That Ugly Bias

Here I would like to discuss how our bias contributes to discrimination, marginalization, and subordination.  The heart of bias, regardless of which kind—confirmation, prejudice, myside, etc.—is about favoring one thing over another.  The reason that I think this is important is because the next post will review Jonathan Haidt’s book titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” which is about microaggressions.  People engage in microaggressions exactly because of their attitudes and beliefs towards others.

A Patriot’s Biases

Linkedin Post

Linkedin Post

The above was taken from Linkedin where I, surprisingly, witness daily scuffles involving a difference in beliefs and values.  A decade ago if someone had the nerve to post a brazen statement about their conservative beliefs on Linkedin, it would have triggered me into articulating a response.  Instead, I now look at these posts as ways to learn about how we think and act.  If we recognize that we all think that we are justified in our political beliefs, that is, they are right and moral, then it is easier to not get offended.  The beliefs that this person has are based on biases, which are driven by her likes and dislikes.  This is not an intellectual position because I doubt this person has put any thought into this.  I do not have a problem if this person wants to believe in fairytales and has pride for her country, but I do have a problem with her touting traditional family values at the cost of exclusion.

To post something like this is nothing more than unabashed pride and an urge to stick it in the face of those liberals.  Furthermore, this threat she writes of does not exist.  No one wants to destroy the family but rather make it more inclusive.  Instead, she is threatened by liberals corrupting the purity of the family by introducing “unconventional” members.  I also do not think most deny that gender exists in some sense but rather claim that it is more malleable than once thought and not solely dependent on our sex.  The problem is that she is excluding others that do not fit the conventional definition of what constitutes gender and family.  We cannot fault her for having preferences toward God, country, and family although we may dislike her because she is not one of us.  We should, however, identify our own in-group biases and determine if disliking the person fits within our larger goals and ideals.

How We Use Bias

bias: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in an unfair way

We all have biases because we judge others’ abilities, behavior, and appearances.  Biases, however, lead to either playing favorites or treating others unfairly (discrimination).  Biases are not necessarily inaccurate though.  Fox News, for example, is biased not because it is inaccurate but rather because it favors information that conforms to its beliefs, which leads to a narrow perspective. Biases are a byproduct of how the mind works.  In fact, we have a confirmation bias when we select information, which makes it a feature of the mind.  Likes and dislikes drive our biases.  We can hardly prevent them since it is automatic.  The parts of perception to be concerned with are prejudices and stereotypes.  Prejudice is the dislike, hate, or contempt that we feel towards a person or their attributes, while stereotypes are the overgeneralized beliefs that we hold towards a member from a particular kind of group.

Stereotypes have a few properties.  First, they are perceptions of a person’s appearance, behavior, or abilities, which may be true or false.  When we use stereotypes or labels, we are reducing a person’s essence to those qualities.  Second, we say that these are the typical qualities of all members of the group.  Stereotypes are dangerous because we can judge an entire group of people as being “less than” before we even know them.  In order to create these stereotypes and prejudices, we must evaluate someone’s qualities in a negative light (i).  When we do this, we may feel something beyond mere dislikes, such as contempt or hate.  We feel contempt when we deem something inferior.  We feel hate when someone is a threat to our status or wellbeing.  Contempt can make us feel justified in keeping others in their place, while hate can lead to violence.  It is for these reasons that contempt and hate are threats to equality.  The antidote to contempt and hate is to look for what we have in common with others, not our dissimilarities.

When Bias Is Justified

bigot: a person who is obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion, or faction, especially one who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group

We can all experience interpersonal rejection to some degree based on qualities that we may have or lack.  We are not all equal in our desirability.  If we naturally have a bias towards the attractive, smart, and capable, does this mean that these people are “better than”?  Meritocracy, the idea that effort and aptitude justify rising up the ranks, says it is ok to have a bias against those who are unintelligent and incapable within our economic system (ii).  In fact, we often unintentionally reject the undesirable and inadequate in subtle but hurtful ways.  When we are seeking romantic partners, then we have a bias against those who are unattractive.  When is it unreasonable to have a bias against someone?  Social movements fortunately have given us the categories of sex, gender, race, class, and ability.  Indeed, it seems silly to dislike someone over these qualities, but what about those that don’t make the fit (iii)?

There is a difference, however, between people not associated with a traditional marginalized group versus those that are. This has to do with which group meets the criteria of being oppressed.  Oppression is when one group, typically white-dominated males, have more power and privilege over the other.  Oppression affects people’s lives at three levels: interpersonal, institutional, and internalized. Interpersonal consists of the biases that are applied to the marginalized, institutional are the laws and social norms that form because of these biases, and internalization is when the marginalized internalize the oppression as shame and inferiority. This internalization is also known as subordination.  The outcome is that their quality of life, both mental and physical, is compromised.


i) We can also evaluate someone in a positive light and make a stereotype.  What about all Asians are good at mathematics.  Positive stereotypes are interesting because personally I would like to be associated with a group that excels at math.  But it makes them feel uncomfortable; perhaps because it draws attention to them being “different” and could be used as a source of prejudice.  It also simplifies and reduces Asians to an absurd degree.  Because of course people are complex and different even within groups.

ii) Meritocracy could be used in a couple of different ways to justify power and control.  It is conventionally said to be a fair way of advancing in the hierarchy because all that is required is effort and capability.  But we know that not all people have the same privileges and access to resources as others do.  So it is a half-truth.  But even if we eliminated privilege, it can still be interpreted as unfair because what about the people that are unintelligent and incompetent.  The system becomes rather challenging for them.

iii) Even within these groups, there is a bias that the dull-witted and incompetent are undesirable.  If we look at advertising that attempts to improve the disabled’s image, we will notice that they are portrayed as intelligent.  This is not always the case though; five million Americans suffer from some form of intellectual disability.  It is for these reasons that I generalize when I discuss marginalization.  When I use the word marginalization, I mean those that are more or less non-existent and impotent but not just in the political sense.  People that are undesirable and inadequate are often invisible even in their day-to-day interactions.


  1. K says

    I had a work event that made me a pariah in the office. I was part of the web team for the organization, and part of my job was to work with the subdivisions to create a cohesive website. Each subsite had the name of the subdivision and a quick blurb on what they did, who their leadership was, and other pertinent facts. Simple, right? The format was to have a leadership picture with a link to their professional bio that anyone who cared about it could click on. E.g.: “John Doe brings 8 years of marketing experience to his position as Lead of the Marketing Department.”

    One guy wanted the whole site to be a reflection of his crazy fundagelical sect and the homepage blurb to be all about how he values (his) God first, then family, then work–and expects his employees to keep him accountable through daily prayer events.

    I objected because our organization had nothing to do with religion, but we worked with the general public–some of whom might not even be Christian, let alone his whackadoodle sect.

    I lost that battle and suddenly I was dead to leadership. They began criticizing any work they thought was mine (often it wasn’t) whereas before they thought it was fine. Anything I said or did, they just hated because they were so biases against me for being a “Christian-hater” (as opposed to the “Christian haters”). The environment turned so hostile that I left for a less-biased organization.

    • musing says

      Thanks for sharing this. I had a similar experience at a place of employment. Typically, I am careful not to share my viewpoints on politics and religion. But I made the mistake of thinking that I could get them to see that these were all just beliefs that are equally valid if we adopt the correct framework. For example, if we believe that government is evil, then we will be looking for evidence that it is. If we believe that oppression exists, then we will be looking for evidence that this is the case. And so forth. I tried to approach it as a dispassionate freethinker. But get this. What one coworker did was found out that freethinkers use the pansy flower as symbolism for their trade. He wasn’t aware that the pansy flower in French means something like “thought” (nor would he have cared). Being the clever conservative engineer that he was, he said all liberals are pansies. So what was an earnest attempt to seek common ground turned into me being ridiculed and labeled for being a liberal. Once you start name-calling, then that perception is hard to change. Fortunately, like you, I no longer work there.

  2. Katydid says

    Whoops–typo–they were so biases against me –> they were so biaseD against me.

    And wow, I had no idea pansies represented freethought!

    I wasn’t even approaching the website from a freethought perspective; my thought was, “We are not an organization that concerns itself with religion and we’re hoping for customers so why are we purposely putting potential customers off”. Had I been coding for a church website or a personal website: sure, throw in all the God-talk you want.

    But I touched their third rail, and suddenly I was the worst monster ever.

    I’m glad you’re away from it, too.

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