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