Biases and Arguments

A Political Rally in Bhopal, MP India

I am biased. About many things. I have preferences, opinions, perspectives, notions, lenses, view-points and point-of-views. I think most of us, if not all, are biased in one way or another, but I do not speak for most of us here. I only speak for myself. And I am biased.

Am I proud of my biases? Am I ashamed of them? Neither. They are just like my hands and feet: a part of me that I spend very little time thinking about. They’re just there. Just as there is physical pain when I hurt my hands or feet, there is mental anguish when I dent my biases. Just as my hands and feet are slowly changing as I grow older, so are my biases.

A bias can be rationalized to an extent, but it is not inherently rational. Why do I prefer soft country music to loud club dance music? I could try to argue about it, but given an intelligent enough opponent we could go on forever and still not convince the other. It is an irrational choice.1

Choice is the ultimate expression of free will. Of volition, of desire, of taste, of consciousness. It is what separates Man2 from Beast. But sometimes choice is also the expression of a compulsion. One might choose to spend a Friday evening cleaning one’s apartment, even when other, more entertaining, opportunities await outside. Yet, if one’s sense of life demands cleanliness of habitat, then that sense can compel one’s choices.

In either case, the choices one makes can tell you a lot about that person. Your choices can tell you a lot about yourself. Because in the end, it is not our talents, but our choices that define us.3 They are as much a part of you as your inherent DNA and incidental body.4 And choices lead to biases.

Bias is thus an integral part of the self. In fact, when I think of what divides my self from others, what makes me special and unique and me, I think a little my background and my school and my job, but I think a lot of my music, and my films, and my books, and my games, and my love of typography, my love of information both in textual and visual forms, my love of software and interacting with software, what foods I like and what smells I love and which places I remember, how much I hate reality TV and high-pitched nasal voices and sweets that you can’t taste in the tongue but can in the throat5 and hipsters and piercings and mehndi and bad, bad, bad modern Indian music and fanaticism over sports and people who don’t think for themselves and all Physical Education teachers from middle school. None of these, taken separately, are particularly unique. But taken together, in just the right amounts, paints on an almost objective canvas a picture of my subjective self.

And thus, bias can be a good thing, inasmuch it can help define your subjective self. If you’re a modern day hip software developer, you might prefer saying you’re opinionated,6 but at the end of the day it’s just bias plain and simple. Knowing how you are biased can teach you more about yourself. It can also teach you to relate better to others, since once you know that you are biased, you now have an outside7 scale to measure ideas with, and you can see how others are biased, and try to find a way to resolve that.

It is important to be aware of one’s biases because they can weaken one’s ability to communicate effectively. In particular, it can weaken one’s ability to argue. Argument and agreement are the two primary means of intellectual intercourse between individuals. Sharing a bias can make agreeing very easy. Not sharing a bias is imperative to argument, yet to be unaware of these biases can make the argument very difficult and futile.

Some might say I like to argue. I certainly do a fair amount of it. I’d much rather spend my time agreeing than arguing, more time loving than fighting.8 Alas, not everyone shares my biases and we don’t always agree on things. Furthermore, I’m interested in the Truth, and one often needs rationality and reason to uncover it. Arguments are the bread and butter of rationality, and thus I use them in pursuit of the Truth.9

The purpose of arguing can be manipulative, when one tries to convince the other of a certain agenda, or it can be innocent, when one tries to use the discourse as a means to discover a common, mutually agreeable truth. In both cases, it helps to have good arguments to seek the goal.10

But if biases weaken one’s arguments, and knowing you are biased can weaken your confidence in your ability to argue your cause, why would I suggest that you learn your biases?

Because only when one understands their weaknesses can one work to mend them. Once you know that you are biased, you are aware that there is a difference in the mainstream, politically correct, generally accepted, “right”11 way of thinking, and your way of thinking. You’re off-center, and with growing awareness about yourself, you can see just how off center you are. Once you know that, you can start correcting the course of your arguments. You can offer better, more acceptable, more relate-able, less offensive, more convincing, stronger arguments.

Stronger arguments are valuable in the first (manipulative) case, because the stronger your arguments the more likely you are to convince your target. But since convincing is the only goal, one’s actual biases don’t matter: all that matters is the appearance, the perception of objectivity and sensibility. When creating a persona to play the role of the convincer, one must eliminate any sign of bias, since the mark cannot be lured into trusting you if they can obviously see your bias. In order for me to manipulate you, I must put on a flashy show that directs your attention everywhere except my bias, which will betray my true intent. In this case, the argument is for the benefit12 of the opponent. The outcome of a manipulative argument is rarely positive, since it is an antagonistic and competitive activity. One party will win and the other will lose.13

Stronger arguments are also valuable in the second (innocent) case, because the stronger your arguments the closer you are to the Truth, or at least to a mutually agreeable consensus. Here, bias plays a more interesting role. Since bias is such an integral part of the Self, and an innocent argument is sincere and honest in its search for the Truth, one must be up-front and honest about one’s own bias. Here the bias can help drive  and guide the argument. You are genuinely interested in the veracity of your bias, so that either you may prove and validate it, or become educated and begin correcting it. In this case the argument is for the benefit of yourself.

In order for the innocent argument to work, it is important to not lose sight of the point being argued. If the participants jump from point to point, if they keep changing the subject of the argument just as they are cornered, then know that it is no longer an innocent argument, since it is now competitive rather than cooperative. The participants here are not ready to face their biases, they are afraid to accept that they are biased, and they lack the knowledge of the self which allows one to accept one’s biases.

The outcome of a truly innocent argument is always positive, since it is a cooperative activity. Either one party convinces the other of the validity of their argument and the other accepts it, or they reach a point of disagreement. Reaching a point of disagreement is an incredibly valuable part of civil discussion. On one hand it shows you that you agree with the other person on so many things, except these few ones that you disagree about. And on the other it deepens your understanding of yourself and of the other person, because now you are aware of the biases, and that allows you to better see their and your subjective selves in contrast.

So far we’ve seen how biases work in isolation, and how they work in an argument. We assumed that the interaction between biases and agreement is much simpler, since if you share a bias then you agree by default. But it isn’t always so simple.

Since biases are vague and irrational and subjective and changing, two people can never really have a perfect overlap. There will always be parts that one finds endearing and the other revolting. Bias is a double edged sword: while it does help define one self, part of this definition requires a distinction between one self and others. Thus, the better defined one is, the further they are from the rest. Loving your self automatically pushes others away.

Bias, for all its glory and achievement, is thus a burden which can deter agreement. And finding agreement is important, since it is an integral part of intellectual intercourse. Knowledge of my intellectual partner’s biases can help me better understand their message, since I can filter them out and negate their influence. Thus, even if they are unaware of their own bias, or unable to properly account for it, I can help move the conversation along by discounting it for them.

This is how people can and do get along, despite being biased. They do so by purposefully ignoring each other’s bias. They decide that it doesn’t matter. They decide that they love each other more than they hate the other’s bias. They forgive and forget, and move on.

If bias is an ill, then empathy is its medicine.

The next time you start or join an argument, think about your stance and what it says about yourself. Think about other’s and what it says about them. And when you do understand other’s bias, would you rather call them out, invalidate their argument and expose their deviant ways to the world? Or would you rather use that understanding to clean up their argument in your head, extract the signal of their message from the noise of their bias, and help ease their burden? Would you rather cooperate or compete?

Each argument is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to refine, and also to forgive, to understand, to empathize. Remembering this can help preserve our innocence.

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