Well, I managed to survive 2020, so I guess I should join all those reflecting on the year. However, rather than reflect on all the events, I’ve decided to reflect on one of my favourite topics: biases.
I don’t claim that I’m immune. As a fat, old white male who was born at a particular time in Australia’s history I’d be an idiot if I tried to argue that I was completely free of sexism and racism. The best I can hope to do is to view my attitudes through the awareness that, even though, I believe all men are equal from time to time, I’ll make a slip… Whoops!
Anyway, a large part of the year had me thinking about confirmation bias. This is where we only see the information and evidence that fits with our previously held views. For example, when Scott Morrison goes on a holiday, some of us complain that he’s left us in the lurch by disappearing again when we wouldn’t normally begrudge someone who’s worked so hard doing photoshoots a few weeks off every month. Whereas others find it endearing that he spent all weekend getting photographed building a chicken coop even if there are no follow-up photos of the chickens leading some to suggest that this was just a cunning stunt from a PM who’s nothing but a stunning… eh, marketing man.
In order to avoid confirmation bias, I usually try to swap the behaviour and the person around. As you may have gathered, I’m not a Morrison fan and his shit shouldn’t be hitting me. I wouldn’t describe myself as one of Labor’s True Believers and while I support action to save the world, trees and I are just good friends and you won’t find me hugging them. So when a particular politician does something that makes me angry, I simply ask myself how would I react if a politician I admire did it…
Ok, sometimes it can be tough to actually find a politician that I admire but that’s a whole other story. For the sack of argument, let’s pretend that I’m a great admirer of Tony Abbott and I’ve read a story about how a Labor politician had adopted a totally false persona in public but was a complete fraud. To counter my confirmation bias, I simple have to ask: How would I feel if Tony had done that? How would I feel to discover that he isn’t the complete lunatic that he pretends to be and he’s only been pretending to be stuck in the fifties to win the votes of the stupid? Why I’d be just as outraged, so I can attack the behaviour of the Labor politician, safe in the knowledge that I’d be just as critical of my hero, were it to be discovered that his public face was a complete fraud.
Of course, it can work the other way too. While I might dismiss the recent controversy over Abbott not being fined for cycling in the wrong area in Sydney and stopping for a coffee, how would I feel if Bill Shorten had broken the rules and the police argued that getting coffee was exercise? Would I be completely ok with it because those latte-sipping lefties don’t get any exercise apart from stirring their coffee and lifting it to their lips? Or would I be outraged that he wasn’t horsewhipped in public?
We saw a lot of confirmation bias with the treatment of the various premiers. While Labor premiers who shut their borders were panicking and faltering, Liberals who did the same thing were largely absent from the discussion.
And while Dan Andrews was nominated for canonisation by some, others felt that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 802 people. I couldn’t help remembering that when riots broke out on Manus Island a few years ago, it was nothing to do with the government and all the responsibility of the security firm, but in this case Andrews was responsible for every single death because he – or someone – made the decision to. use private security when we should have used the police or the ADF.
Anyway, I did find it strange that some of those who were calling for people not to allow the virus to shut down the economy because suddenly the mental health of the unemployed was something to worry about, were the same ones who were now concerned about the deaths. “Look,” they kept telling us, “it’s mainly old people dying and they’ve had a good innings, so if a few shuffle off early who cares?” Then suddenly, the people who thought Andrews was doing all right were victims of Stockholm syndrome because they were ignoring the deaths.
I also found it strange that the ones referring to Stockholm syndrome were often the same ones who were calling for us to adopt the same approach as Sweden, although it may have escaped their attention that Stockholm is in Sweden.
Of course this is entirely consistent with one of the central tenets of politics in Australia: Labor are responsible for everything that happens when they’re in government because even if they had nothing to do with it, why weren’t they paying attention whereas the Coalition can’t be expected to be responsible because they believe that governments shouldn’t intervene in the economy unless one of their donors needs help.
Yes, confirmation bias is hard to overcome. If I use Gladys Berejiklian as my final example, I have to ask myself would I be upset if the premier of my state had kept their relationship with a corrupt politician a secret, failed to declare various conflicts of interest, shredded documents and removed computer files that gave information about pork-barrelling, failed to make masks mandatory because well, it’s just more rules, isn’t it, told us that there’s no real concerns about behaviour that some consider corrupt because everybody is and failed to protect koalas?
Somehow I don’t think I’d be saying that they’re only human.
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