Thursday, March 18, 2010

Only an Idiot

BIAS 1 : a line diagonal to the grain of a fabric; especially : a line at a 45 degree angle to the selvage often utilized in the cutting of garments for smoother fit 2 : a peculiarity in the shape of a bowl that causes it to swerve when rolled on the green in lawn bowling 3 : an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice. Webster’s Online.

It sounds like an excellent idea. These ideas usually do. None of us can really know what it’s like to be a Native American, so we should just let the Native Americans speak for themselves. Likewise, no white person (with the possible exception of John Howard Griffin) can really know what it’s like to have been black in the 1960’s. No man should presume to speak about what women want (sorry, Chaucer) and no heterosexual can presume to understand homosexuality. Children are eternally puzzled by adults, who have themselves long averred that children are mysteries.

It sounds like a good idea, and oftentimes it is. It is only charity to reserve judgment on those one either does not know or does not understand. “Don’t criticize a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes”—so goes the saying. The charity of this statement is weft with a certain wry pragmatism. Judge one to others and you’ll soon be judged one yourself. There is something attractive to the historian or journalist in the notion of hearing a tale from the horse’s mouth, without the contamination of intervening Dr. Dolittles. There is something sensible in the advice to the fledgling writer to write about what he knows—that is, to write people based on himself and those with whom he has lived and worked, believable fictions and not caricatures. There is something loathsome in the idea, the mere idea, of a government or a society that will not let groups of its citizens speak for themselves. There is something silly about a philosopher drunk on Berkeley or Whitehead trying, with hopes of success, to get inside the head of an African Bushman. Certainly nobody expects the Bushman to be able to comment adequately on the philosopher. They are both biased by their lack of common experience.

That lack of experience creates bias may sound odd. We tend to accuse men of male chauvinism because they are men; a more apt reason for the accusation would be the fact that they are not women. Likewise there is nothing inherent in being a twentieth century American that makes understanding or sympathizing with an eleventh century Roman difficult; the real difficulty arises from not having been the eleventh century Roman. In the rare cases where a person can claim to have experienced being what he is not (Griffin becomes black; the Greek poet becomes a woman; Reginald Swithin becomes a child) one is inclined to believe what they have to say.

This makes the exceptions to the walk-in-their-shoes rule all the stranger. There are certain experiences which people undergo that make us less likely to credit them. We are not likely to believe a quondam materialist when he says he has seen a ghost—unless, of course, we happen to have seen the ghost too, in which case we feel that the materialist’s testimony has great weight. Likewise, converts to any great cause or religion are generally viewed with pity rather than confidence by those whom they have left behind. (Witness some reactions to the semi-conversion of Antony Flew.) These modern biases against the numinous—the last respectable biases—appear all the stranger when we consider that the ancients had biases in precisely the opposite direction. They had to force themselves to charity, not in the case of the Voodoo practitioner or the Catholic, but in the case of the atheist. More often than not they didn’t bother to force themselves, and real or suspected atheists like Socrates and Anaxagoras had a hard time of it. One wonders what it is about religion that makes tolerance in either direction so hard.

But the truly enlightened among us do tolerate religious belief and disbelief with the same distant reserve and lenience. There are very few things we will not tolerate, few things we consider beyond the pale. Cannibalism, slavery, and the abuse of women, children, and the insane come to mind. Yet strangely enough there have been societies that engaged in all these practices with more or less official regularity. One wonders how they could have missed seeing their own inhumanity . . . and one wonders what we are missing.

The best consequence of contemplating the things beyond the pale, however, is the revelation that the notion of bias is ultimately senseless. Only the most shameless moral relativist among us (but there are more of these than we like to realize) will admit that the cannibal, the abusive husband, and the slave-owner have “their legitimate point of view.” Point of view, yes indeed; and we will psychoanalyze them to uncover the guilt behind their shamelessness all day long; but we will not accept that their history or culture legitimize their actions. Our sympathy will be almost all for the victims; our bias will be entirely in the victims’ favor.

I will not say—it would not be true—that every case is so clear cut. I will not say that, in a disagreement between a white and a black or a man and a woman, there is a “right answer” or “right side”, that is, a side to which the other, feeling itself biased, ought to always concede. Certainly there are no such sides in the universal, and I rather doubt there are even any in particular cases. The corollary is unavoidable. If we are not to surrender—if my brothers are not to defer to my feminine judgment, or I to my friend’s black judgment, at least not on every occasion—and do not the very phrases “black judgment” and “feminine judgment” sound a little silly?—then we must admit that we presume in ourselves some ability to judge the reasonableness of another’s point of view. We will make many concessions for our own blindness, but ultimately we think that we can, in fact, judge others. We might as well be honest in the admission. We do it all the time.

Only an idiot sticks his hand in the fire to find out whether it is hot.

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