BLIND BIASES 2

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Second in a four-part series on BLIND BIASES 2 by Harry L. Strong

If you joined me for “Biases 1,” welcome back!

If you didn’t, you may be wondering: “So then, why should I keep reading?

Not a Problem. Let me “catch you up” in a hurry.

“People can’t see what they can’t see.”  Brian D. McLaren

Catching Up

Author, activist, and public theologian Brian D. McLaren has created a remarkably helpful way of assisting us in understanding what makes us see things so differently from one another.  McLaren has identified thirteen (13) biases that contribute to the way people view life and the world and lead them to such polarizing conclusions from one another.  For our convenience, he has managed to categorize them, each beginning with the letter “C.”  

Previously, we took a quick look at how McLaren labels Biases 1 through 5: Confirmation Bias; Complexity Bias; Community Bias; Complementarity Bias; & Competency Bias.  In a moment we’ll consider Biases 6-9.  I’ll choose one and tell you what I learned about myself as I considered my own reflection in my “Bias Mirror.”  Then, if you so choose, you may do the same.  Chances are, we’ll be much more charitable and effective in inviting another into a conversation about why we view a topic so differently if we’ve tried to remove our own “blinders” first.

A Conversation with Larry

But before I share with you Brian’s second set of Biases, let me tell you about a brief conversation I had with a neighbor last week.  While I was out walking my dog, I ran into Larry who asked me what I’d been up to lately.  I told him I was writing a series of articles about “Biases.”  Can you guess what he said next?  “I’m not biased or prejudiced about anything.  I have my opinions and my perspectives, but I try to be as objective as possible about everything!”

I don’t think Larry is alone.  I’m guessing most folks become defensive if someone insinuates they are biased or prejudiced.  The conversation prompted me to come home and “ask Mr. Webster” [1} how he would define all four of Larry’s words.  Here’s what I learned:

Bias: “a mental leaning or inclination; partiality; bent.”

Prejudice: “a judgment or opinion formed before the facts are known (or in disregard of facts that contradict it); preconceived idea, favorable, or, more usually, unfavorable; unreasonable bias.”

Opinion: “a belief not based on absolute certainty or positive knowledge but on what seems true, valid, or probable to one’s own mind.”

Perspective: “a specific point of view in understanding or judging things or events, especially one that shows them in their true relations to one another.”

Fascinating!  I couldn’t help but notice the phrase “unreasonable bias” in the definition of prejudice.  That would seem to suggest that there IS such a thing as reasonable bias.”  Granted, most of us, as we ponder our conclusions about life and the world, are far more comfortable with the less judgmental and less inflammatory terms “opinion” and “perspective.”

McLaren’s Biases Six through Nine

            I’ve likely devoted far too much time to this little grammar-aside.  Let’s invite Brian McLaren back to the lectern to tell us about Biases 6 through 9 that he has identified.

Consciousness Bias: Some things simply can’t be seen from where I am right now.  But if I keep growing, maturing, and developing, someday I will be able to see what is now inaccessible to me.

Comfort or Complacency Bias: I prefer not to have my comfort disturbed.

Conservative/Liberal Bias: I lean toward nurturing fairness and kindness, or towards strictly enforcing purity, loyalty, liberty, and authority, as an expression of my political identity.

Confidence Bias: I am attracted to confidence, even if it is false.  I often prefer the bold lie to the hesitant truth. [2]

            I’m choosing to confess what I perceive to be the most potentially controversial and explosive bias of the four: Conservative/Liberal Bias.  I concede, without apology, that I bring a “Liberal Bias” to my keyboard.  Having said that, I want to underscore McLaren’s phrase “lean toward.”  (Remember, Mr. Webster used the same term.)  To quote my neighbor, Larry, in trying to be “as objective as possible,” the Conservative/Liberal Bias definition may seem to imply that if I champion fairness and kindness, I discount, purity, loyalty, liberty, and authority OR that if I focus my attention on purity, loyalty, liberty, and authority, I’m unfair and unkind!  Remember, McLaren is about building bridges, not walls!   He clarifies this point in Chapter 24 on Conservative/Liberal Bias, when he discusses how Jesus might have wrestled with this issue:  “Jesus neither absolutized nor ignored the four primarily conservative moral values, but instead, he included them and integrated them with the values of fairness and kindness, or justice and compassion … all in service of love.” 

            It’s BOTH/AND – not EITHER/OR!  Again, it’s “lean toward.”  It’s a matter of “where do you put the accent?” 

My Conservative/Liberal Bias

I spend a lot more time viewing CNN and MSNBC than I do watching Fox News or the 700 Club.  I subscribe to Christian Century and Sojourners.  I do not subscribe to Christianity Today or Christian Living.  I realize that puts me at odds with a number of my sisters and brothers in the evangelical Christian community as well as those in the Republican Party.  It also means that many of them have access to “opinions” and “perspectives” that I do not.  If, bravely and vulnerably, we risk entering into a conversation with one another to try to build a bridge of understanding, I won’t say neither of us is “playing with a full deck,” but we definitely are not “playing with the same deck.”

Invitation to Lean Forward

            If you’re willing and able to spend the time, would you please take one more look at those above Biases (Consciousness; Comfort or Complacency; Conservative/Liberal; and Confidence Bias) and then ask yourself: “Does that sound like me?”  The next step is even harder.  In quest of peace and understanding, would you be willing to share what you learned with someone you know who may not view the world quite the same way that you do?

            If not, maybe one of McLaren’s “final four” Biases might be easier to address.  Could we make a date to sit down together again in Blind Biases 3?  Harry

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[1] Webster’s New World College Dictionary: Third Edition; Macmillan USA, 1997.

[2] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), e-book. 

Blind Biases #1

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A four part series and the author

Most of us are having a hard time talking with people on the other side of fence from us. A conversation with classmate, colleague, and friend Harry Strong led to this series on Blind Biases. Thanks to Harry for his willingness to do what I could not. — Gordon

Harry L. Strong is a retired Presbyterian Church USA pastor, originally from Chicago. Over the past 50 years, since his graduation from Blackburn College and
McCormick Theological Seminary, he has served congregations in Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Colorado. Harry and his wife, Anna, currently make their home in Montrose, Colorado.



BLIND BIASES #1

“People can’t see what they can’t see.”  Brian D. McLaren

Former English teacher, pastor and current author, activist, and public theologian, Brian D. McLaren, has created a thoughtful and remarkably helpful way of assisting us in understanding what makes us see things so differently from one another. Given the intensity of hatred, hostility, and violence in our society today, rarely have such tools for bridge-building and healing been so desperately needed.  

A Time-Machine Vexation

Perhaps if we had a time machine to take us back to the 1860s, we would be able to observe a similar, or even greater, degree of polarization among the citizens of our nation; however, since none of us was alive during the “Civil War” (or what the Confederacy called the “War of Northern Aggression”), our current divisions provide ample evidence of the need for increased understanding and reconciliation.

Come to think of it, those two different ways of labeling our mid-19th century national conflict (Civil War vs. War of Northern Aggression) provide an ideal opportunity for me to reintroduce Brian McLaren, because those “different ways of seeing” what happened in The United States of America between 1861 and 1865 illustrate our “biases.”

Inside the Walls of Bias

Says McLaren:  

“People’s biases get in the way, surrounding them like a high wall, trapping them in ignorance, deception, and illusion.  No amount of reasoning and argument will get through to them, unless we first learn how to break down the walls of bias.”  

Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), e-book. 

McLaren has identified thirteen (13) biases that contribute to the way people view life and the world.  For our convenience, he has managed to categorize them, each beginning with the letter “C.”

A Window and a Mirror

Before I invite Brian to share these with us, I’d like to propose that we try to “look and listen” with a window in one hand and a mirror in the other. 

painting of woman looking at herself in a mirror

In other words, as we ponder these various biases that (other) people bring to their perspective on life and the world, let us be open, honest, and vulnerable enough to recognize that we do the same thing.

At the conclusion of this post, I have provided the reference to Brian McLaren’s e-book, Why Don’t They Get It?  Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself).  I highly recommend Brian’s book if you’d like to explore this topic at more depth!  Before he introduces the 13 biases, McLaren quotes these wise words from Francois Fenelon: “Nothing will make us so charitable and tender to the faults of others, as, by self-examination, thoroughly to know our own.”

As your host and guide for this blog and the three to follow, I pledge to try to remember that, and also to trust you with a few less-than-flattering discoveries that I have made about my own biases.  In so doing, perhaps, I’ll expose a reflection in your mirror that you had not previously considered.

Thirteen (13) biases seem a bit overwhelming, don’t they?  That’s why I’d like to distribute them over three separate posts, and then add a fourth and final piece to try to address what is probably the most important dimension of this subject: What issues do YOU care about?  Where do you want to make a positive difference?  Where do you want to help others “get it?”  And what are your next steps in quest of understanding and reconciliation?

Sounds ambitious, doesn’t it?  Indeed – but I hope it will be worth our time together. So – here are McLaren’s first five (5) biases.  Then, I’ll close with a personal note.

Introducing McLaren’s bias framework

Confirmation Bias: We judge new ideas based on the ease with which they fit in with and confirm the only standard we have: old ideas, old information, and trusted authorities.  As a result, our framing story, belief system, or paradigm excludes whatever doesn’t fit.

Complexity Bias: Our brains prefer a simple falsehood to a complex truth.

Community Bias: It’s almost impossible to see what our community doesn’t, can’t, or won’t see.

Complementarity Bias: If you are hostile to my ideas, I’ll be hostile to yours.  If you are curious and respectful toward my ideas, I’ll respond in kind.

Competency Bias: We don’t know how much (or little) we know because we don’t know how much (or little) others know.  In other words, incompetent people assume that most other people are about as incompetent as they are.  As a result, they underestimate their [own] incompetence, and consider themselves at least of average competence. [1]

            As promised, before we conclude our first “class” on Blind Biases, let me show you what I saw in MY Confirmation Bias mirror.  Soon I’ll be entering my 9th decade on this planet.  I’ve been an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA for over 5 of those decades, but I continue to read and learn and be challenged.  Almost daily, I’m introduced to new perspectives by names like Bass and Borg, Bourgeault and Delio, Greenway, Rohr, and Wilber, and others.  I confess the “new ideas” don’t always “fit in with and confirm” the ones I gleaned from many of my “trusted authorities,” professors, mentors, and role models.  Yes, I get it.  I can appreciate why my sisters and brothers frequently are confronted by new ideas that don’t confirm their “framing story” and that those ideas are jarring, troubling, offensive, and can evoke resistance and even hostility!

So, which form of “bias” do you choose to reflect on?  CONFIRMATION, or one of the others?  Remember, if you’d like a “sneak peek” at Biases 6-9, you can always access Brian’s e-book!  I’ll “see you” in Blind Biases 2. — Harry

[1] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), e-book. 

Harry Strong, Montrose, CO, 11/26/2021

My bias: Scenes along the way.

The gun lobby won in the U.S. Senate because Senators either fear 1) they will be defeated by pro-Second Amendment constituents, 2) they will lose a major source of campaign financing, or 3) they genuinely stand with the NRA and gun-manufacturers.

“You’re biased.”

I am. Every one of us is biased. Our experiences shape how we feel and how we think about these matters. My limited experience with guns influences how and what I see in the national discussion of gun control. I share these real life “scenes” In the interest of furthering honest discussion.

Scene 1

I am in Junior High School in Broomall, PA, a small town west of Philadelphia where my father is a pastor. The upstairs phone is in my bedroom. The phone rings in the middle of the night. I answer the phone. A police officer is asking for my father. Dad comes to the phone. “Reverend Stewart, we have a situation here. We need your help. Mrs. Smith (not her real name) is holed up at her home on Darby Lane. Her son called us. She’s threatening to kill him and herself. She has a gun. Can you help us?”

My father gets dressed, goes to the home. Mrs. Smith lets him in. He sits down with her. She finally agrees to give the gun to my father, her pastor.

Scene 2

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. Initial reports point to the Grassy Knoll. The Warren Commission concludes all the shots came from a single rifle from a window in the Book Depository Building.

Scene 3

I am a graduate student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. A senior project on allegations of police violence on Chicago’s North Side involves spending the night with a police officer in a police squad ride-along.

A little after 3:00 A.M. a Plymouth Valiant makes an illegal turn on a major street. The officer decides to warn the driver. “I’m just going to make sure he knows that he made an illegal turn. There’s no traffic. I won’t give him a ticket. Just want to be sure he knows not to do it next time.”

As the squad car makes the right turn to follow the Valiant, the Valiant takes off. An APB comes over the police radio. There’s been a break-in at a store three blocks from our location. “He’s hot!” says the Officer. He draws his pistol.

The Valiant leads us down a number of side streets and narrow alleys, making hair-pin turns on two wheels. Making the hard right turn, the Officer’s revolver flies out of his hand onto the floor on the passenger’s side in front of me.

”Get the gun! Get the gun! Just hold it until I tell you.”

I’m holding a deadly weapon in a life or death high speed chase. The chase ends with six squad cars blocking an alley. They throw the driver – a father with a baby at home one block away from home – onto the hood of the car – and make the arrest. We return to the police station.

Scene 4

Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in Memphis. I am Assistant Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Decatur, Illinois where I am responsible for “Teen Town” a program for youth from the public housing projects.

The kids learn that Dr. King has been shot. The room is hot. We quickly gather up 12 tape recorders, divide the kids into 12 groups, and tell each group that this is their time to talk. Their time to speak about what they’re feeling. What they say needs to be heard. We, the adult leaders, will see that city and school officials hear what they have to say. The evening ends peacefully.

Scene 5Bobby Kennedy, Presidential candidate, brother of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is assassinated.

Scene 6

A despondent professor at the college and member of the college church I serve goes into his basement, calls his 15 year-old son downstairs, puts a pistol in his own mouth and pulls the trigger.

It falls to me to minister to the son and his wife. I do the memorial service and spend endless hours with a traumatized family. All I can do is stand with them. The horror will never leave the son’s memory. The college and congregation are also in shock.

Scene 7

Five years later a woman calls the church office. Her boyfriend is at home by himself. He has a gun. She has left because she’s afraid he would kill her and himself. Would I go to the house?

I go to the house. I know him well. He trusts me. He lets me in. As my father did when I was a teenager, I stay calm. I listen as he paces the room, waving the pistol, ranting and raving and crying about how meaningless life is and about how he’ll never get his life in order.

After an hour, he calms down. He gives me the gun and asks me to take it away.

I have no idea what to do with it. I gave it to Karl, a church member and friend who has a gun collection. I tell Karl I can’t tell him where it comes from. “Just get rid of it.”

Scene 8

On a Monday morning, a 70 year old ex-Marine calls the church office. He’s a big man. What other men might call “a man’s man,” a World War II Marine, 6’2”. 250 lbs, part of the invasion of Saipan in the South Pacific when he was 17.

“My wife’s out of town. Can you come over tonight for a drink?”

I’ve never been to their home. I’m guessing he wants to talk about his marriage.

He takes my coat. We sit down. He pours us each a Scotch.

“You know, your first couple of years here I didn’t come to church much. I didn’t like your preaching. I’m not one of these peace guys. But something made me keep coming back. I started to listen and I kept coming, and all this peace stuff and Jesus stuff started to get to me. It’s been a long time now. That’s why I called you.

“I hate the Japs! I know I’m not supposed to call ‘em ‘Japs’. I hate them! But I can’t hate them anymore.”

He gets up and walks over to the mantel above the huge stone fireplace.

“My wife has no idea what’s in this box. I’ve never told her. I can’t tell her. I don’t want it anymore. I’m asking you to take it. I can’t live with it anymore.”

He takes the box from the mantel, places it on the ottoman in front of me, and opens the locked box with a key. He is shaking now and crying.

“This poor bastard! I killed this [expletive] with my bear hands!”

His whole body shakes as, one by one, he removes the contents from the box:

• the soldier’s helmet;
• a lock of hair;
• two eye teeth;
• his ID, and…
• the soldier’s pistol.

“All these years of hate. And this poor bastard was just doing the same thing I was. He was just doing his duty to his country. How will God ever forgive me? I just want this stuff out of my house. I want it out of my life! How will God ever forgive me? I can’t hate any more. I can’t.”

We stand in the middle of his living room. I hold him like a baby: a grown man – a “man’s man” – sobbing and shaking with guilt, sorrow, and grief.

I take the box and the contents home. I give the gun to Karl. I have no memory of what I did with the box or the artifacts of what remained of the Japanese soldier. Memory is like that. It was too personal. It was too hot.

Scene 9

It’s a Tuesday night in 2013. I am hosting a community dialogue on “Gun Violence in America.” I am the Moderator of the program. 138 people crowd the Chapel. Normal attendance at the Dialogues is 35 to 50. Tonight the overwhelming majority are gun owners, many of whom have come in response to partisan emails from Second Amendment gun-rights advocates.

I welcome everyone, invite people to introduce themselves to each other, and introduce the evening’s two speakers. Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight is an outspoken advocate for increased gun control legislation. Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson takes a more conservative position, arguing instead for enforcement of existing laws. The Chief and the Sheriff engage in respectful exchange. The program then turns, as it always does, to the floor for comments and questions.

I recognize the first of many hands, a woman from the back of the Chapel. She reads from a prepared script. She is angry about government. At one point she says that government has no business telling her whether or not she can have a gun. The Second Amendment guarantees that right to every American citizen.

I do what I have always done over the seven years we’ve been holding these Dialogues: I ask a follow-up question meant to stimulate deeper thought and discussion: “Let me ask a follow-up question to be clear about what you’re saying. Are you saying that anybody should be able to buy a gun anywhere, anytime?”

“I didn’t say that!” She was angry. The room was hot.

I knew then that this would not be a dialogue. The best we could hope for was a series of monologues.

After a series of statements, a participant sites a Facebook posting which had declared that “the second best thing that could happen to Obama would be for him to be impeached.”

The speaker continues, “And we all know what the best thing would be…assassination.”

There is a visceral outcry objecting to painting Second Amendment rights advocates as racists and potential assassins.

Later a woman stands to ask how many people in the room have lost a loved one to gun violence. Three hands go up. Before she can continue, there are shouts from the back of the room. “That has nothing to do with the Second Amendment.” The shouts continue. I address the shouting, reminding the shouters of the rule that one person speaks at a time without interruption. By the time order is restored, the woman has finished the story I could not hear. Her father committed suicide with a gun. The woman is weeping. She sits down.

Ten minutes later a man speaks from the front. He makes the case that the American economy is going to collapse because the federal treasury is dependent on derivatives. He will need his gun, he says, when there’s not enough food and the girl from next door comes over to get the food he’s stored up for just this eventuality. He puts the Chief of Police on the spot. “So, if an order comes down (from the President) to take away our guns, will you obey the order?”

In the social time following the event, four women tell me they were afraid physically. They don’t think they will come back for the second program. The woman who has shouted down says, “I don’t think I can back.” Two first-time attendees to Dialogues seek me out to say they didn’t expect this. “I can get this at home watching television. I expected something more enlightening, not just more of the same,” says one of them.

The gun rights advocates express pleasure with the evening and are looking forward to the announced second program in the series featuring a debate between an NRA representative a pro gun control advocate. There is no indication of dissatisfaction with the evening. “We’ll be back. Thank for doing this.”

One of the visitors identifies himself as a Republican Second Amendment advocate who came because of an email. He thanks me for the evening and for the even-handed moderating.

“But I have to say I’m really disappointed. I’m sad. How can anyone not have compassion for that poor woman who tried to tell her story about her father’s suicide? I don’t understand the response. No matter where you stand your heart has to go out to her, no matter where you stand.”

Scene 10

The church board meets to review the program and to prepare for the next one. We are concerned that the First Tuesday Dialogues’ purpose of “examining critical public issues locally and globally” will be no better served by the second program than it had been at the first. We also know that the night’s capacity crowd will increase for the next program. A hundred gun-rights advocates who were attending a hearing at the legislature in the state capitol the night of the first event will be free to attend the second program. There is no room to accommodate a larger crowd, and the purpose of meaningful conversation diminishes with larger numbers.

We cancel the next program and publish a letter in the local newspaper explaining our decision.

In response to the cancellation, Letters to the Editor and on-line comments declare that the Moderator was biased and that the real reason for cancelling the program is that the Moderator was surprised and disappointed by how many Second Amendment gun-rights advocates attended.

Conclusion

We’re all biased by our personal histories (the Scenes in our lives). No one is objective. Perhaps the place to start is speaking out loud the experiences that prejudice every one of us.
Can the members of a community, a city, a state, a nation, a community of nations, engage in meaningful conversation about their mutual safety and security? Can we begin by sharing our experiences? Might the open expression of our various personal experiences be the narrow door that leads to the other side of suspicion and violence? Or will the NRA and the gun manufacturers call the shots?