Month: October 2017

Bias: You’re Using It Wrong

I just remembered that I wrote this for the incoming composition students at the University of The Bahamas. (The faculty puts together a booklet of articles/resources for the comp classes.) It came out of not only what I saw as an overuse of the word, but also the tendency to use “bias” to shut down arguments completely. It reminds me of how “fake news” is used to dismiss conversations and points to what seems to be a growing problem of not talking to each other but at each other. 

You have probably been taught that you should not start an essay with a dictionary definition. This is correct, but there are exceptions to every rule. And in this case, my entire essay is about the definition of the word bias. Therefore, I would like to start with the Merriam Webster definition of the word, which is “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.” The dictionary then gives prejudice as a synonym for the word. This definition is important because in our contemporary usage the second part of this definition is often overlooked. Bias has come to mean that the writer has an argument or a point of view. You might have been asked to critique an essay or argument in class and have come to the conclusion, “This essay is biased.” This is not what bias is. In order to explain the proper usage of the word, I would like to emphasize the interconnected parts of the definition; bias relates to having a viewpoint on the issue, but it is not merely to take a position on a subject. It means that you have a position that might be based on personal thoughts and understandings but isn’t based on facts. Instead your “outlook” might be a result of “unreasoned judgment.” Bias, then, is not just when an article that you are reading in class has a particular slant or angle. The use of the word should be reserved for an argument whose judgment is clouded because the author is unwilling to look at the other sides of the matter. It is imperative to understand these differences because this knowledge will allow you to be as precise as possible in your language choices.

Now, this might sound like a pedantic argument. You might even be thinking that everyone basically knows what I mean when I say the word bias, so why should I care? The first argument against this kind of thinking is the one I just made above: you do not want to ballpark your language choices. Words have specific definitions, and you want to use them as accurately as possible. However, if you are not convinced by the argument that you are simply doing it wrong—we mix up disinterested and uninterested all the time and our planet survives—I have another argument to make. This argument is that we use the term biased, so we do not have to engage with ideas that the article or author is putting forth. Calling something biased has a way of shutting out debate. We think that if something is biased then it is not worth engaging with. This is a dangerous tendency both in and outside of the classroom.

In the classroom, your lecturers want you to think about other people’s ideas on a deep level. This means you cannot dismiss arguments out of hand. Instead of shutting down ideas by calling them biased, you should be trying to engage with them and think about the nuances of the arguments. What do you specifically agree with, and what do you specifically find contrary to your perspective? On how deep of a level can you interact with the text? For example, do you find a point in paragraph three particularly convincing but think the author gets sidetracked later in the essay? When your lecturers ask you to analyze an argument, this is how focused they want your analysis to be, and this is the kind of analysis that declaring something biased avoids.

The argument here about nuance is not just one that applies to academic situations. We also have terribly superficial arguments in everyday life. If you have ever been told, “because I said so,” you are familiar with the level of discourse in many of the arguments we have on a regular basis. Saying “because I said so” is not the same thing as calling someone’s work biased, but it comes from the same desire—to stop the conversation, to win by refusing to engage. This does us a disservice because we don’t get to have complicated conversations. We say, “yes, no, I told you so” and move on. The lack of depth in conversation changes our society. If you cannot talk about complicated issues, how are you going to fully participate in civil society? How can you justify your vote? Your support of a law? A decision about your career or your personal life? The use of bias is just a symptom of a larger problem. You need to be able to justify your positions and your arguments without simply dismissing other people’s point of view.

That the word biased gets thrown around without clear understanding of its meaning is not just my pet peeve. This is demonstrated by an article that the activist and writer, Shaun King, felt the need to write on the issue. In fact, King devoted an entire essay in his New York Daily News column to the discussion of being biased. It is clear that the genesis for this column was people routinely describing him using that term. King writes about progressive issues, has been very vocal about racism in the United States, and is actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. An easy argument to make against King is that he only writes from one perspective and is, therefore, biased. One might expect for King to argue that he is not biased in this essay; however, instead of refuting that he is, he takes up the word to show why he makes the arguments that he does. King writes, “I want to be very clear here—I am biased” and then follows that up by explaining how he derives his perspective. He argues in part, “Every single word I write is informed by where I come from, the joyful highs and painful lows of my past…the community I care about and my very personal hopes and dreams for this crazy world we all call home.” King goes on to examine other instances of pain and injustice that he has seen and experienced and how they relate to his point of view. His argument is that his past informs his perspective, which is why he is not worried about being called biased. King is making a deliberate rhetorical move in this essay. He is taking a word that people use against him and reclaiming it. He is turning the argument on its head to emphasize that his positions come from his own experience.

While I appreciate the rhetorical work that King is doing in his column, I will still assert that having a perspective and supporting that perspective with quality evidence is not biased at all but rather the bedrock of argument. I wish that King didn’t have to write this essay because the rest of us understood that only being dismissive is cheap argument that indicates more about your willingness to consider a point of view than it does about the actual claims being made. However, that he does have to make this argument points to my issue with our use of the word. Critics say that King is biased as a way of not having to deal with or critically examine his arguments. Bias acts as a defense mechanism, which allows people to offer surface-level critiques.

What should we do with this information? I am not trying to tell you that you can never use the word. What I do want you to do is when you have the urge to say that a piece of writing or an argument is biased really think about the word you are about to use. Do you think the argument is biased? Do you mean that the author or speaker is unwilling or not interested in looking at the other sides of the issue? If so, feel free to use the word. If not, think about what you are trying to say and say that.

Works Cited

“Bias.” Merriam Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bias,

Accessed 10 May 2017.

King, Shaun. “I’ll Never Make Anyone Guess Where I Stand on an Issue.” New York Daily

      News, 7 Dec. 2016,  http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-guess-stand-

issue-article-1.2902085.

Questions:

  • What was your relationship to the word biased before reading this article? How does (or does not) the essay change your understanding of the word?
  • The author discusses using a dictionary definition to start an essay. Even though she says it is a cliché, she still uses it. Brainstorm at least two other ways that she could have begun this essay.
  • What is the writer’s tone in this piece? Do you feel that the tone helps or hinders the message?
  • Is there a word or phrase that you hear people use that you wish they didn’t (either because they are misusing it or because you don’t find it to be fitting for what is being described)? If so, explain what you would say to someone to convince them to use the word/phrase differently.
  • What have you learned about academic argument so far in this course or in your other college courses? How does your knowledge about academic argument help you understand this piece?
  • Describe a recent discussion or argument you had with your friends or family. What kinds of arguments were made? How did people successfully get their point across? How could the discussion have gone better?
  • The author calls King’s use of the word bias a rhetorical move. What does she mean by this?
  • Will you change your use of the word biased after reading this piece? Explain why or why not.
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