(Apologies to Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith)
“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”
~ Jonathan Swift
As a regulator, I was often criticized for being biased and letting that bias prejudice my decisions. Of course, it was always the people who disliked my decision that expressed that view. In their opinion, the outcome determined whether I was fair or not.
It’s a human trait, this bias to consider the things that we agree with to be fair, but those we disagree with to be slanted in some way, prejudiced. It can be a matter of pride. I know plenty of New England Patriots fans that don’t consider their team to be cheaters, even though that has been demonstrated several times. (Hmmm … Am I showing bias?)
The same is true in politics, and in most areas where opinions differ.
Experience has shown me that you have to understand your bias in order to make an unbiased decision. Everyone has an opinion – the old adage, “opinions and assholes – everybody’s got one,” is accurate (at least as far as opinions go). The hard part is not letting your opinion interfere with a balanced assessment of the situation. (It’s also wise to avoid assholes.)
Certainly, it is appropriate to learn from your experiences, in fact, that’s another old adage: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” We talk about how you get experience by making mistakes. Early in my career I ran a big project that had lots of problems, undoubtedly some that I caused. At the end, I was called into the Director’s office. I asked if he wanted me to resign. “Hell no,” he replied, “we just invested in a lot of experience for you. Now, take what you learned and go on to the next project.” (Now that’s a good manager!)
Prejudice can be artificial or intentional. Back in the early 90’s, Newt Gingrich drafted a national Republican platform calling for the total polarization of every possible issue so that Republican positions would be distinct from the Democrats’. Over time it became important for Republicans to argue against anything the Democrats proposed, and even led to Congress blocking anything done by the Democratic President, including Republican ideas. It wasn’t a new strategy and we still see it in play in politics in general. However, this approach exemplifies the issue of bias and prejudice – decisions based not on the merits of a case, but on unrelated factors that could include politics, bigotry, misogyny, religion or just plain ol’ orneriness.
“It is a well-known fact that reality has liberal bias.”
~ Stephen Colbert
Being something of a curmudgeon myself (I consider that I’ve earned my opinions), I understand how hard it is to step away from your bias to avoid prejudice and make a balanced determination. I have worked with, for and against a wide variety of special interest entities, but my job has always been to provide scientifically-defensible and regulatory-compliant information or solutions. I often could express my personal opinions separate from my professional ones, but tried to clarify the distinction.
The real trouble comes when you cannot recognize or manage your biases. For most everyday issues, it doesn’t matter. However, there are times when being able to suspend your biases is important. I once lost a friend whose strong opinions about a given political party were constantly employed to try to change mine and others’ minds about various issues. My original attempt to argue, then ignore his rants led to open hostility.
No one is perfect, we are each only human, whether regulator, politician, a writer or a person. E.B. White wrote, “All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.”
Since we are not ‘perpendicular’, we can earn and enjoy our biases, but we also should know and own them. And, it is important to understand that others’ biases may not align with yours. We each have different experiences, and we’ve each earned our biases through those different experiences.
In fact, that’s what makes life interesting — different views, different experiences, different interactions. Earn your opinions and try to be ‘perpendicular’, knowing that it’s impossible. But, just don’t be an asshole.