The picture above shows Denis Cuspert, a German rapper and the enterprising creator of the T-shirt he is holding in the shot on the left. The photo on the right shows Denis in his current incarnation, Abu Talha Al-Almani. He formally joined the Islamic State sometime in April 2014. It is believed that he has become the Islamic State’s chief propagandist in the German language, inspiring disillusioned young Germans to become jihadists. In November 2014, he appeared in an Islamic State video holding a severed head.
I saw the photo above online this morning, and it reminded me that I have never made an important point about bias explicit here. Bias causes a lot of problems, in society and in the life of individuals, but those who furiously condemn bias and demand that we should eradicate it from human nature are reckless and ignorant, and often dishonest as well. Bias is a crucial evolutionary feature that allows human beings to avoid making the same mistake twice, or a hundred times. It is linked to trust, and leads to wariness. Without the ability to form biases, every one of us would be fatally naive, and a victim waiting to be harmed.
If you have been mauled after you tried to pat a wolf, you will naturally, and wisely, be wary of a friend’s dog because it appears wolf-like. Once you have sufficient information to exonerate the dog of any just suspicion of violent tendencies, it will be fair, reasonable and ethical to banish your suspicions, but not before you have that information. If you have been so permanently scarred, psychologically and physically, by the previous mauling that you cannot shake the secret fear that the dog is leading you on, waiting for you to drop your guard so it can rip your throat out, your ethical duty is to recognize that this is an irrational concern. You may want to boycott your friend’s home, place warning signs about his dog all over the neighborhood, and try to get an ordinance passed that mandates the destruction of any dog that looks like a wolf…or any dog, really, because they are all descended from wolves and we can’t trust them. Being a responsible, rational, ethical individual, you don’t do this, however. You recognize that what was once a necessary bias is now an unjustified one, and you manage it, ignoring its interior calls of the wild.
Yes, bias makes us stupid, if we don’t examine our biases and recognize when the negative feelings and attitudes they produce are no longer valid and are urging us to mistreat others. Other terms for reasonable bias, however, are instinct, experience, common sense, and wisdom.
In 2005, I wrote about the murder of Betty Blair, 77, a Texas woman who took in three destitute Hurricane Rita evacuees and allowed them to stay in her home in exchange for their helping her with chores and repairs. They strangled and robbed her. All of Blair’s friends spoke about how she was so kind and free of bias that she would naturally take three, scruffy-looking strangers into her home if they were in need. She believed in trusting everyone, and her unqualified trust, the product of insufficient bias, literally got her killed.
In 2015, police officers are being told that their experience, instincts and common sense must be discarded because these biases have not been managed ethically by some of their colleagues with tragic results. Many of those tragic results were triggered by African-Americans reacting to their own biases, based on past experience and the experience of others of their race, by resisting lawful arrests. In the latter cases, the bias led to dangerous and stupid behavior: every police officer isn’t one of Bull Connor’s thugs. Remove a police officer’s gut instincts regarding crimes in progress or suspicious acting individuals, and law enforcement becomes reactive, or deadly. Being biased can make someone a bigot (stupid), but ignoring reality to avoid bias is equally crippling, and often more dangerous.
Our biases must be understood, checked, managed, and often rejected entirely. They must never, never be combined with hate. Condemning and rejecting all bias, however, is courting disaster, both for individuals and a society.