Flat White

Discrimination, or just good brain function?

28 June 2018

8:06 AM

28 June 2018

8:06 AM

It’s home economics class at the pre-school. Today the children are learning about kitchen utensils. The teacher has almost exhausted their attention spans, so fascinating conversations are burgeoning all over the room. “My mum’s egg-beaters are red”. “My mum uses a fork to beat eggs”. “My dad cooks dinner for us”.

The teacher thinks that he is teaching them, by showing them how to use rolling pins and colanders, but with conversations like these, they are teaching one another far more. At this age their brains are so plastic they can’t help but learn from every stimulus available, only one of which is the teacher. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “You send your child to the schoolmaster, but it is the schoolboys who educate him”.

Several years ago I read The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, and also listened to a talk about the role of dopamine in reward prediction errors. When we repeatedly observe an association between two ideas, we form a predictive pattern in our brain. When a new observation contradicts that prediction, we break the pattern and look for a deeper, more nuanced, understanding.

The utility of this “reinforcement learning” is that, with ever increasing accuracy, we can predict the future. It is intended to protect us, by helping us interact optimally with the world. So, learning that kitchen utensils come in different colours, and that even dads can cook, are very important lessons on the path to adulthood. Its usefulness is even more obvious when applied to a dangerous situation like being burnt: The more times I burn myself, the less likely I am to do so again, because I gain ever deeper understanding of the contributing factors.

This also applies to learning about people. Back at the pre-school, Johnny is quickly learning that by competing with Arthur they both have fun, but Jane hates competition, so with her you have to co-operate (blegh). And Reginald is discovering that Susan has a shorter fuse than Catherine, and that when the fuse is spent, rationality goes out the window and its best to curl up and play dead. These are important lessons too—not only do the children discover the diversity of personalities in this world, but they discover, by trial and error and imitation, what is the best way to accommodate others with their behaviour.

There’s a word for this. It’s called discrimination. Discriminating is recognising a difference between two or more things. By the time we’re adults, we have decades of experience that lead us to adapt our behaviour to others. For instance, if I enter a room full of ten women, my behaviour and conversation will be somewhat different compared to if they were all men. That’s discrimination, but not all discrimination is wrongful discrimination, some of it just makes sense.

In fact, discriminating is elemental to thinking. Discrimination of colour, brightness, taste, volume, pitch and heat, underpin our very ability to sense the physical world around us; if we saw the world all as one colour, for instance, we would be as good as blind. Similarly, people who can’t socially discriminate don’t adapt their behaviour to others; they are socially blind. We tend to wonder whether they are on the spectrum.


Earlier this year, I was directed to an article about male privilege. It was a compendium of “ways to tell that your gender is privileged” (they kept calling it ‘your gender’ but it clearly meant ‘male’). Further, I learnt all about unconscious bias: the little ways in which men modify their behaviour towards women on the basis of their gender. I was blown away by it—not the concept itself, but the idea that there was something wrong with it (though much of it, such as man-slamming, is unscientific nonsense). Of course we modify our behaviour; women can be terrifying! And, of course we do this subconsciously; what’s the point of decades of learning if you don’t gain instincts? The sub-conscious bias we have isn’t arbitrary, it’s based on experience, and the resulting adaptive-behaviour is our brains trying to keep us from getting burnt.

Bias is best exposed by new or rare experiences. Years of observation will tell me, when I meet a woman, that she is unlikely to be a mechanic. Upon meeting one who is, I might let slip a perfectly innocent (and true) micro-aggression, “really? You don’t meet many female mechanics.” Or I might say a real doozy, “do you have difficulty, as a female mechanic, coping with all the dirt and grease?” Oh, what evil! Hold thy pernicious tongue! But what’s actually wrong with it? I’m just trying to compute the idea, trying to find the deeper understanding. It’s just another version of “My mum doesn’t like grease on her fingers.” I’m learning. At worst, such faux pas are the sorts of sins a multitude of which love should cover.

Of course, unfair discrimination does exist. In this example, the unfairness would start somewhere between learning about the mechanic-woman and trying to instruct her that she shouldn’t be a mechanic because it’s just not ladylike. Here ignorance transforms into a moral judgement, and I’m actually inhibiting the learning process, by resisting new data.

There’s a word for this, too. It’s called prejudice. Prejudice is, from its etymology, making a judgement (judice) before the facts are in (pre). However, I aver that, to some extent, it is even reasonable for us to judge the world according to our prior understanding. I think there’s something healthy about being slow to accept new ideas before you’ve understood the reason for the old ideas that you are throwing out. What if women aren’t meant to be mechanics? (I don’t think that, but it’s a fair question.) Perhaps kitchen utensils are meant to be red and not yellow? (I do think that; yellow camouflages pumpkin and that’s not ok.)

Once, a young boy asked me if I was a girl because I have long hair. I could have been offended at his discriminatory stereotyping of men, but instead, I asked him how many women he has met who have beards? His mother apologised for him, but I said not to apologise, it was a perfectly reasonable question, and very easy to answer. I added that even beards are not a 100 per cent reliable predictor of manhood, but they’re much more reliable than hair length, and there aren’t many alternative tests that are socially acceptable.

Of course, I also understood that a boy his age was probably not asking the question in good faith—he already knew how to spot a man. His actual question was a social experiment: “how do random adults react when I’m obnoxious?” To this question, I sought to demonstrate openness and emotional resilience. I hope he appreciated it.

The attempt to eradicate the social injustice of “unconscious bias” leaves many everyday Australians feeling beleaguered and harassed by the pressures of PC. How often do we start sentences with disclaimers, “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but…”, “This probably isn’t politically correct, but…” or with incidental trigger warnings, “Is it ok if I ask you a rude question?” We need to talk about some things, and we cannot possibly do so without exposing our ignorance and our bias, and risking offence.

Logically, no-one can be expected to fashion their words and ideas around other people before they know them; conversely, isn’t it a bit needy and vain to expect a priori understanding and respect from total strangers, especially if you are outside the range of common experience? Getting antsy about not being understood is, ironically, not very understanding.

Everyone I read acknowledges that unconscious bias is unavoidable, and yet still tries to solve it. The social justice warriors want to protect everyone from being misunderstood, ever, but they’re going to have to get over it; this social injustice is not actually unjust—it’s life. The starting point of all learning is ignorance, and most micro-aggressions are just micro-ignorance that will naturally be resolved through free and open discourse, to the betterment of all.

What will stifling discourse, in the name of eradicating bias, do? There will be a whole collection of unasked, unanswered questions, trapped in our minds. It will inhibit learning, perpetuate ignorance and discourage genuine acceptance—the opposite of what is intended. It’s a serious thing to try and do. Solzhenitsyn said “if decade after decade the truth cannot be told, each person’s mind begins to roam irretrievably. One’s fellow countrymen become harder to understand than Martians.” Though perhaps there’s a more proximate threat, one right-winger on YouTube gave me chills when he threateningly said, “the pen is mightier than the sword, but if you take away my pen…”

Apologising for unconscious bias is ludicrous. It’s how our brains work! I’ll apologise for selfishness, thoughtlessness, demeaning language and disrespect, but I refuse to apologise for good brain function—it’s the very thing that stops me really putting my foot in my mouth. I don’t know about you, but I have enough flaws to contend with; there are enough people that get my goat with whom my aggressions, unfettered, would not be described as “micro”. If I thought that on top of all my flaws, my subconscious was a closet misogynist, I’d go nuts!

Nick Kastelein is a Christian and a conservative, who grew up and lives in Adelaide and works for an engineering consultancy.

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