Are All Biases Created Equal?

Charles E. Gutenson

I recall a conversation with a friend recently (hardly the first of its kind and one I am betting many of you have also experienced). A generalized version went something like this:

Him: Well, I believe that … (some long and complicated description of his position on some issue X).

Me: I think that’s mistaken, but I can see why you might believe that. After all, it aligns with the biases you have demonstrated in our various discussions.

He (having read his Lyotard … or learned from his school of thought, expresses his own suspicion that my biases are really a play for power on my own terms): We all have biases. You have biases as well and the reason you hold the position you do, and thus reject mine, is due to those biases.

And what I said next does not really much matter because, as we all know, we are at one of those impasses that arises so often in every day disputes — I am biased, you are biased, whatever shall we do?

Of course, I am hardly going to deny that we all have biases. We all have life experiences that form us, that guide our thinking, and that, at least initially, provide us with the presuppositions that enable us to form complex positions. Having admitted the reality of the biases that influence us, however, I have to ask: It is really the case that all biases are equal and, thus, equally damaging to the validity of an argument? The short answer is, I think, a resounding “No!”

We all remember Lyotard’s definition, albeit oversimplified as he admits, that postmodernism is characterized by an incredulity toward metanarratives. That is, the postmodern philosopher argues that we should exhibit a suspicion toward all comprehensive ways of seeing the world. Why are we justified in exercising this “hermeneutic of suspicion”? Because when these metanarratives, these comprehensive means of interpreting the world, are unmasked, what lies at their center is a play for power. In other words, we hold the presuppositions we do, we embrace the ideologies that we do, and we interpret the world the way we do because that way reinforces our power. Upton Sinclair, on a smaller scale, put it this way, “It is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Accordingly, then, we ought not be surprised that the person whose wealth depends on a market for fossil fuels will have a hard time accepting that the use of those fuels makes a significant contribution to global climate change.

The centerpiece of the concern here is just this: the biases we hold, the ways of seeing the world we embrace, are all too often driven by our own self-interests and, thus, our biases cause us to see things in self-serving ways. The corrupting influence of self-interest drives us to see things the way we do – or, does so quite often.

So, to return to our original question: Are all biases created equal? Initially, it seems that they are, that our self-interest corrupts our way of seeing the world so that we tend to bring things into orbit around ourselves. How does this or that impact me, that becomes the question. And, as long as our own self-interest drives our biases, then we have to say that all biases are to be treated with suspicion. But, this is not the last word.

In Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self, Anthony Thiselton argues that metanarratives need not necessarily be disguised plays for power. In fact, he argues that the Christian way of understanding the world, when properly understood and embraced, undermines Lyotard’s suspicion toward all metanarratives. Why? Because properly understood, in the biblical metanarrative God calls us to elevate the interests of others over our own. We are to be driven by a holy love that loves our neighbors as ourselves. Thiselton observes that such a metanarrative undermines the suspicion that all metanarratives are disguised play for power. How can a way of seeing things that puts the interest of the other first be a self-interested play for power? Thistelton puts it like this: “A love in which a self genuinely gives to the Other in the interests of the Other dissolves the acids of suspicion and deception.”

Are all biases created equal? No, they are not. When a person acts, not in their own self-interest, but because of their love of those who are other to him or her, that bias is not a basis for suspicion, but rather a basis for affirmation. Biases that drive a person to embody, for example, the biblical concern for those on the margins of society — the widow, the orphan, the sick, the outcast — are good and appropriate biases because they push us to be the people God has called us to be. It is true that all too often, perhaps most always, biases are self-serving. As such, they are to be called out, suspected, and unmasked. But, when bias is for the care of the “least of these,” they are, in fact, praiseworthy and out to be encouraged. The Christian faith calls us to no less.

Posted May 15, 2017

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