Unpicking the Narrative of Bias
We live surrounded by invective, toxic opinion, and a lot of SHOUTING.
It is hardly surprising or blameworthy: there’s a great deal wrong with the world, and trying to be part of the solution is difficult and frustrating. Add to that the time pressures we are all under, the imperative to always produce and excel, so prominent in the corridors of power and in our work place, and you have the ingredients for very bitter exchanges.
So what of a few bruises inflicted or a few wounds to lick? Surely the betterment of society warrants a few casualties, and we can just take it on the chin and carry on. In fact, we can probably draw strength from it, in the favourite trope of toxic masculinity: ‘grow a pair.’
But what if the methods were part of the problem? What if, in the race to turn up the volume and causticity of our utterances, we were causing irreparable damage? Or even worse, what if, by virtue of our combativeness, we were increasing our chances of defeat?
Intellectual debate has always relied on juxtaposition of different ideas, the very nature of thought formation occurs in neural connections made of electrical sparks, and reasoning is always made more fertile when challenged, yet the nature and rigour of the discourse is far more important that it is given credit.
The reasons differ from what may be immediately apparent, like the basic need to keep a civilised exchange going and leave the debating floor with our integrity intact. In fact, having a more impassioned and rational debate helps us ‘unpick’ the automatic thinking that underpins so much of bias, prejudice and conflict.
That is not to say that we should shy from ‘calling out’ injustice and malfeasance as we see it, but by concentrating on the causality in our opponents’ motivations, we will make our argument stronger and more incisive.
The main problem with much of the acerbic exchanges on the media sphere is the ‘othering’ of our interlocutors by placing them into an immutably wrong conceptual space, allowing us to gain confidence in the righteousness of our position by virtue of contrast with it.
That is very much like the processes we employ, mostly unconsciously, when we make decisions based of biased premises.
The, now infamous, often quoted faux pas by Jeremy Corbyn, who referred to Zionists as having no understanding of ‘English irony’, is a very good example to illustrate this point.
Corbyn later explained that he had used the term “in the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people,” and felt justified, I believe, in using the term to denigrate a political adversary, in the same way that one could say, without much controversy: ‘The Tories are a callous lot’ or ‘Socialists are living in the past.’
The point, however, is not whether the term is legitimately used, but that this process of creating a conceptually inflexible, all encompassing ‘other’ absolves us from reassessing her/his future utterances on their specific merits, and sanctions our treating of such utterances as the manifestations of a group that is intrinsically wrong, and therefore cannot contribute anything of value to the debate.
In other words, it allows the more prejudiced amongst us to say that Zionist is ‘a thing’, like ‘women’ or ‘gays’ or ‘lefty’ and believe that everyone in that ‘group’ behaves as a single entity.
That is the same process we have employed in our biased decisions in our places of work, our courts of law and our social circles across gender, class, abilities, sexuality, religious and other perceived divides, in prejudiced structures whose mechanisms we are increasingly uncovering and struggling to make reparations for.
My point is that by frankly scrutinising our own arguments before making them public, we not only increase the mordancy and incisiveness of our arguments, but we also escape the vicious cycle of quick judgement and biased perspective.
In the debate about religious intolerance, these tendencies are exacerbated by the perceived immutable nature of God’s wisdom, and the various manifestations of holy utterances. Yet the mistake is to attribute these immutable qualities and infallibility to the very mutable and fallible human nature and all its manifestations and conflicts. It is no coincidence that when learned people: imams, rabbis, priests, philosophers, and others deliberate as a group, after studious reflection, their conclusions are inclusive and moderate.
So we should learn from the likes of Socrates, reflect on the conclusions of the Amman Message and The Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance, and draw strength and perspective from the moderate sides of the argument, who are measured in their statements not out of weakness, but because of a strong and compassionate understanding of the inability of mankind to adhere to the perfection of God, Truth, and Justice. The emphasis is then on the process of seeking a path, rather than the appropriation of a predetermined, inflexible way.
In conclusion the way we really fight prejudice is by dismantling its complex structures into their small, often seemingly innocuous pieces. We must do this because human beings are intrinsically creatures of prejudice and coming to terms with it will help us navigate the small actual differences that divide us, and recognise the vastity of the common traits we share.
Lou Fioravanti is a Senior Researcher with Muslims Against Antisemitism