Over the course of the past several days, I’ve been engaging in a series of online debates with a number of people about a variety of different subjects like how so many Americans can like and vote for Rick Santorum, why contraception should not be a partisan issue, why teachers might deserve a bit of support when they strike. In each case, I and my online debating partners have made use of a number of different sources for our information and arguments, as we are wont to do. But as I’ve had to explain on numerous occasions, not all sources are created equal, and few – if any – sources can be truly said to be free from bias. When it comes to relying on the information compiled by others, it therefore becomes fundamentally important that we are able to recognize and understand a source’s bias and how that bias may lead the source to far different conclusions than they might have reached were they not biased in the direction they are. So how do we recognize bias? Does the existence of bias demand that we reject the source? How can bias influence how we think about an issue?
When we are talking about politics and political bias, what we are talking about are the hidden assumptions and pre-conceptions that underlie a person’s beliefs about a subject before they are asked to form an opinion about it. Bias can be thought of as a person’s or institution’s understandings about what is normal, moral, responsible, or reasonable in society. This bias is often unconscious and even more often unquestioned, yet it serves as the foundation of most of our other beliefs about how the world ‘ought’ to be. Bias shows up in just about everything a person can do in a social environment, and everyone has a bias of one form or another, even if they don’t know it. Because of its ubiquity, bias is often quite tricky to recognize, at least at first. There are tools to help us recognize bias, but we must also strive to teach ourselves to do it as well.
Here is my political bias, as represented on a chart known as the ‘Political Compass’. You can take a short online test here to find out your own political bias. As you can see, I sit quite far to the political Left; I also sit quite high on the ‘libertarian’ scale, though not so much as to be considered an anarchist. This chart can be interpreted (crudely) in the following way: the chart is divided into four quadrants, each representing a particular way of seeing the world.
The top-right quadrant is for ‘conservative authoritarians’. This group tends to be in favour of things like the death penalty, interventionist wars and robust foreign policy, a fair degree of government control over both the economy and over the individual. In Canada, this quadrant would include the Conservative Party of Canada, and many of the more Socially Conservative members of the voting population. People in this quadrant might also feel that while there are rich and poor people in the world, the poor often get that way because of bad decisions or poor financial skills, and that rich people are rich due to some virtue of their own. This is the quadrant of the Neo-conservative/neo-Liberal. Same-sex marriage would be illegal, abortion would most likely be illegal, and the death penalty would be legal and common. Government intervention in the economy would be common but limited.
The top-left quadrant is populated by statists, radical communists, radical Marxists, and more than a few left-leaning dictators. People in this quadrant also believe in government control over property and people, and they believe in legislating certain ‘moral’ issues, but they also believe that the wellbeing of ‘the people’ is more important than the wellbeing of the individual. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, as it were, and if a few people lose their wealth or land so that the many may benefit from it, well then so be it. This is the quadrant of the left-wing authoritarian and the Stalinist or Leninist communist. Same-sex marriage may or may not be illegal, abortion may be illegal, and the death penalty would most likely be legal and common. Government intervention in the economy would be pervasive and deep.
The bottom-right quadrant is that of the right-wing libertarian. This quadrant is for those who believe in the absolute liberty of both the individual and the market. People and Institutions in this quadrant believe that market forces should not be constrained by government, and nor should the rights of the individual. The state ought to concern itself with foreign policy and the printing of money; it should regulate very little in either the public or private spheres, and should generally leave people alone. Both Ayn Rand and Ron Paul would fit in here along with other right-wing libertarians. Same-sex marriage would be legal, abortion would be legal, the death penalty would most likely be illegal (the state should not have the power to kill its own people). Government intervention in the economy would be virtually non-existent.
The final quadrant is the quadrant of the leftist libertarian, and the social democrat. It is the quadrant of social justice advocates and more than a few hippies and most likely of Noam Chomsky. People in this quadrant believe that the market should bow to the will of the people, that its mechanisms should benefit the society first, the shareholder second. Governments ought to regulate huge chunks of the economy and ought to even own a few key sectors. The government should not be in the business of legislating human behaviour except in cases where doing so would prevent harm to the individual. If two people of the same sex wish to get married, then fine; if a man wishes to marry multiple children, he can go to jail. The state’s primary responsibility ought to be the well-being of the people, and therefore the state ought to play a large role in ensuring an equitable society for every member. Government intervention in the economy would be pervasive and deep.
Virtually every single human being living in a society with a state will fall somewhere on this grid. This is an example of how important recognizing bias can be. Let’s imagine a scenario and then we’ll run four archetypes (one from each quadrant) through that scenario. The archetypes are: The Communist, the Neo-Conservative, the Right-Wing Libertarian (RWL), and the Social Democrat.
A public-sector (or state-run) employee’s union is negotiating a new contract with its employer, the government. The union has several demands, including a pay hike, control over its sphere of influence, an increase in regulation of certain key sectors of its sphere of influence, and a modest increase in benefits. After several weeks of unsuccessful and frustrating negotiations, the union votes to engage in job action and, ultimately, to strike for a number of days, or until the government agrees to come back to the negotiating table.
The Communist: The state must heed the demands of the worker. The state exists only for the worker, and to ensure that the worker is happy and productive. The union’s demands should be met, and damn the consequences! We will raise taxes on the rich and on wealthy corporations; bourgeoisie interests must not get in the way of the rights of the worker.
The Neo-Conservative: Unions are an out-dated concept anyways. We should take this opportunity to break them and force them to accept our demands. We will decide how the workers should act, we will decide what they are responsible for. We are busy balancing our budget right now, and the tax-breaks we’ve given to oil and gas exploration have left us with less revenue, so we will not allow the union to get a raise, and nor will we allow the union to dictate terms to us.
The RWL: Unions? Why do they even exist? They deny the individual the right to negotiate their own wages! The state has no business interfering in this sector of the economy anyways; this sector must be privatised and allowed to be influenced by the forces of the free market. Benefits are a form of welfare and welfare is unacceptable, so why are we even talking about granting them to this group? We should destroy the union and then allow the individual employee to negotiate with their employer for wages.
The Social Democrat: Well, we don’t have much money, at the moment, so we should end the tax-breaks on oil and gas, use that money to grant modest increases to the wages of the workers, as well as provide modest increases to benefits. After all, what is the point of these companies turning record profits if they aren’t even going to reinvest some of that wealth back into the society that supported them? The union ought to have some increased control over their sphere of influence, but we will regulate it to ensure standards are met. The union will not dictate terms to us, but nor will we dictate to them.
So how do we recognize bias? The fastest way is to identify the guiding philosophies of the source we are looking at. If a website says that they believe in ‘traditional values’ and the ‘free market’, they’re probably neo-conservative or a weak kind of conservative libertarian. If they use phrases like ‘the Worker’ or ‘proletariat/bourgeoisie’ then you’re almost definitely reading a communist or Marxist site, and that should tell you a great deal about how they will understand and deal with issues. Does this mean that we must automatically reject the source? Of course not. Just because a source is biased, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong, but the greater the level of bias, the more cautious we must be of accepting its claims at face-value. If, for example, a source that is known as a neo-conservative think tank releases a paper that is highly critical of a union’s position, you should be wary, since neo-cons don’t like unions to begin with it’s unlikely that they’d give a union’s position a fair shake. The same is true of a leftist website that makes claims about a corporation’s practices or profit margin; since corporations are viewed with suspicion by default, it’s unlikely that they will give the corporation’s explanations a fair hearing.
There’s no easy system to identifying the level of bias present in a given source. Some sources are overwhelmingly biased and so they are easy to spot, but others are more subtle and so take a bit more skill to detect. It is therefore important to practice spotting bias in sources, just as it is always important to scrutinize our own bias to ensure that it is not giving us a clouded view of an issue.