumb.edu or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Work Cited

Makau, Josina M. and Debian L. Marty. Dialogue and Deliberation. Waveland Press, 2013.

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