Overcoming Bias

(15:00 PST.  Excellent, thought-provoking read.   – promoted by pico)

Here Dr. Washington was introduced by Judge W. S. Bullock, in an address that for sincerity and the highest praise can have no equal.

“Dr. Washington, you are engaged in a great work.  We sympathise with you in the delicate and arduous undertaking… My countrymen and my friends, I commend to you our distinguished guest on this occasion.  He comes upon a mission that we welcome.  He is the leader of the negro race in America… He is taking the benighted, vicious, ignorant and superstitious negro from their [his] condition and clothing him in the garments of industry, intelligence, and morality.  In short, he is qualifying the negro for citizenship.”

~From The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume Eleven, page 484.  The above is a press release issued by the office of Dr. Washington

When reading the above, the most striking thing about it is how absolutely insulting it sounds, towards both Booker T. Washington, and to black Americans in general.  It would sound horrible if anyone today said this about the accomplishments of Dr. Washington.  It would be unforgivable if anyone said this about any contemporary person.  But at the time, he himself categorized it as the highest of praise.

What is the point of this example?  Well, for starters, that context is often everything.  We know all of the words, but they mean much different things to us today than they did to people then.  At the time, that was the height of progressivity about race in America, while today, it would be too insulting and antiquated a perspective to even voice public ally.

Another point: in the future, we will be all be seen as people who are considered badly prejudiced against others, and as something akin to barbarians.  Even the “best” of us would be publicly ridiculed if we attempted to voice our “enlightened” perspectives one hundred years from now.

A final point: the meanings of words change over time.  We know what all those words mean, but they signal very different things to us than they did to the audience they were addressed to.  This is because we process language the same way we do everything else: via heuristics.  When someone speaks to us, or we read something, we don’t see all the words as all their possible meanings.  We use our experiences, our personal histories of language, like cheat codes in a video game; as a means for us to grasp the prize (the meaning of what we read) without having to engage in all the drudgery of getting there by really reading or listening to every word.

So, how do we develop these heuristics?  By experience, of course:

(The following language is not my own expression.  That being said, I do warn you that the material hereafter which I will quote from others may be offensive to some of you [and for that matter, to me as well].  But I consider it important to share these views of others; you are, of course, free to disagree.  I’ll also add that this entire post will be difficult to follow if you don’t read the linked material in its entirety – the excerpts are not enough, in my opinion.)

I came up in a time when there was a healthy stigma around white people saying nigger. Moreso, I came up like a lot of black people, de facto segregated. Thus even finding a white person to slander me would have been a chore. My point is that it’s all about first impressions. The first time “nigger” flew my way, it didn’t come from the mouth of a flummoxed racist, but from the full lips of someone who looked just like me. In writing this piece, I tried to remember when I’d first been called a nigger, but it was like trying to recall the first time I’d heard the word “lotion,” “run,” or “ship.” Nigger has been with me for as long as I can remember…

This is the essence of who we are. When I consider nigger, I think of Doug E. Fresh pulling the funk of an old Inspector Gadget ditty. I think of the kids I used to watch in Chocolate City who could take a few buckets and turn them into a percussive orchestra. I think of my father, after work, dog-tired in the kitchen making cans of beans do things that they were not meant for. This is what we do.

As I said, this is about first impressions. How would I feel if my introduction came from a group of menacing troglodytes in the backwoods of some Confederate state? Writer or not, I don’t think I’d ever be able to hear anything more than evil from the word. Thus to those who refuse to say nigger, and don’t want it used in reference to them, I say, Respect Due. But it’s another thing entirely to seek to restrict the vocabulary of a group who’ve come up completely differently.

There is something essentialist about it all, a spirit of “blacker-than-thou” from the word-police who claim that only they may decide how and when to use the allegedly abominable word.

That is from a superb article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an author I think we should all be reading.  It provides a valuable perspective that I feel has been lacking here, one whose lack I think is influenced by how narrow our range of perspectives here actually are.  It makes another valuable point: even members of the “same” community can vary significantly on matters such as these.  And it provides its own solution: that while respecting the opinions and perspectives of others, it is important not to grant them the power to decide that they know better than others.

In a follow-up at Mr. Coates’ blog (which I also think y’all should be reading), he expands on his earlier point:

Though we war against it daily, it must be said–it should always be said–that it is a beautiful, beautiful thing to be here in this way, to be despised in this way, to live on the margins, just outside, to be a citizen of this country, and yet to know it in ways that it can’t even know itself, to know it in ways that it simply refuses to know us. But that’s white America’s loss–not ours.

Emphasis added.

This goes to an important point, in my opinion.  We look around at the world and see a lot of orders which are negative, and which hurt groups of people.  And all too often, we fall into the trap of thinking that the groups of people who are hurt by these orders can be defined as victims, and that those who don’t bear the direct harm of these orders are privileged because of it.  But this also is less true than it appears.

I’ve said it before, but this is probably the most important blog post I’ve ever read, on any subject.  I urge you to read the whole thing, and not just what I excerpt:

The natural consequence of these restrictions is that women in our society are systematically constrained in their action by the fear of men. Women are not free because they must figure out how to live with the fact of widespread, intense, random violence against women. That fact has profound ripple effects on where women feel they can safely go. When they feel they can safely go there. What women feel they can safely do or say-especially what they can safely do or say in the presence of men. How they dress, how they take up space, how they react to social interactions that are wanted or unwanted. Some of this is conscious adjustment to fears and explicit warnings; a lot of it is the sort of small-scale, subconscious acts of vigilance and self-protection that we all carry out, as a daily routine, or as an expression of felt anxiety.

Another natural consequence is that men who don’t commit stranger rape, and who are genuinely concerned for the safety of women who are their daughters, their sisters, their friends, their lovers, or what have you, are in a material and emotional position where it is very tempting to see themselves as needing to protect the women they care about from the threat of male violence. The desire to protect an innocent person from violence is, in and of itself, a good thing, not a bad thing. But the danger here is that it’s an unethical and corrupting, but a very tempting and easy, psychological step for these men to come to see themselves as the sole protector, as a woman’s only safe option. To see women as uniquely frail and in need of protection by nature (rather than uniquely threatened due to the choices of other men). And to try to make sure that women seek and depend on and stay within the scope of a man’s protection, whether or not they really want it, by use of those intimidating and restrictive warnings, by harassing women (seen as foolish or bad) who step outside of the stiflingly close boundaries of those safety tips, in order to try to intimidate them into staying in the boundaries, and ultimately by blaming the woman, rather than her attacker, and writing off her suffering as nonexistent or unimportant, if some other man should choose to rape her after she has ignored those safety tips.

And many women will naturally look to men who act like that – that is, as Protectors – because they are realistically afraid of other men’s sexual aggression, and afraid of stranger rape, and they may like this particular guy, for other reasons, anyway, and so it is worth seeking out his help.

All of this can happen quite naturally when a large enough minority of men choose to commit widespread, intense, random acts of violence against a large enough number of women. And it can happen quite naturally without the raping men, or the protecting men, or the women in the society ever intending for any particular large-scale social outcome to come about. But what will come about, quite naturally, is that women’s social being – how women appear and act, as women, in public – will be systematically and profoundly circumscribed by a diffuse, decentralized threat of violence. And, as a natural but unintended consequence of many small, self-interested actions, some vicious and violent (as in the case of men who rape women), some worthwhile in their origins but easily and quickly corrupted (as in the case of men who try to protect women from rape), and some entirely rational responses to an irrational and dangerous situation (as in the case of women who limit their action and seek protection from men), the existence and activities of the police-blotter rapist serve to constrain women’s behavior and to intimidate women into becoming dependent on some men – and thus dependent on keeping those men pleased and serving those men’s priorities – for physical protection from other men. That kind of dependence can just as easily become frustrating and confining for the woman, and that kind of power can just as easily become corrupting and exploitative for the man, as any other form of dependence and power.

Emphasis added.

Rad Geek’s theory of “Women and the Invisible Fist” strikes me as being deeply insightful and clearly true.  But what I think is particularly significant about this example, and the social order created by stranger rape, is that it punishes just about everyone.  No one benefits, with the arguable exception being the rapists

(and I would contend that the “benefit” they receive isn’t something of significant value to themselves, and it is obviously not valued by the society at large).  Everyone is worse off than they would be if no one was raped at all.

This ties in, of course, with Mr. Coates’ statement quoted above.  The “White America” of which he speaks is losing out due to racism.  All of us are. There isn’t a “benefit” that accrues to me because black people in New York City have trouble hailing a cab.  It doesn’t gain me anything that black males are imprisoned at ridiculous rates.  All of us oppose racism because it is wrong, of course, but we also oppose it because we understand that we are punished because of it, regardless of our race.  All of us are presumably cosmopolitan enough to enjoy so-called “ethnic” foods of some kind, even if we are limited in our enjoyment of them to such things as pizza and tacos.  Gains from trade are real.  We benefit from having diverse choices in what we eat, diverse influences in our cultures, diverse perspectives and experiences in our peer group.  To the extent which racism, sexism and other negative orders affect our variety of choices and influences, we lose out.  

That this is true doesn’t mean that it is equivalent, of course.  To say that “racism hurts everyone” doesn’t mean that to lose out because other people are treated in a racist fashion is the same as being treated in a racist fashion, anymore than to be raped is the same as to be victimized by the possibility that you, or someone you care about, might be raped.  But it does mean that there is a significant problem with our heuristic of perceiving racial prejudice.  The terms we use tend to be wrapped up in the notion of “privilege”, which implies benefit.  But generally speaking, the losses from negative orders outweigh the gains for nearly everyone.  It is hardly a privilege to know that I am less likely to be raped than my mother; both of us are worse off than we would be if that wasn’t the case.

The issues which have preoccupied many of us here are huge, and this barely begins to address them in total, which was my ambition when I thought of this post in my mind.  The overarching point that I am making is to beware of the biases that you hold.  Much of your perspective on all things is based upon things other than your intellect.  What we think is true is based far less upon our powers of reason than it is on our emotions – what we feel is true.  The title of this post is taken from one of my favorite blogs, Overcoming Bias.  In one of his best posts there, Robin Hanson observes:

Your differing attitudes on  abortion, birth control, immigrants, gender roles, and race are mostly due to your genes, while your attitudes toward education, capitalism and punishment are due to your life experiences.

Is there a plausible story whereby those with genes encouraging your sort of beliefs on life and equality tend to have more accurate beliefs?   A correlation between IQ and such attitudes might be one such story, but I know of no data supporting this.

If you can’t find such a story, you should admit that the process that produced these beliefs of yours was random and uncorrelated with the truth on those subjects.   You should thus reject those beliefs as biased.

Most things that we believe will be proved as false.  This is true of almost everything that almost everyone who ever lived believed.  There are millions of people alive today who understand the nature of the universe better than Einstein ever did, simply because they had the luck to live after he did.  We will almost certainly fare worse than Albert.  Or, as Mr. Hanson put it,

To learn to explore, first follow the paths of previous explorers, first on a map, then from the air, then down on the ground.   Next, try going a mile off of one of those paths.  Then ten miles, then one hundred.   Similarly the best way to start researching is to take a good research paper and really understand it.  Then make a minor change, such as an assumption or data analysis technique.  Then make bigger changes. 

Another problem with passion is bias.  Especially in social science, people pick topics in order to convince the world of their one true answer.  But it is healthier to focus on questions, not answers.  By picking an answer before you’ve really studied a topic, not only are you more likely to be wrong, but more important, you could miss interesting new angles.

Let’s try to be better explorers.


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  1. …and a personal thanks to NPK, who inspired me thinking about these issues in the first place.

  2. Since this was posted, it has come to my attention that just in the last couple days, Robin Hanson’s co-blogger at Overcoming Bias, Eliezer Yudkowsky, wrote a remarkable post about sex and gender, IMHO.  It is certainly interesting to me in light of conversations NPK and I have been having.

  3. And all too often, we fall into the trap of thinking that the groups of people who are hurt by these orders can be defined as victims, and that those who don’t bear the direct harm of these orders are privileged because of it.

    i don’t empower people either. i know they are born with power. i think we should look to unleash power. there are those who try to lock our power up… they try to convince us that we need to be empowered, granted permission from others to express our strengths and human options.

    i use the “n” word in talking about hate because i’m not afraid of that word. nor do i think a word should be able to victimize people. and yet, i love what Coates said. it is part of who he is. as dirty jew is part of my heritage. i understand what he means, i think.

    you are right. this is one of the most important essays. it’s just obtuse enough to make me work at peeling away the layers.


  4. “Overcoming Bias, by Jay Elias.”

    You’re getting all poetic on us.

    • pico on June 30, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    I think you take a disingenuous left turn in the last few paragraphs.  I’m not sure our beliefs about race, gender, education, civil rights, punishment, etc. are really as equivalent to our beliefs about the nature of the universe as you seem to be suggesting.  The former set relates to values, social norms, and culture – the latter’s an immutable fact of our physical world.  We can get some things about the universe correct, but the word “correct” doesn’t seem to have much value in discussions of cultural norms (even when norms are developed around lack of information).

    Point taken that our attitudes change, but the former is purely context-driven, while the latter doesn’t care what the human context is.  In fact, that’s what partially redeems the former: we learn to re-read older generations with a double-vision that allows us both to filter their beliefs through a modern context, but also to understand how they fit within their own historical, social, and cultural context.  

    If Dostoevsky were writing today, he’d be tarred and feathered for his ugly antisemitism, reactionary xenophobia, and trust in monarchy over democracy.  But I can deal with it, because my brain sets these things aside – without condoning them – as contextual.  (And in fact, his antisemitism was ugly even within the context of 19th century Russia.)  So while I agree that generations hence will no doubt think of many of our attitudes as neanderthal, I’m also content that they’ll view us with the same double-vision and find that our limitations were as much contextual as personal.  

    But, it should give us a healthy dollop of humility to go down with each didactic statement we make.  So, point taken.

    On the first half of your essay, I don’t know if you remember this, but we’ve chatted before about the complaint that sex workers have had about the way they get treated.  The two attitudes they find most offensive are the notion that they’re morally disgusting, and the notion that they’re all poor fallen women who just need to be saved.  The first time I read that, it was like a sledgehammer to the head: and I’ve used it as a beacon for my own attitudes towards majority/minority power ever since.

    • Viet71 on July 1, 2008 at 1:07 am

    I accept everyone for who they are.

    Robyn.  Pfiore8.  KJ.  Everyone.

    Then let’s get down to ideas.  To debate.  Not to personal stuff, but to ideas.

    OK, so in such a debate, the consensus is I’m worthless.

    I’ll think about it.

    But in a debate, let’s be honest, as honest as we can be.

  5. … I’m going to be a shit again, as you have graciously allowed me to be.

    Chaim Potok wrote a book called “In The Beginning.”  It was about a young boy who was a genius, a young boy who was brought up as an Orthodox Jew.

    This boy, David Lurie, began to have a great deal of trouble in his religious community as he grew older and started studying Talmud, because he was irresistibly drawn to scientific theory of the Torah and found he could not stop with what was acceptable knowledge … and this, in his community, was heresy.

    He had a big enough heart to realize exactly the consequences of what he was doing and the value of his community — he felt no contempt or superiority towards those who thought him a heretic, he understood and shouldered the burden of the pain he had brought to people he loved.

    In one of his classes, his teacher was a brilliant Talmudist who had escaped the Holocaust.

    During the Talmud class he asked the students to explain a particularly difficult passage and became more and more irritated with the answers he was getting.  Finally he called upon David.

    David knew that a scientific emendation of the text illuminated its meaning, but that he could not use that explanation in this class.  So he quoted the Rambam, an accepted authority, as the best way to explain it.

    The teacher blew up.  He excoriated David for using the Rambam explanation and when David responded, “But it’s the Rambam!” the rabbi replied, “If the Rambam was in this class right now I’d tell him he was an idiot.”

    The teacher stands and addresses the class.  He tells them he will give them ordination if they pass their studies.  But they will owe his father and his father’s father, and so on, a debt, to use this knowledge wisely.  And he says sadly to the class, “Have we no living waters of our own?  Are we just passive containers, with no contribution to make of our own?”  And he looks at David while he is saying this and then says a well known Jewish expression:  “He who understands will understand.”

    David knows that he is being challenged to find the truth wherever that may lead him.  And that this is a spiritual quest, that he cannot just slough off the obligation he has to his family and his ancestors.  That they, using the tools they had at the time, did the best they could to understand their own existence, to make meaning of their life  And that he was the inheritor of more and better tools to continue, to add his own “living waters” to the big story of existence that humankind has always sacrificed so much to provide each generation.

    Here’s the thing.  I am not satisfied at all with this essay.  It’s coming from your head.  And unless it comes from your heart with a true understanding of the pain and suffering of others over the effects of bias, then I don’t care who you quote or how brilliant they are.

    Will it make the heart more open?  I have no quarrel with thinking and use of intellect.  But there is no living water in what you are writing here.

    It is personal.  There is no way around it.

    As far as the benefits you have from white privilege, you are so unaware of them as to entirely take them for granted.  I don’t think you grasp that at all.  I also think you’d give them up in a flash if you could.  But first you have to know what they are.

    As I said, I don’t expect anyone to agree with me or even understand what I’m saying, because this is so new to me and I am doing my own exploring.

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