Thursday, February 21, 2008

No Bias - No Communication

(This post starts political but moves linguistic/psychological, so stick with it a bit if you like the latter and hate the former.)

Due to it being political season, I've been wandering The Moderate Voice political blog more, and one thing I've noticed is that I, and everyone, recognize offensive or unfair comments made towards their own points of view far more readily than they realize the same thing about a different point of view. Whenever someone goes off about liberals or leftists or university professors indoctrinating the youth, I notice it and feel the stereotyping going on. Others are trying to label points of view or people so that they can all be shoved to the corner and disregarded. One doesn't have to think about the idea, if you can shove it off as as something the crazy crowd believes. I'm off-put when I see this and make some comment about treating others as individuals with beliefs and thoughts rather than as an example of some label. However, I'm quite aware that when people go off about the Right and conservative and Republicans, I only notice some of it and get upset about it less.

This is no great realization, of course. It's normal old bias. We get upset about unfair treatment of our team and ignore unfair treatment of the other team.

As such, the first inclination is to condemn it. We should be looking for fairness for all, not just those we identify with. However, my realization today is that I don't think we could even speak to each other if we didn't have a bias like this. Or to put it differently, our inherent ability to communicate naturally creates these biases.

Time to explain.

Language has at least two main purposes: it allows us to speak to ourselves consciously and it allows us to speak to others. Focusing on the second, language is a way to transfer experiences from one head to another head. The speaker has some idea rolling around in her head and she transfers it to the hearer by speaking. You can almost think of it as an experiment. The hearer is standing there and the speaker performs some actions, for speech she moves her lungs and lips and tongue, and the hearer is changed - she has a new feeling or thought she would not have had otherwise. It's cause and effect, where the speaker's goal is to create a certain effect in the other person. This effect might be knowing what time the speaker's plane arrives, passing the salt, making the hearer like the speaker more, and a million other things. I'm doing it to all of you right now through the written word. Creating new experiences in you that you would not have had if I left you alone. (This by the way is also my philosophical aesthetics of art -- art is an experience machine.)

By the way, it's not too late! You can stop my manipulation of you by hitting the back button. But wait, I will have caused you to hit the back button, so you are still my plaything. I guess there's no way to escape it; might as well keep reading.

Now for me to get the plane-arrival-time bit of experience into your head absolutely requires that you know a billion and one things already. You have to speak the same language, of course, which involves you knowing our language's grammar, its semantics, its sound patterns, its pragmatics, and more. You must also know about planes and clocks and, if I want you to pick me up, roads and transportation and traffic lights and just an entire world of knowledge. You must know all of this already. If not, when I say, "It gets in at 7:30," it will create a completely different experience in you than I wish to create, mostly bewilderment. We must share a million experiences and beliefs or there is no communication.

But what I've just described is essentially a bias. I assume you believe what I do about clocks and time, so I don't defend it. I assume you think the way I do about the responsibilities of friends to pick each other up at airports. I assume that you know I want to be picked up just because you usually pick me up, so I only have to tell you when. I assume you will meet me at baggage claim without discussing it because everyone knows you meet in the baggage claim area. None of this need be defended.

Returning to a political conversation, when someone else says that maintaining the national debt is costing us too much money, since I share the point of view, I don't question it. I don't question supporting the legalization of gay marriage; I don't question criticizing the attacks lately on the rights of habeas corpus; and on and on. It's not just that I might be wrong about some of these things (perhaps one could argue that the deficit's percentage of GDP is sustainable, for instance), it's that the other people's ideas aren't really noticed. They roll off your back because you already hold them. It's only when an idea comes in that you don't hold that you truly notice it and assess its merits. The result is that beliefs you hold aren't analyzed with the same standards as beliefs you don't hold.

The linguistic point of all this is that assuming the beliefs of others are shared and not always up for debate is fundamental for communication to occur. If we weren't biased in this sense to our culture, our experiences, and our ingrained beliefs, culture would break down.

Most bad things result from good ones extended.


Precie said...

Great explanation! Great way of approaching the concept of bias!

pacatrue said...

Thanks, precie.

Great comment! :)