Friday, January 11, 2019

Karl du Fresne: The bias you have when you don't know you have it


At the end of each year, dictionaries like to highlight significant new words or phrases that have entered the English language over the previous 12 months.

The Collins English Dictionary declared “single-use” its word of the year for 2018, a year when disposable plastic supermarket bags became a symbol of wasteful consumerism and environmental harm.

Observant readers will note that “single-use” is actually two words, but then so was “fake news”, which was Collins’ word of the year for 2017.

The Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017 was “youthquake”, which was defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”.

Oxford’s lexicographers chose it because of the role young voters played in that year’s British general election, which nearly delivered an upset victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Corbyn’s brand of cloth-cap socialism struck a chord with the impressionable young, who are not old enough to know that socialism always turns out badly.

Oxford’s choice for the year just ended was “toxic”, a word that cropped up in a variety of contexts. We had toxic relationships, toxic cultures, toxic waste, toxic chemicals and “toxic masculinity” – a feminist label for appalling male behaviour as perpetrated by the likes of Harvey Weinstein.

It can be seen from the above examples that the word of the year typically reveals something about the mood of the times. Others included “Brexit” (Collins, 2016) and “post-truth” (Oxford, same year).

Which leads me, in a roundabout way, to my own word of the year – except that, like Collins, I’ve cheated and gone for a phrase that consists of two words.

My phrase of the year is “unconscious bias”. This is something you’re guilty of if you’re white and middle-class, and more so if you’re male, able-bodied and heterosexual.

If you tick those boxes, you are automatically considered to hold an unconscious bias against people who are none of those things – in other words women, people of colour, people who identify as gay, lesbian or trans-gender, and those with disabilities.

At least this is what we’re told by people who promote the concept of unconscious bias. And we just have to accept that they must be right, because the essence of unconscious bias is that you don’t know you have it.

Most New Zealanders may think of themselves as fair-minded, tolerant and full of goodwill toward their fellow human beings, but those who accuse them of unconscious bias know better. They know that beneath our smug complacency, most of us seethe with malice and are determined to maintain our status in society by crushing those less privileged.

The genius of the phrase “unconscious bias” is that people who are accused of harbouring it can’t deny it, because by definition they’re unaware of it. They are expected to stare shame-facedly at the floor and admit they’re guilty even though they never realised it.

In fact the act of denying guilt may serve to confirm it. At a seminar on hate speech last year, I heard one speaker assert that “the heartbeat of racism is denial”. In other words, if you deny you’re racist, you probably are. In this topsy-turvy, Kafka-esque world, you’re condemned either way.

While logic dictates that there probably is such a thing as unconscious bias, I believe its grip on society is grossly overstated, the aim being to heap guilt and shame on white middle-class people so that they meekly comply with activists’ demands for special treatment of supposedly oppressed minority groups.

Of course, unconscious bias wasn’t the only new term we had to get our heads around in 2018. Another was the adjective “woke”, which derives from “awake” and came into common usage as a result of America’s Black Lives Matter movement. If you’re “woke”, you’re alert to racism and social justice issues.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the political insult du jour is to call someone a gammon.  An English term for ham, gammon is used to refer to pale-skinned men on the conservative side of politics who supposedly resemble pigs.

“Gammon” is closely related to the phrase “stale, pale and male”, which was also frequently heard in 2018.  All other stereotypes based on sex, age and skin colour are strictly forbidden, but older white men are the one demographic group that it’s okay – in fact almost mandatory – to disparage.

But at least this ideological contradiction throws up the occasional humorous irony, as exemplified by the impeccably “woke” Auckland columnist who wrote a furious rant about pale, stale males only months after turning 60 himself.

Either it was an unconscious expression of self-loathing, or he somehow imagines he’s been sprinkled with fairy dust which renders him magically exempt from the label. 

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of the Dominion-Post. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz

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