Today I wanted to work through some thoughts I had about bias and context. Recently, I went from a modern day blog about (mocking) hardcore misogynists, WeHuntedTheMammoth, to watching a BBC4 documentary about women in Restoration England, (cos as we are aware, I am the biggest snob/nerd), followed by an advert for Handmaids Tale, and by accident, I realised we seriously need to talk about confirmation bias.
It’s kind of the unspoken monster in the corner of internet or even real debate. Everyone is kinda aware that it’s there, but no one wants to look right at it or admit it, everyone would rather get on their sounding boards and say their piece. I feel that it’s the biggest single obstacle to cooperation that there is.
On the Internet
If someone thinks that women are evil and that society should contain them, then the truth is in the eye of the beholder. All the evidence of misogyny because evidence for misogyny; women have been hated for thousands of years becomes proof of inferiority, not unfounded discrimination. It’s mirror opposite to the intention of this material, another example that comes to mind is the inanity of video responses to Anita Sarkeesians now infamous video games feminism videos:
This trend extents to other areas too, like research about racism. One of my favourite tumblr discourse adventures was when I was “debating” someone about anti-black racism, and they pulled up a source to say that black people and specifically black babies were less scientifically fit, something to do with birth rates and survival.
I inconveniently cannot find the file anymore, if you wanted to trawl through the wreckage of my tumblr discourse page you might find it, eventually, but today is not that day. (Note: I really did enjoy that page at the time, but for the reasons listed in this article I rarely bother taking part in it anymore.) but he linked me to an scientific journal that explained that systemic anti-black racism was probably behind these differences, which he was using to say were in fact inherent proof of inferiority. The goggles were firmly fixed on, all related evidence was now either conspiracy or consolidation.
Ugly bigotry is not the only place we see this, though it’s common and it’s easy because there are strong feelings either side. Other places where this confirmation bias comes in are common, for example parenthood; All childhoods are viewed through the lens of parenting styles, in gender, in ability, in moral character. Similarly in institutions, like prisons or care homes, prisoners or patients are sometimes seen through a moral lens as “difficult”. In the state, especially when it comes to social security, lower classes are viewed through a lens according to what political end of the spectrum you are.
Confirmation bias sees antagonism where there isn’t, and can conjure it up through force of will; think someone is “bad”, but no one else sees it? Treat them (subtly) like shit until boom, like magic, they misbehave or underperform, bam, your point is proven. You see this circle over and over again; the gender pay gap is a flawless example of this. Evidence that “women aren’t hired at the same level as men” could be interpreted to mean women are terrible lazy employees, which would make not hiring them a very sensible option, which would then help to cause a gender pay gap, starting the cycle again.
When you look for antagonism, you can help to cause it. In this way, you enter yourself and the opposing side into a battle that neither of you might want, but both feel you have no choice in. This is never going to be a helpful or productive environment, it is beyond evidence, and is personal biases made real and reinforced through the antagonism they both create and sustain. You shape the evidence according to your beliefs, then shape your reality according to those beliefs.
The truth is that seeing any ground as a battleground will end in the fighting you already have decided is necessary. The only way to get around this, is to to address it in ourselves, which is actually easier done than “said”, and takes a long time. It’s hard to say because even when we doubt ourselves, we know that others will doubt us more; so we aren’t eager to rush in with a nuanced view that will get melted down even more in the discourse that follows. If we want genuine nuaunced discussions, more peaceful interactions about practical solutions and goals on the same page, we first have to believe that this is a possibility. We have to believe things are neutral, so that they are, so that we can see them this way. We have to believe peaceful outcomes are possible, so that they are.
In the example of the state and other institutional forms of this self-reinforcing confirmation bias, it’s about defining things in a neutral light, not an emotive one. Interpreting situations as neutral allows us to break free of our confirmation bias just a little. If we consider that a woman’s sexy blouse isn’t proof that women are evil harpies manipulating the world through breasts, then what is it? Just a blouse? Then we feel there is no action needed, and the situation de-escalates. Instead of a fight about her blouse, the woman goes about her work day, and someone is mildy sexually frustrated, and the situation ends there. The autistic kid is bad at eye contact? If we see that as okay, we don’t fight them to make eye contact, and the situation de-escalates. The kid goes about their life without fighting themselves to make eye-contact they don’t need. Mentally ill but without medication? If we see it as okay, we let that patient be less sedated without seeing this as a loss, then that patient goes about their mental illness without fighting staff about medication.
There obviously are situations where it is not actually okay. We can’t simply tell each other what these are, because everyone will see things differently. We can try and work out what they are, looking past each other’s blind spots and possible biases in a gentle co-operative way, and that’s what is trickier to do, but still much easier and more productive than becoming slaves to our own confirmation biases. We all make choices in our beliefs, and this then shapes how we view the world and evidence about it, the best way to then work together is to be honest about this, and admit that we really aren’t all seeing the same thing, to try and come to a peaceful cooperation instead of getting bogged down in our own little worlds.
(Wow, so that was a little longer than expected and I’ve been sat here at least an hour and a half…next time, I’m putting a limit on, and hopefully that will make my writing a little bit more focused!)
Day off blog post 4