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.