This month I am giving a series of presentations before different groups with my colleagues Gemma George, Ph.D. and John W. Garman, LL.M., FCIArb on the “Ethical Duties of Eiminating Bias in the Legal Profession.” We are popular this month because by February 1, 2014, the last third of the alphabet of California attorneys must complete their continuing legal education requirements which includes one hour of elimination of bias.
In preparing my presentation discussing the various implicit biases that we all have, I came across an article in the January 5, 2014 Sunday New Times Sunday Review section entitled “Why Do We Fear the Blind?” by Rosemary Mahoney As the title suggests, the thesis of the article is that many of us have an aversion to the blind, thinking or believing that he/she is “different” than us; that we cannot really “talk” or communicate with him/her because of the blindness. (In truth, isn’t this true about all other disabilities as well?) Why do we think this way? Ms. Mahoney puts it quite succinctly:
“Aversion towards the blind exists for the same reason that most prejudices exist: lack of knowledge. Ignorance is a powerful generator of fear. And fear slides easily into aggression and contempt. Anyone who has not spent more than five minutes with a blind person might be forgiven for believing….that there is an unbridgeable gap between us and them.” (Id. at p.8)
To me- these are powerful words: prejudices exist due to a lack of knowledge caused by ignorance which creates fear which, in turn, leads to contempt. A very simple concept in theory but a quite difficult one to overcome in reality.
In my presentation, I try to bring awareness to the implicit or not so conscious biases we have about someone being too attractive, or not attractive enough (whether male or female), being overweight (or underweight), being male or female, being lesbian, gay bisexual or transgender, having tattoos or an accent or being of a different generation and thus having different values than we do or being an immigrant (documented or undocumented). (There are plenty other implicit biases if one take the time to reflect.)
All of our biases are based on assumptions- more often than not- erroneous ones- which we make upon seeing a person. And our assumptions may lead us to “fear” the person as Ms. Mahoney comments in her opinion piece. Or, we may simply “dislike” the person based on what we see and then assume about him/her. And the cause…. lack of knowledge. We have not taken the time to say “hello”, talk to the person and get to know him/her in the least little bit. If we did, our assumptions may well disappear, and we may well make a new friend.
It is one thing to have biases (we all do!); it is quite another to be aware of them and to work to make them disappear. So, the next time you see someone to which you viscerally feel an aversion, fight the impulse and instead, say “hello” and be friendly. It may just lead to something quite pleasant.
…Just something to think about.
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