If you want to learn about how you are programmed go and take one of the Implicit Association Tests. It carries a warning with each test that you might find the results upsetting. It’s a good warning. I’ve done two tests. One for Muslims, and one for women and careers.
I got the same score on both: moderately biased. I am moderately biased against Muslims and moderately biased in terms of agreeing that career=male and family=female.
This is how the test works. Imagine I have a couple of sets of words on cards. One set has words like: wedding, relative, professional, office; and another set has names on it: Emily, John, etc. Now imagine there are a couple of boxes. The test asks you to throw words into the right box. That’s easy enough when the box has one label on it like female or male and you are given the set of cards with names on it, but when you are given both sets of cards and the boxes have two labels: female/career and male/family (or visa versa) then it takes a moment before you sort the card.
Part way through the second test on gender roles I could feel what was happening as I assigned words to categories as fast as I could. It was harder to quickly sort career words to the career/female names category, than it was in the next round when the category was male names/career. The grooves in my brain are worn that way. Consciously I don’t have this bias, but implicitly I do. Implicitly it is easier for my brain to think man=job and women=family.
Which says a lot about language and culture (and me), but also feeds into the debate about bias in whatever societal system you want to look at. The person who came up with this test is Mahzarin Banaji and she was interviewed in On Being. She introduces a riddle.
A father and son are in a car accident. The father dies, and the son is rushed to hospital. The operating surgeon sees the boy and says “I can’t operate on this boy; he’s my son”. How can this be if the father died in the car crash?
Like 80% of people I couldn’t think of the answer.*
Banaji says it’s like there’s a firewall in our heads that operates even if our own experiences contradict the linguistic and cultural trap that this riddle exposes. Our implicit cultural formations are monolithic, and when you fight against them it can feel like you’re trying to do something abnormal like pat your head and rub your tummy.
When I was teaching English in Japan I remember learning about connotations, and how some words strongly connect to each other by association. Connotations tell you a lot about culture, and the implicit association test (and the riddle) play on this hidden habit of the mind that guides us. Making a dissonance here where there was once a consonance is hard. Is it even possible in a world of media saturation and visual and textual associations that tend to simplify and work towards established tropes?
Think about how hard it is to not associate Islam and Muslims with terrorism. My own experiences with Muslims are a powerful counter to this, but if you have no contact with Muslims then think about how you are informed about them. The constant drum beat of media images is solidifying and reconfirming that negative connotation. To the extent that even I, with my countless positive experiences with Muslims, come out on the Implicit Association Test as moderately biased against Muslims. The only real antidote is to continue friendships, and learn more, and try harder, and read more stories that aren’t about terrorism and are about regular life for Muslim people. Non interacting co-existence doesn’t do anything to change the connotations.
Do not pretend, I say, if you live in [Newtown] or [Berhampore] that just because you live in a diverse city that you are now protected. In fact, you might be worse off.
People often celebrate the school where I teach for its diversity, but the simple fact of diversity is not enough to change thinking of the “other”; you need to construct moments of bridging. Over the last few months I’ve become a bit weary and wary of the words diversity and tolerance. Actual tolerance (not just “putting up with”) means some understanding, and the only way to get that is to manufacture opportunities to have a safe space to increase understanding. It doesn’t happen by accident.
As I have discovered.
*The surgeon is the boy’s mother.