People often speak as though a writer’s bias is an undesirable thing, indicating a beclouded vision. Yet surely the only unbiased person would be one who has never had a thought or made an observation. In fact “bias” is what enables significance and instills meaning into what would otherwise be mere information. Far from warning readers to beware, an openly confessed bias promises well-thought-out conclusions and the active engagement of the author.
In fact bias is universal. Perhaps the writer who pretends to objectivity might be honestly unaware of bias, leading the reader to wonder how much else he or she might be in the dark about. A great proportion of our intellectual blind spots arise because certain assumptions strike us as so self-evident or natural that they seem raw data rather than conclusions. It is just such ideas, often the idées reçues of an entire culture, that an original author will seek to interrogate or at any rate to reinforce in an original manner. As Max Friedländer noted in commenting on the case of forger Han Van Meegeren , “Forgeries must be served hot,” since the tell-tale stylistic nuances, the assumptions characteristic of each age are invisible to viewers at first, but inevitably emerge as obvious with the passage of time. The very same principle applies to reasoning and logic.
Worse but less insidious is the intentional concealing of bias. The consciously deceitful propagandist need not concern us. Everyone will find such a fraud offensive (with the exception of sophistic rhetoricians to whom falsity may present an opportunity for a more dazzling epideixis). In such cases the writer, aware of the deception, can only be thought to consider a legitimate case unconvincing. Such arguments are far from insignificant – they are the very stuff of advertising and political discourse -- but such biases are less likely to hoodwink the alert reader or listener if they cannot deceive their own creator.
This principle emerged clearly during the late 1960s when many concluded that it was impossible to be apolitical. Passivity in the face of injustice came to be regarded as tantamount to endorsement of the status quo (particularly when combined with other clues such as the pursuit of income), while such transgressive practices as dope-smoking and gay sex naturally, though not inevitably, situated people in the opposition , and poverty implied integrity. These are, of course, biases and less than absolutely predictive, yet they possess both meaning and analytical value. Like other prejudices, stereotypes, and clichés, they were found to be quite often true.
Some, but not all biases, are also value judgments. I recognize my bias against Western movies and musicals as individual and subjective; I would not argue the inherent superiority of who-dun-its, but I would not voluntarily spend an evening watching John Wayne drawl as he rides through the sagebrush. Likewise, my fondness for ancient Skeptics, medieval troubadours, and early modern avant-gardists is not prescriptive, nor is my coolness toward Chinese traditional music or the Grand Ole Opry. I recognize my unfortunate sluggishness to appreciate the work of artists and writers younger than myself. Most blues music is for me good, while all polkas with the exception of those written by Chopin are not.
Yet I do not deny that I hold biases about biases. Father Arrupe’s “preferential option for the poor” is a good bias to me as is affirmative action while sexism, racism, and homophobia are bad ones. These preferences may be traced to morality, but the association is not necessary. If I encounter an individual with a prejudice in favor of bland food, I will prejudge that person’s other values as dubious, while I will be predisposed in favor of the attitudes of a cook with an ample spice cabinet. I would be more likely to agree with the judgment of a leftist opera buff than a reactionary Nascar fan. The fact is that biases are so potent in human social relations that I never encounter a Nascar fan in my social circles. Such an event would be as unlikely as dinner with Republicans. (A radical car racer might be an interesting character; a conservative lover of La Traviata sounds boring.)
Intelligence is no safeguard against bias. Indeed the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky has indicated that intelligent people are not only fallible like everyone else, but that they are in fact slightly more likely to make erroneous decisions based on bias.
The word itself derives through French, Provencal, and Latin from the Greek epikarsios meaning “athwart, crosswise, at an angle,” and that is the basis for its applications in tailoring and the sport of crown green bowls. The quality of obliqueness it shares with metaphor and other rhetorical figures is what opens biased judgments to significance based on connotation, association, and implication. Such ambush on a question from an angle other than warp or woof often releases insight. Biases are instrumental in weaving a texture of meaning that may be decoded (not always accurately) like a poem, a profile, or a tone of voice.
My biases include a preference for black over blue, red wine over white, pinot noir over cabernet, for lamb over beef, pork over chicken, for spinach over chard, cauliflower over broccoli, cherries over grapes, pears over apples, hazelnuts over Brazil nuts, and, I must confess, peanuts over all tree nuts. Bring me a heap of beans rather than of meat. I like Victorian houses rather than modern ones, cities over suburbs, San Francisco over Los Angeles, Iowa over New Jersey, but the Northeast over the South. I have a bias in favor of traveling anywhere outside of my own country such that I have never seen the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park. Talk is more pleasant than television, the fall preferable to the spring, and the mountains to the seashore. I would never ever dye my hair. I always wore a tie while teaching. Though biased against church-going Christians, fundamentalists, and hierarchies, I feel sympathetic toward Meister Eckhart, Quakers, and the Catholic Worker movement. I like Plato rather than Aristotle, the Greeks in general more than the Romans, the Nibelungenlied better than Roland, troubadours before trouvères, Wyatt before Surrey, Lear before Hamlet, Keats better than Shelley, Pound more than Eliot. The early poems of Gary Snyder and Robert Bly are far superior, I think, to their later work.
The value of biases need not arise from their truth. Naming a few among my myriad biases sketches my nature with greater precision and accuracy than the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. To eliminate my biases would be to erase the host of specifics that define me far more than my physical features. The fact is that bias cannot be avoided. There is no escaping the perspective through the holes in the front of the skull. Even a physicist contemplating subatomic particles must view the spectacle of existence using all-too-human eyes and a brain full of assumption derived from teachers and words and the chances of grants and fashions in science, but, far from lamentable, these limitations give a point to science as they do to art and to life.