Debate is great stuff, it can often lead us to a better understanding of other people’s perspectives, and also heighten our understanding of our own thoughts and perspectives. One of the most common accusations that is thrown against people on both sides of the political spectrum is an accusation of bias. I shall be discussing in this article my thoughts on this odd complaint as an English student, who has to grip with many people I disagree with, as you might imagine.
So I’ll cover the good uses of the accusation of Bias first. There are legitimate criticisms to be had when somebody claims to be giving an objective perspective, but is clearly biased to one side or another. A good example of this is the BBC, who are far more likely to cover negative news stories about political groups that are outside of the mainstream such as Corbynistas or UKIP than they are to talk about the misdemeanours of Lib Dems or Tories. They have a centrist, nastily Liberal bias, with some specific reporters having different perspecitives. For examples, Andrew Neil of the Daily Politics is very clearly of a Eurosceptic Tory bend whereas Nicky Campbell seems to be pretty liberal-left . When such a group claims to not have biases, and then proceeds to treat UKIP or Corbyn differently to your average soft-Tory MP, then it is perfectly valid to criticise it. It’s also legitimate to criticise bias if it leads to falsehood, that’s why we have Ofcom. The bias can help us understand where this falsehood came from, and what their motivation may be.
This leads me on to speak about the usual meaning of “you’re biased!” in debate, usually meaning “You are someone I disagree with so I will disingenously accuse you of distorting the facts to suit your personal perspective! “ Everyone does this to be plain. Take for example the various newspaper reports on a poll of British Muslims after the Charlie Hebdo attack, which found that 89% of British Muslims had no sympathy with the terrorists. As you might imagine, those from the left-liberal news outlets reported that the majority of Muslims don’t support terrorism. Equally predictably, several right wing news outlets reported the fact that “One in Ten British Muslims have terrorist sympathies”. Both of these headlines were technically correct, but both were supporting their specific narrative surrounding the debate. I of course would have my own opinions on the data that was given, showing my personal biases as to how I would interpret the facts, you would as well. Accusing either outlet of Bias is stupid because of course they are! They come from totally different perspectives and want to promote their narrative. If you want as objective data as you can get, why did you go to a news outlet? Why not look at the data yourself? Well it’s because both you and I are lazy, and then complain about bias in the stuff we read.
Because we’re not really asking the correct question of news outlets really when we say “you’re biased!” It’s obvious that they are, we as individuals will be as well. The questions we really should be asking are “why are you making that argument?” and “what narrative are you trying to promote?” Even more importantly “Who stands to benefit from you promoting this narrative?” and perhaps the most important question“What are people who disagree with you saying about the same thing?” These questions are often never asked by either side of any debate, which is highly damaging to both the wider debate and the degree to which we are informed in our opinions. It’s why I read both the Guardian in all its left wing glory, and Breitbart in all its borderline alt-right perspective.
I know it’s wishful thinking to believe that anybody will leave their personal echo-chamber, I know that I won’t myself. I know that none of us will. We will go on thinking, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are the only objective perspective. Worse still, when the people that share our opinion do something wrong, we will rush to defend them, regardless of what it is. Groupthink and near cult-like behavior abound in this generation, and that is something which should terrify us.