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May 16 2013

Privilege, Dialogue, Harassment, and the Anti-Availability Heuristic

The Availability Heuristic is a well-known cognitive bias that primes people to more readily believe something when they can easily come up with examples. Of the cognitive biases that I’ve encountered among rationalists in the skeptical and atheist communities, this bias is the one I’m most capable of coming up with examples. I am therefore primed to believe more readily that atheists and skeptics are not immune to this bias — myself included.

But there’s a little-discussed inverse to this bias, where examples are generally filtered out of one’s daily existence because they don’t impact on you directly, and thus, you are less ready to believe someone claiming to experience them. I call this the anti-availability heuristic, though I’m sure there are better names for it.

This anti-availability heuristic bias might take effect in you, the otherwise rational person, when you witness one of the thousands of microaggressions someone else experiences but they are “Somebody Else’s Problems” and you don’t internalize them; when the only ways they impact on you are when someone else is complaining about them, particularly when they’re happening to someone you don’t empathize with. Your bias might manifest when you claim to be skeptical equally of all claims and so you pretend to subject these claims to the same level of scrutiny that you subject every other claim to, and find those claims wanting specifically because you, personally, never experienced them. This, you will note, is a failure of empathy, and not actually skepticism. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about these events that you need to present videotaped evidence of a single event to prove that society in general should discourage certain sexist behaviours.

You might hear about these struggles and recognize that they exist in a detached, objective sort of way, but you might also be tempted to discount them as whining, to demand higher standards of evidence for, say, the cumulative effects of microaggressions over time, because to you, one incidence of such an “annoyance” might be deemed “zero bad”. In these ways, the inverse to the Availability Heuristic makes it more difficult for the privileged (on any axis) to recognize their privilege.

Privilege is a well-understood and well-evidenced bit of sociology, the scientific study of how humans interact with one another. It is as uncontroversial among sociologists as evolution is amongst biologists, and privilege theory is as powerful in its ability to explain how power aggregates on multiple axes and can cause real damage to the underprivileged. Privilege theory works to explain why people who are not necessarily bad can still have a complete failure of empathy when faced with experiences they don’t recognize as being as prevalent as they might be for someone else.

If you’ve never been in an area where you’re the racial minority (remember, privilege doesn’t mean “the white guy is evil” — depending on where you are, in a predominantly non-Caucasian area, you might be less privileged!), you might think we live in a post-racial society, simply because you’ve never experienced racism directly and you’re primed to think only of the visible minorities’ successes, even where your visible-minority neighbor might experience prejudices against her daily. You might not recognize a dogwhistle event as something actually coded to diminish someone else’s accomplishments, like when a black person is called “articulate” — what might be complementary to you, the white person, might carry the subtext to a black person that their eloquence is somehow out of the ordinary for their race.

If you’re straight, and you can marry the one you love without prejudice, you can walk down the street holding hands with that person without risking physical retribution, and you see the hard-won battles for gays’ rights to marry their own loved ones, you might be fooled into thinking that this means we live in a post-homophobic society because you’ve never encountered hatred or bullying for deviating from societal norms — even where your gay neighbor, also celebrating those hard-won victories for gay marriage, remembers every slur and every refusal of service and every time someone says something like “as long as they don’t shove their gayness in my face” and every time they couldn’t express their affection for their loved ones in public the same way that heterosexuals can.

And if you’re already primed to discount these events because you’ve not experienced them, you might demand higher standards of evidence for such daily occurrences than you might for less-common but equally personal claims, like that a person has a headache or stubbed their toe. Stub your toe three times a day, and see what kind of real damage your foot eventually incurs. Get a headache every single day, and see how long it takes for you to see a doctor, even if it turns out every one of those headaches was something best treated with ibuprofen and nothing more sinister.

This is one sort of privilege — the inability to see the microaggressions as cumulative because you’ve not experienced them enough or at all. Privilege is not overt hate, it is not a discounting of everything a privileged person might have to say about civil rights issues that do not directly affect them, and it is not something to be ashamed of in those who have it. The folks claiming that accusations of privilege is being used as an argument-ender are sometimes unaware how their arguments contribute to the ongoing damage they’re doing to the people experiencing the things they’ve discounted as “zero bad”. When someone tells you to “check your privilege”, they generally mean to examine whether or not your anti-availability-heuristic bias has prejudiced you against the idea that you might not have all the data necessary to draw the conclusions you’ve evidently drawn.

When you’re in the privileged class, you’re the norm, and society caters to you — even if you don’t have all the privilege because you’re, say, less than wealthy, even when you’re disproportionately catered to. When society creates art and entertainment that reflects your experiences, you barely notice, because it’s always for you, about you; you notice when it’s for someone else, and it might bother you, or just not interest you, and you can choose not to consume it. For the minorities who are underrepresented, or who are represented only as tokens, they hardly have a choice — though there’s a market there, nobody is serving it, so they have to take what entertainment they can.

Because you’ve got lots of examples of media treating you — people who look or act or sound like you — as a worthy topic of consideration, you may even feel it most poignantly when that representation isn’t exact. You can identify with the white male power fantasy video game characters because you’re a white male, but the black female picking up the same game won’t feel the same connection. You can read the superhero comic with men who are forceful and active participants and shapers of their worlds, and barely notice that every woman’s spine is curved like a centaur and every woman’s pose traced straight out of porn. Because all you can see is the wider shoulders and better-defined muscles of a character that is otherwise you, you might claim that the men’s bodies in such media are unattainable too, and therefore Sexism Is Over(tm).

The prevalence of you-shaped characters in media and politics and every aspect of your life, despite the actual background population splits, is a way of coaxing you, the privileged white male, into believing that (despite your under-privilege on one axis of wealth) your life is in fact great — and this further primes you to dismiss when others’ lives are not. It is a pat on the head by society, even where women or trans folk or visible racial minorities might get precious little of the same.

You don’t balk when a character in a rebooted franchise is recast from a minority and made to be a white character just like you, but you think that gender-flipping a member of an originally nearly all male cast or turning a supporting white character in a reboot like the Marvel Movie Universe, or Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm (who spends the movie ON FIRE) into a black person is an unacceptable breech of canon. You might even be okay with flipping one or two characters in an expansive universe “as long as they don’t take it too far” — not recognizing that even though Nick Fury was turned black, the rest of the cast was still lily-white, and nowhere near in proportion to the background population. You might not necessarily see the problem with turning the white bad guy dark-skinned, and the dark-skinned good guy white. But if, say, Tony Stark had been cast as a black man, the howls of protest would echo to this day. Khan Noonien Singh — a Sikh Indian played by notably dark-skinned Ricardo Montalban, who struggled with racism throughout his acting career and his life — was recast to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and that has the effect of making the pluralistic Roddenberry vision of the future more homogeneously white. This has had the effect of causing many wags on the intertubes to dub the new movie Star Trek: Into Whiteness. And it was all done to appeal to a “certain audience”, you see.

This is another bit of privilege, and it can manifest itself in nasty ways when you aren’t aware you’re doing it. (Have you noticed yet that privilege has that hallmark of being something you’re generally unaware of?) You notice little ways that the underprivileged try to even the score, and dismiss those little ways as being some sort of overreach — you attack the Women In Secularism conference for being all about women when the whole secular movement “should” be pluralistic by fiat because we’re all rationalists, and yet you are willing to dismiss every grievance a woman might legitimately have with our movement. You might fight back against “fascism” like harassment policies, and try to prove them unnecessary by repeatedly harassing people who advocate for them. Or you might simply back off and say “whoa, whoa, I don’t want to be involved with all that divisive feminist stuff, I just want to be rude to Ray Comfort and Sylvia Browne, leave me out of it”, even though that de facto benefits the people who would rather (overtly or otherwise) that this movement stay an old boys’ club. The fear of overreach or the temptation to sit on the fence about such things — to keep our powder dry and only fight the fights that are directly related to the core “mission” of the movement — actually undercuts this movement, because that same core mission would be very well served by increasing our numbers and diversifying the pool of ideas within it.

And then you have the people who see all this happening and decide that “both sides” have done damage — that the people banning harassers from their forums, or blocking them on Twitter, or quitting the movement altogether, are on equal footing with the people doing the harassing, creating new accounts to parody them, dehumanizing them at every turn, and simply refusing to engage with the ideas presented. These people who cry “a pox on both your houses” are the outsiders with little insight into a nuanced and multifaceted situation, whose availability heuristic does not provide any actual filter, and they consider the claims on one side that a person was “banned for no good reason” to be exactly on par with the other side’s unwillingness to consider slurs like “cobweb cunt” or a photoshop of someone as a blimp to be an actual attempt at dialogue.

Worse, there are people who fetishize dialogue itself. Who think that harassers and harassed should simply sit down and have beers with one another and learn that they aren’t really all that different. As though every dispute is between equals, and every viewpoint equally valid, and every grievance equal in weight and just a matter of perspective. If only Israel and Palestine could sit down and not eat pigs together! If only creationists and scientists could sit down and have coffee, they might be able to split the difference between the 6000 years old Earth and the 4.7 billion year old Earth! If only feminists and antifeminists could get together and figure out that neither side is so radical, and they could just split the difference between “women are overreaching and taking men’s rights away” and “kill then eat the fried testicles of all men!” — no, wait — hmm. That last one sounds suspiciously skewed. I think someone’s not accurately portraying the arguments that us feminists have actually been presenting here.

And yet, the harassment continues apace, even while the harassers are grudgingly forced to admit that, when made to actually read the arguments made by one of their targets in one of these fetishized “dialogues”, that there really isn’t that much difference between their ultimate goals or their thought processes on some fundamental philosophical points. They mostly just don’t agree with the specific words as far as I can tell, even when the ideas behind those words are entirely uncontroversial and well-evidenced. And to fight against those words, they harass, they cajole, they demean, they harangue, they dehumanize, and they even have to invent whole new fields of hyperbole when merely Godwinning the conversation is insufficient.

The privileged are not evil, of course. At least, not necessarily. They need to be challenged on that privilege, and made aware how that privilege amounts to a cognitive bias, and if they after a time prove themselves incapable of critical self-examination, ties sometimes need to be cut. So why don’t those people who deny privilege even exists ever want to let us cut those ties? Why the demands for our attention and time, the assaults on our privacy months after we’ve disengaged? Why do they think they deserve the privilege of that attention and time?

Why are these people, who follow you out of a bar and grab your shoulder yelling “DON’T WALK AWAY FROM ME” after you’ve attempted to avoid an obvious bar fight, still being treated as honest interlocutors just trying to present differences of opinion? Would that availability heuristic bias extend to your attempt to ward off blows, would you be chastised for bringing your fists up to defend yourselves the same way that people are chastised as being “just as bad” as the harassers for daring to ban abusive people from their blogs?

I daresay the “pox on both houses” folks are suffering the most from this anti-availability-heuristic bias. Or, said another way, they are privileged in not recognizing the scope of the damage one side is experiencing. They should check that privilege. Once they do, and recognize the ways in which their fence-sitting disadvantages one side and advantages another, they might recognize that they’re actually doing damage to dialogue even when they fetishize it.

9 comments

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  1. 1
  2. 2
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    That’s an excellent summary/analysis, Jason.

  3. 3
    melaniemallon

    Thank you. This is just wonderfully put.

  4. 4
    carlie

    I feel myself swooning into a brain-crush…

  5. 5
    Martha

    Well said!

  6. 6
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    That was awesome.

  7. 7
    Jadehawk

    Privilege is a well-understood and well-evidenced bit of sociology, the scientific study of how humans interact with one another.

    silly Canuck; don’t you know that “Social science is the intelligent design of real science”?

    It is as uncontroversial among sociologists as evolution is amongst biologists,

    that’s not true. Modernist Functionalists still exist, and you kinda have to let go of the idea that a society is a unified (or at least centered) whole with a single set of social facts in order to be able to deal with things like situated knowledge or privilege. Hence the common whining about post-modernism you hear from certain quarters.

    This is one sort of privilege — the inability to see the microaggressions as cumulative because you’ve not experienced them enough or at all.

    that… kinda doesn’t sound right. I don’t think the amount of experienced/witnessed microaggressions is what determines whether they have a cumulative effect. I mean, obviously if you experience none or almost none, then there’s no chance for a cumulative effect… but I get the impression that even witnessing a lot of them can be experienced as a lot of individual instances rather than a cumulative wearing down. You might have to ask a psychologist where the difference in the experience comes from…

    turning a supporting white character in a reboot like the Marvel Movie Universe, or Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm (who spends the movie ON FIRE) into a black person is an unacceptable breech of canon.

    or casting book characters that one imagined as dark, but not all the way dark as African Americans *cough*

    And it was all done to appeal to a “certain audience”, you see.

    people like Asshole Abrams, who found Star Trek “too philosophical”? *nerdrage*

  8. 8
    Jason Thibeault

    Jadehawk: I am so sorry we didn’t get to sit down and chat after all the goings-on over the weekend. I am completely spent, and a quiet sit-down someplace where four or five of us could have talked away from huge yelling crowds would have been awesome.

    Sorry also that I didn’t reply to this sooner. I agree with most of what you’ve said here — gotta quibble on a point though.

    that… kinda doesn’t sound right. I don’t think the amount of experienced/witnessed microaggressions is what determines whether they have a cumulative effect.

    I think I might have made this clearer — it’s that by not having experienced microagressions to a point where they have any observable cumulative effect, you’re less likely to accept when others say that these microaggressions DO have that kind of cumulative effect. And this despite it having published studies referring to racial bias in academia and the family, and books dedicated to the same idea with regard to gender.

  9. 9
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Thank you, thank you, for laying this out so clearly!

  1. 10
    Strawprivilege » Lousy Canuck

    [...] better than the next person, until that next person starts itemizing them. You might be tempted to consider it whining, or get angry when you’re asked to stop pontificating on those topics brie…. If you’re a man and are not disadvantaged by disproportionate representation in media, [...]

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