Avoidable Perceptions of Bias

I’m part of a Facebook group that discusses the teaching of philosophy, and every once in a while someone says something that I really want to comment on, but it would move enough away from the conversation and be very long and just feel out of place. I found myself writing a very long comment this morning about something that I think should be preserved, but I ended up not posting it to that conversation, because it’s really off point and probably wouldn’t be appriopriate to pick out one side comment and turn it into a lengthy issue. But I think what I have to say about it is worth posting, so here it is.

The conversation was about a student who engaged in inappropriate behavior in class to support (but not actually defend) his view that morality is connected with religion. He actually stood up and looked around at the class to assert his view, as if he could win people over by the sheer force of saying it. One of the commenters pointed out that movies like God Is Not Dead probably fuel perceptions of a liberal and secular bias in philosophy classes, and to someone who has seen that movie and has no familiarity with philosophy they might think philosophy classes are actually like that and see this kind of behavior as an appropriate response. (Hint: philosophy classes are nothing like what that movie portrays, and this kind of behavior is totally inappropriate in a philosophy class.)

Someone else came along and mentioned a case where her insistence on using proper terminology led to a student’s parents accusing her of inappropriate bias in her teaching. That’s unfortunate when that happens, and I actually think in the case these parents were pushing back against they were wrong. But the case started from something preventable that I think would predictably lead to that perception in a lot of people.

What this professor did was to challenge the terminology of a student in a paper on abortion. She objected to his using the term ‘baby’ to refer to a human being in the fetal stage. The correct biological term is ‘fetus,” she insisted. Now from what she said, the student’s paper sounds like it deserved the terrible grade it got. It said things as wrong as that the baby is in a woman’s stomach, and it didn’t make reference to any of the actual arguments on either side of the debate that came up in class or the readings.


My first thought, however, is that it’s just counterproductive to insist that the correct medical term is ‘fetus’ and then telling students not to use ‘baby’ because it’s inaccurate. Most OB/GYN specialists do use the term “baby” when referring to the fetal stage, at least in the cases where there is the full intention to go to full term. They always called our kids babies at that stage of development, and most people outside academia think in terms of that kind of language. We have developmental terms for other stages, e.g. infant, but it doesn’t stop us from using the less precise “baby” as well. If it’s inappropriate to use the term that actual medical professionals do in fact use, then any student familiar with that is going to think the professor is just out of touch with real people, even if she’s just going for precision about the stage of development.
 

This is an example of a much wider phenomenon among academics that I think leads those from a more conservative background of perspective to perceive bias when it may not be there. I think something similar happens with structural or institutional racism. Most people think of racism as an internal thing that involves intent and desire, and when we call it racist when something unintentional or implicit causes serious harm along racial lines, they think it’s a ridiculous charge to make. Most people can recognize that there are unconscious patterns in society that are unfair or harmful to certain racial groups. They might disagree about what we ought to do practically in response, but they can see that those patterns are real, especially if you work hard in the classroom to rely on actual data that show this to be true. But to many people, it just does’t feel accurate to call such things racism. That term should be reserved, most people would think, for deliberate or conscious hatred or bias. Unconscious or non-deliberate stuff should be talked about and pointed to, but to a lot of people we should reserve the harsher term for actual evil hearts and actions that are stronger. It feels completely at odds with reality to such a person to call it racist when someone assumes a mixed race couple is not together when going through the grocery line, because racism involves hatred or dislike.

There’s certainly room for people to disagree about these things, but I find that a lot of people immediately tune out and think someone is disconnected from reality when they say some of what I hear my fellow academics saying about stuff like this, because they think that calling such an assumption in the grocery line racism means you’re accusing them of hating or disliking people, and that obviously is not what’s going on. So they see professors talking about such things as racism, and they consider it liberal bias and just tune out and think there’s nothing of value whenever they teach such stuff, which is unfortunate, because simply presenting it in a different way would mean the content would get through pretty easily and without any perception of bias. It’s not the message that’s being opposed here. It’s the way it’s packaged, and that seems to me to be completely avoidable.

It also happens with the gender/sex distinction, which to most people’s minds does not amount to an actual distinction, because they use those words as synonyms. When they see people insisting on some distinction that to them just doesn’t sound like the proper use of English, they take it to be an ideological bias rather than just a desire for more precise, carefully defined terms. The distinction between what’s there biologically and everything our culture and society add to that is perfectly reasonable and something most conservatives would accept. There may not be a lot of agreement on which things fall under one term or the other, but the distinction itself makes complete sense. But when people teach it as if this is just what the terms mean, anyone who knows how they are actually used in ordinary English (as complete synonyms) will think it’s some ridiculous bias in ideology that’s driving it, when it’s not. It’s just a desire to make a more precise distinction.

 
There’s only so much of this that’s worth accommodating, I think. We should insist on pointing to the practices that we call structural are institutional racism and arguing that they are bad and worth finding ways to change. But I find it more helpful in discussing these if I draw attention to the fact that the word ‘racism’ gets used in a variety of ways, and some people are uncomfortable using it for these things. They want to reserve it for the most vile category of hatred and dislike for people because of their race. It is a very strong term for many people. And I work hard to help students see that terms like ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ in these contexts are not meant to capture how people ordinarily use them but are instead being used as technical terms. And when I use the term ‘fetus’ I point out that it’s to be precise about the particular developmental stage that I mean and not to assume anything one way or the other about moral status. Our conclusion on that question is something I expect them to argue for, as I expect it from the authors we read, and we look at those arguments and point out problems with them, so it’s clear that I don’t approach the question from one ideological perspective. I look at all the views and think about the arguments for those views.
 

So I find that there are good strategies to disarm anyone accusing me of any kind of bias in either direction. Most of my students would not be able to guess my views on most issues that I teach anyway, but this helps them feel like their views are always welcome, as long as they can talk about them in ways that don’t make the other side feel unwelcome in the conversation.

Maybe it takes someone like me who lives in both worlds, so to speak. I know what people on both sides of most of the hotly contested issues that I teach believe, and I know how they think about them and what kind of language they use in a way that helps me to see what they would find as problematic in how the other side presents things. I know all this because I regularly find myself in circles where the people surrounding me all think one thing and never interact with anyone who thinks the other thing, and that’s true of both sides of political and religious divides.

It’s hard not to be biased, but it’s not hard to avoid presenting material in a way that’s going to look obviously biased to one side while seeming unbiased and objective to the other side, and all I’m asking for here is for people to think hard about how their ways of putting issues will be perceived by those on the other side. This would go a long way toward eliminating the perception of bias among philosophy professors when it’s not actually there in any large amount, at least.

Balance in the Force

I just read a thoughtful post on the Pop Culture and Philosophy blog about the concept of balance in the Force in Star Wars. I’ve been struggling to understand that concept myself as I’ve been reading through a lot of the Star Wars comics, both Legends canon and new canon, and thinking them through in light of the movies, Clone Wars show, and Rebels show. I don’t think the post I linked to has it right, but I’m linking to it as a thoughtful piece trying to come to grips with this issue. A quick Google search revealed quite a number of other views on this, again none of it seeming to me to get things quite right. So I wanted to put some of my own thoughts on this into writing, however, so here are some rough musings attempting to put many months of thought on this into something somewhat digestible.

Here are several things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, when put together:

  1. The Je’daii Order in the Legends canon was the precursor of the Jedi. They sought balance in the Force, which when I was reading those stories seemed to me like a wholly different thing that the later Jedi’s seeming distance from anything related to the Dark Side. Are they seeking balance in trying to master both sides at once? But then it turned out when Dark Side users with red lightsabers power by anger showed up, they saw it as bad when a Je’daii tried to use one in that way. So it didn’t seem as if they really sought balance between the dark and light side after all. What did they seek, then? Balance between what and what?
  2. In a very important Clone Wars episode that apparently was micromanaged by George Lucas to make sure it got things right, Anakin Skywalker goes to a planet where some living embodiments of the Force live. The Father manages to keep the Son and the Daughter in balance, and they symbolize the Dark Side and Light Side of the Force. When he dies, he tries to get Anakin as the Chosen One to take his place, and Anakin refuses. Anakin is even given a vision of what he will become and what will happen to the universe if he refuses, with the whole destruction of the Jedi and the Empire and Vader and all that, and he still refuses to leave his loved ones, especially Padme. Then they make him forget the vision, and he goes on to fulfill it. What I found odd in this episode is that the balance presented here is in fact balance between the Dark Side and Light Side, and the Father thinks it’s Anakin’s role as the Chosen One to maintain that balance.
  3. Lucas has said in inteviews that the balance referred to in the Chosen One prophecy is balance between the Dark Side and Light Side, and that Anakin is the Chosen One who did in fact fulfill that prophecy by killing Darth Sidious. It’s the destruction of the Sith that fulfills the prophecy and brings balance to the Force. So somehow destroying the Sith does not eliminate the Dark Side and favor the Light Side. It brings the proper balance to the Force. Lucas said the Jedi did not understand this, but neither did the Sith.
  4. In the Legends canon, there is a Darth Plagueis book that details the Sith’s attempts to subvert balance in the Force by doing things that actively opposed aspects of the Force and had the effect of damaging the Force. This is how thousands of Jedi were unable to detect the presence of a Sith Lord in their very midst. Their Force abilities were hindered by the Force itself being clouded. The Chosen One Anakin was actually the Force’s way of responding to what the Sith were doing, creating a person who would restore balance and destroy the Sith.

 

I’m not entirely sure how to put all this together. I think it’s probably tied up in the confusion in Star Wars about emotions. We see Obi-Wan telling Luke to trust his feelings, which he does when destroying the first Death Star, and his feelings for his father win the day in Return of the Jedi. But we frequently see Jedi proclaiming emotions to be bad, e.g. fear leads to anger, anger to hate, and hate to destruction. And it’s not just negative emotions. Anakin is told to reject his feelings for Padme, because his attachment to her will get him in trouble (and it in fact does, since it in effect causes his turn to the Dark Side, which in turn causes her death).

The ancient Greek and Roman Stoics had a similarly confusing approach to emotions, but their view turns out to be consistent upon closer examination. They say emotions are always bad, but when you press them on it, it seems they don’t really believe what we would mean by that. They define emotions as when you are out of the control of reason, when reason could not correct your course even if you were to learn that your guiding beliefs and desires are wrong. Other feelings that don’t do that simply aren’t emotions, according to the Stoics. This allows them to say that there are good feelings like moral indignation, which can occur when someone does something truly evil but not out of self-righteousness, simply out of respect for what’s right. They aren’t oppose to emotions, as we understand them, just being out of control of reason. In other words, they are like Star Trek’s Vulcans, who can find things fascinating while saying they have no emotions. But isn’t that an emotion? Yes, but not one that controls them in a way that reason has lost control.

What about the Jedi? Is there any sense of which emotions are good and which not? Clearly fear, anger, and hate are bad. So is Anakin’s attachment to Padme. But isn’t Anakin’s attachment just love? So it seems positive and negative emotions can be bad.  But I think a case can be made that Anakin’s attachment to Padme is an obsession. He sees her after more than a decade and still think she’s going to marry her, while she barely considers him more than a child.  He’s right, but that’s not the point. He’s obsessed with someone who has little interest in him. Lucas told the story of how she changed on that extremely poorly if it was meant to show us how a mature and highly capable woman like the one was saw in The Phantom Menace would want to marry the arrogant, whiny Anakin whom she saw as a young child, but there’s no indication that Anakin stopped being immature in how he saw her during that courtship. (Perhaps he even managed to achieve it by using the Force to manipulate her to love him, whether deliberately or unconsciously. That would go a long way to explaining the most baffling story element of the prequels.)

Is it possible that the right balance in how to use the Force is to recognize that emotions can be good and proper while submitted to reason, but the Jedi might sometimes have gone overboard  in that by trying to avoid emotion entirely, while the Sith emphasized the negative emotions particularly and so were imbalanced in a different way? Qui-Gon Jinn may well be an example of one of the few Jedi to see things differently. Quite a number of his actions would be seen by a purist Jedi as on the border of acceptable behavior. He was willing to use deception and manipulation to accomplish his goals, as long as he was deceiving corrupt and dishonorable beings, and as long as the goal was worthy enough. He fully intended to train Anakin even if the Jedi Council forbade it. He was seen by many Jedi as a Gray Jedi, which was a term they used for Jedi they saw as walking too close to the Dark Side.

It’s quite possible that Obi-Wan eventually came around to this or maybe was just more influenced by his teacher all along, and so he would tell Luke to trust his feelings when the Yoda of the prequels would never do that. Yoda, at the end of the Clone Wars show, seems to have some breakthroughs after being visited by the Force Ghost of Qui-Gon, and perhaps his defeat at the hands of Sidious and his time on Dagobah also changed his views. I’d have to rewatch all that to see if what I’m suggesting actually fits.

But it does seem to me that it may well be a plausible interpretation of the Chosen One prophecy that Anakin was supposed to restore balance to the Force (meaning Light and Dark Sides) by destroying first the Jedi and then the Sith, to have a more balanced taken on things be pursued by his son Luke in the new Jedi Order. The entire Legends canon might fit that, even the Legacy comics that take place 125 years later, where a new Sith Order rises, destroys most of the Jedi, and the last Skywalker turns out to be a Gray Jedi, who then eliminates the Sith.

It remains to be seen if the new Disney stories will fit with this interpretation, of course. We know so little about Rey, Luke’s presumably self-imposed exile, the Knights of Ren, Supreme Leader Snoke, and where things will ultimately end up that I can’t even begin to think about these things just from two movies, a few seasons of a TV show, and a bunch of comics (most of which I’ve read) and novels (none of which I’ve read). But it seems to me to be a plausible interpretation of what Lucas intended, one that fits with all the canon stories as far as I know and most of what I know about the Legends canon too.

 

Chronicles of Narnia reading order

We were at the bookstore yesterday looking through the science fiction and fantasy section, and I decided to get the one-volume Chronicles of Narnia edition, given that several of ours are falling apart or not even around anymore, mostly because of the efforts of one particular child. Most annoyingly, it has the wrong order of the books, so I had to write the correct order in the table of contents so the kids know what order to read them in.

Now I have good friends who like to support the publisher’s chronological order for reading these books, and I don’t really hold it against them, but they’re simply wrong. The books should be read in the order of publication. Sometimes people point to a letter Lewis wrote suggesting that it can be read in chronological order, and there really are times when you can appeal to authorial intent to establish something in the canon of the fiction. For example, Dumbedore is gay and always was. How do we know that? The author said so. Period. She made the fiction, and she can tell us what’s true in it. It’s her intellectual property, and she has the right to say what’s true in her fiction.

But this is a separate question. Lewis was trying to dissolve a dispute between a mother and child about what order to read the books in, and the reason he gave was silly. Here is the letter he sent to the child who wrote to ask about this:

I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published. (Dorsett, Lyle (1995). Marjorie Lamp Mead, ed. C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children. Touchstone. ISBN 978-0-684-82372-0.) per Wikipedia

With all respect to Lewis as the author, this is a simply a terrible reason for reordering the books, and he as a literary critic should have known better. Not knowing that another book is coming later does not mean that it didn’t come later. So not planning out the whole series at once does not mean you can read them in any order. In fact, there are all sorts of literary reasons not to read them out of order.

There’s certainly a sense in which he’s right that you can read them in any order. He probably wrote each one as a standalone novel in that you could read each one by itself, without knowing of any of the others. But he also wrote them in a certain order, and he at least published them in the order they came out. Some of them may have been started before he published others and then published later. I believe he took longer to write some of them and came back to them after doing others. There are some crazy conspiracy theories out there about the order of the books and how they symbolize something to do with the planets in the solar system, and there’s no way that’s true. Lewis didn’t plan the series out. He just started writing each one after thinking the previous one might be the last.

Nevertheless, there are developments in the storyline that it makes literary sense to read in the order they were published. The publisher doesn’t get the five books of the main storyline wrong. The five books involving the Pevensie children and their cousin Eustace are in the right order in the publisher’s version. What they get wrong are books five and six in the publication order, which they move to spots one and three to try to pretend they’re doing it in chronological order. They’re actually not. The Magician’s Nephew really does take place first. But The Horse and His Boy does not take place third. It starts and ends before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is over. It may be the closest thing to a chronological order that you can get, but it’s not strictly speaking chronological.

And the Wikipeda page on the series does a nice job summarizing the literary arguments for preserving publication order, citing quite a number of Lewis commentators and literary critics about why his letter gets it wrong. You should be surprised when you get to the first mention of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, because you’re not supposed to know it’s a prequel about the creation of Narnia until you get to that mention very late in the book, and I think Lewis expected most readers to be very familiar with Narnia when they got to that from having read the rest of the series. The introduction to Narnia in the actual first book is much more wondrous and brings the reader into that world the same way Lucy was brought into it, which is a much better literary move than getting there by the book that was meant to explain how Narnia got there to an audience already very familiar with it.

The point about the first mention of Aslan in the first book is also excellent. You do know who Aslan is when you first get to him in book one if you’re already read the prequel, but the narrator then tells you that you don’t know who he is. Lewis was forgetting all the details of his own literary presentation when affirming this child’s reading order over his mother’s, and it’s literary malpractice.

I think it’s shameful that Harper Collins uses this poor reasoning as an excuse for their distortion of Lewis’ novels by publishing them in the wrong order, both in this collected volume and in their numbering of the individual novels, causing many new readers to read them in the wrong order. The vast majority of Lewis commentators disagree with them for doing so, and the one reason they give simply doesn’t hold up against the many reasons to encourage people to read them in publication order.

Parableman returns

I’ve taken over a year off of blogging, since my old blog stopped working.  It wouldn’t let me update anything, It’s just frozen, so I couldn’t even put up a post explaining what was happening. But I’ve got a new blog on the same server, and I can keep the old one online for whenever I need to link to something. There’s just a small difference in the URL.

As I’m setting this up, I’m not quite on top of things healthwise. I have a 100.6 degree temperature and an ear infection that was just diagnosed an hour or so ago, and I also have a large amount of grading to do in the next week, so I’m not about to write any major content right now or design the site the way I’d like. But the blog Parableman lives in this new form, and I’m excited to put at least something up. Maybe some stuff that does’t take as much thought will follow if I’m up to it and have time, but you can look forward to fresh content appearing here sometime in the near future.