June 21, 2016

Is Our Input on a Bias?

I've been thinking a lot lately about perceptions, and bias, particularly as those relate to how we are delivered, and then interpret, the news of the day.

I was reminded of a cat my parents had, years after I was out of the house, about whom their veterinarian proclaimed, "her input is on a bias." That peculiar diagnosis had to do with the cat walking a little lopsided, and if memory serves, occasionally running into things. Her issue may have been solved by a dietary change and an antibiotic, can't remember for sure.

Back to bias. Regular readers know, for example, that I struggle with how we collectively discuss mass shootings; there are some obvious differences depending on who the shooter is, or what the shooter represents. For example 
  • In December, the shooting in San Bernardino was 'terrorism' because the American-born shooter professed at least some allegiance to what's referred to as radical Islamist beliefs.
  • The shooting in Orlando was also described as 'terrorism' because of similar beliefs held by yet another American-born shooter. 
Compare that to these two other recent shootings:
  • We just marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting at 'Mother Emanuel' in Charleston, which was committed by an American-born shooter who professed racist beliefs. This was described as a 'hate crime' but not terrorism.
  • In November 2015, after a shooting at a clinic in Colorado Springs left three dead and nine wounded, the American-born shooter was described as being anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood, but this too was not described as terrorism. 
In all four of these shootings, the perpetrators acted out of a belief, first and foremost, that they were right in acting as they did. And, in all four cases, one could point to extremism of one kind or another as being at the heart of the murders, and to the intent to terrorize people, to install fear that no one is safe, anywhere.  Not at a historic church during an evening prayer session, or at a medical facility at what is typically a very difficult time. Not at an office party, and not at a nightclub where a people gather to truly be free from hatred, to be themselves. And yet, only two have been labelled terrorism - the ones where the beliefs were furthest away from what "we" believe.

Here's another pair of news stories, both of which enthralled the regular news media and social media as well:
  • Remember the story about the little boy who fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati zoo, leaving zookeepers with no choice than to kill the gorilla to save the child? And the immediate cry from animal rights groups and many average Americans about how on earth the mom could have been so neglectful in her actions that they resulted in the death of a beautiful gorrilla? And the online petition to pressure the police into investigating the family? (That happened, and the mother was cleared of any wrongdoing.)
  • More recently, there was the story about the little boy who was snatched and killed by an alligator at Disney World, and the immediate calls to have the parents investigated for neglect? And the cries from the animal rights activists that several alligators were killed in the search for the specific one that took the child?
No? I don't remember that last part, either.

I would love to be positive that there's no correlation between the race of the families (zoo was black, Disney was white), or any other type of bias that went into the reporting or the reactions.  Heck -- I admit that, until I saw an Internet meme, the thought didn't even occur to me that there could have been any bias here. 

But you know what they say: you can't unring the bell. 

One more example, and then I'll leave you to ponder. Again with the Orlando attacks.  Donald Trump, in one of his several reactions to the shooting, blasted the alleged protection of terrorists by American Muslims, noting that
They know what's going on. They know that (the shooter) was bad. They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people they know are bad.. But you know what? They didn't turn them in. And you know what? We had death and destruction.
Except that, in this particular case, we have a witness coming forward to talk about how he did turn this shooter in (confirmed by the FBI), and we know how that ended, right?

Except that, as Trump wanted, the number of people who will walk away from this believing that Muslims are bad and are hiding terrorists is significantly, perhaps even exponentially higher than the number who will learn of this first-person account of a person who did exactly what his entire faith is accused of not doing.

Is your input on a bias? Do you see things as you expect them to be, instead of the way they really are? If yes, you're not alone; I publicly confessed to this about three years ago, right here in these pages.

The realization of my own biased thinking doesn't give me a pass. I hope it makes me more aware of bias when I express it myself, or when I see it.  And, too, when I miss it.

I think that's a whole lot better than the dietary change that was recommended for the cat.