The expression ‘unconscious bias’ is back in the headlines. First came the good news that Oxford’s Somerville college had rescinded its requirement that all students be tested for ‘unconscious bias.’ (This was the result of a successful campaign by the Speccie’s own Toby Young through his Free Speech Union.) But then came the bad news that the Governor-General’s staff will be told to do a bizarre ‘privilege walk’ to identify their ‘unconscious bias.’ So, what is the story behind ‘unconscious bias’? It’s much older than you might think, being recorded in English in 1784. But when it was first used it was neutral – it was neither good nor bad, just the way people are. ‘Unconscious bias’ originally meant nothing more than personal preferences and attitudes. But by 1989 it had taken on an entirely negative meaning—implying a nasty prejudice that people were not even aware they had. My question is this: is ‘unconscious bias’ an oxymoron—two words put together that contradict each other. Is it linguistically coherent to claim that people can have a nasty prejudice (and act on it) without even knowing it? At the very least it is linguistically highly dubious. When dubious concepts and terms are being promoted it’s always worth asking why. According to one American report there are consultants making millions from conducting these ‘unconscious bias’ tests. The explanation of such puzzling and dubious things is the same as always—follow the money.
What is a ‘privilege walk’? As far as I can discover the term was coined in 2014 and inspired by a 1988 essay on ‘white privilege’ by American feminist Peggy McIntosh. The way a ‘privilege walk’ works is like this: a group (often impressionable school children) is asked to line up in the school grounds, and then told to take a step forward or backward in response to a series of statements from their brain-washer-in-chief (sorry, I meant to say ‘teacher’). For example: ‘If your sex or race is widely represented in the US Congress, take one step forward’; ‘If you are going to be the first person in your immediate family to graduate from college, take one step back’; ‘If one or both of your parents graduated from college, take one step forward’; ‘If you grew up in an economically disadvantaged or a single-parent home, take one step back’ and so on—the group who end up at the top of the playground being the ‘privileged’ group, and those at the bottom end the ‘under-privileged’ group.
That’s the idea: you don’t matter as an individual, the only thing that matters about you is the group you belong to. Of course the whole concept of ‘white privilege’ is misguided—what we really need is to expose ‘intelligence privilege’: ‘If you have ever scored well on an IQ test take one step forward’; ‘If you ever failed an exam take one step back’; ‘If a teacher ever wrote good work on one of your essays take one step forward; ‘If a friend ever called one of your ideas dumb take one step back’. That would sort out those disgusting types who have an unfair advantage, a built-in privilege, because they are smarter than us. Soon we’d have the whole membership of Mensa hanging their heads in shame and asking to be forgiven.
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