Implicit and Explicit Bias

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It was one of those moments when my Arab-Muslim students in the Sultanate of Oman sought validation from me that the world need not fear Muslims.  During a class discussion I made a sarcastic comment that I ought to shave my beard prior to my next visit to the US, so that I could avoid looking like one of those shady Muslim characters, the ones Americans frequently see on the front pages of newspapers and news broadcasts on TV.  One of my students wondered if I needed to worry about going bearded to the US, because it seemed to her that beards have become fashionable in recent years.

People tend to form instantaneous impressions of each other from that first glance of a face, which plays a part in the composite first impressions we have of each other based on various factors.  A bond or affinity towards someone, or closer to the opposite, an apprehension or dislike of them, may take on its’ subtle influence as we set our eyes on each other’s faces.

This pesky human tendency goes against the ethical imperative that we should not judge each other by our covers; instead, our ethics should guide us towards putting a check on this tendency. Humans seem to need perpetual reminding to do so, regardless of how far a particular society has made progress towards making this ethic a strong part of their moral fabric.  In the US we’re taught to put a check on making generalizations that may veer too much towards making false assumptions about people.  We’re told that despite what our faces are like, we should see ourselves as one and the same, citizens of the same country sharing the same culture and identity.  This noble ideal is inculcated in us through several means: for example, passing through a good liberal arts education.

But the struggle to live up to this ideal carries on, with varying degrees of success.  During one of this season’s presidential debates Hillary Clinton said that all Americans have “implicit bias”, and that we must guard ourselves against it so that we don’t stoke the flames of hatred and divisiveness.  Clinton later proclaimed that America is “great because it is good”, which in my estimate relates to the fact that one of our exceptional attributes is that we take our aspiration for a truly pluralistic and just society seriously, which is evidenced by the progress we’ve made on expanding the field of rights and liberty for more of our citizens, and indeed, for people around the world.

Putting a check on our implicit biases is a challenging task in and of itself, with the continual renewal of self-reflection and self-criticism that it involves.  This is an especially critical task as we have been witnessing a growing tide of nativist and xenophobic politics in the very countries that have been world leaders in multicultural and democratic practices.  We must ensure that we don’t enable explicit bias to be encouraged and accepted in our public discourse and political aspirations.

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