Unconscious Bias

In our every day lives we get judged by every characteristic you can possibly imagine. We are prejudged based on sex, race, height, looks, the sound of our voice, our physique, and so on. Human brains are biologically designed to recognize patterns in behavior, as this was an evolutionary adaptation that allowed us to survive in dangerous environments. The hypothesis is that humans who could recognize patterns in behavior in other species have higher fitness than humans who treated every organism they encountered as an atomized case. Human beings, on a mass scale, will never go against this adaptation. The point is that these unconscious biases are part of our every day experience.

Before I go on, I want to note that this post is talking about unconscious prejudice, not conscious prejudice.

The interesting thing about the examples I gave in the beginning is society’s response to these prejudices and how they differ from one another. The first two I mentioned, race and sex, have a very clear response: that these types of prejudice are wrong and should be curbed by any means necessary. Now we have studies on implicit bias and the like, showing things like applications for jobs being picked at different rates, and more. Now contrast that to something like height. If you are incredibly tall, then that affects how people will perceive you, especially when they first meet you. You come off as more imposing and dominant. And then the opposite is true for short people: you naturally come off as more submissive and less imposing.

And most people react to this reality in an incredibly different manner. We implicitly accept the fact that people are prejudiced according to height in this way, as it is just a fact of life, and usually end up ignoring it. The people being judged, instead of expecting society to change to suit their own conception of themself, change to suit society’s opinion of them. A short person will eventually accept that they will never be imposing to prejudiced onlookers and they will adopt a more passive approach to life. There are exceptions, but we all know of the stereotype of the scrawny, male teenager who thinks he’s a whole lot tougher than he is; and we all know how satisfying it is to see him get his ass handed to him when he crosses the line.

My question is why we aren’t treating race and sex based prejudice like this latter example. As I have already pointed out, prejudice is something that is inherent to us, so simply saying that it should go away is not feasible. Not only are you demanding perfection from imperfect creatures, but you are demanding that they go against their biology. This will never happen on a mass scale, unless you have an oppressive ideology to herd the masses. But people on the Left will never accept that bias based on race and sex is acceptable. I think much of this has to do with the history of racism and sexism, and I certainly think this would be the response. Ultimately, I do not think that this is a fair reason to make the demands that the Left makes.

The Left claims that the history of racism and sexism feeds into today and that this is why issues surrounding race and sex are so important. I can get behind this idea, but I would like to see how it would play out in a specific example of prejudice. Let us compare two examples: In the first example, say that a man prejudges another based on his height. He assumes that he is going to hurt him based solely on the fact that his is tall and imposing. And this is not a fair judgment, as the man is actually very nice. In the second example, a man prejudges another man based on the fact that he is black. He assumes that he is going to hurt him based solely on the fact that he is black. And this is not a fair judgment either, as the man is also very nice. Are these two examples not the same? Why should I assume that the second example of prejudice is worse than the first? Does the history of racism change anything in these specific examples? Why? Is it fair to just assume the prejudice based on race is worse “because history?”

I think the response to this would be to mention why prejudice is wrong in the first place. They would claim that prejudice is wrong because it hurts people’s feelings and that this is how history plays a role in the difference. Black people are conscious of a history of racism and that leads them to perceive these prejudices differently. It is the effect that matters, not necessarily the action.

There are two problems with this. First, this is a great generalization of people’s behaviors. We are talking about two individual cases and this response applies assumptions based on group membership to make the point. We do not know if the black man in the example will truly be mulling over the history of racism. Second, these instances of prejudice are not always something that the target is conscious of. If we look at biases in hiring, as I mentioned earlier, then we see that some applications are selected more often than others. This isn’t emotional hurt though; there is a material effect on the target and it is ultimately something that they are not aware of. How would a history of racism justify the claim that racial prejudice is worse than prejudice based on height when there is a material effect, but no emotional effect? Say that you could have hired the tall man and the black man, but rejected both after the interview because their respective characteristics intimidated you. Their personalities were exemplary and fit the job, but you ultimately rejected both because of unconscious prejudice. Are these actions equally bad, or is the racial prejudice worse? Why?

I don’t think it is worse. This is why I think we should transition into a society that shrugs off unconscious prejudice based on race and sex and deals with it in the same way that we do prejudice over someone’s height. Prejudice is inevitable, so people need to learn to accommodate that in their lives.

Video: https://youtu.be/HpUXud1ZnP0


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