The problem with prejudice from another perspective (part 1)

A few articles back we mentioned the something called “implicit bias” that Duncan Forbes has been blogging about. This is where people have a bias/prejudice against a specific group within society that is not explicit and indeed may not even be conscious but does substantially affect how they view others.

Duncan’s concerns resonated with quite a few people on social media, especially those from and working in working class/estate contexts. There is a concern, as one person put it, that “the church has a class problem.”

I recognise the problem Duncan describes.  He talks in one article about how at school it was assumed that he would not amount to anything academically and that even today in the context of church life people have assumptions about what estate people can cope with in terms of Bible teaching.

I recognise it because:

–          I remember being told by my history teacher and head of six form to forget about studying Law.  Sure, I’d get some okay A-Levels and maybe even go on to do something like journalism but I should not set my expectations too high.

–          As mentioned in previous posts I’ve witnessed the old school-tie network operate under the guise of “which camp did you go to?”

–          Each Sunday evening we break all the assumptions about what people can cope with giving serious time over to in depth Bible study.

–          As mentioned earlier, I’ve had to recognise within me the ugly sin of racial prejudice.

–          Conversely if you went to the comprehensive on the local estate you also were likely to experience implicit bias” if you had intellectual interests.

Duncan has highlighted a number of the problems with this. It’s why we’ve picked up on it as an example of injustice. However, there is another perspective on the problem. Put very simply, my experience or perception of bias may prevent me from hearing something that is still true and relevant.

Let’s take two examples (one today and one in a follow up post).

  1. The Charlie Gard case

This was the example that Duncan started with.  He identified a difference in how working class and middle-class friends responded to the case.

On the one hand, he noted that:

“In my world, which is primarily a South London working class world I’ve seen nothing but support for the wishes of Charlie Gard’s parents. Whether its been the wishes for him to die at home, or to have experimental treatment. People have thought the parents should have more say than the hospital or the courts. In my world, people have been shocked at GOSH’s response over the months. My world is a world that often sees 1) the courts refuse good working class dads access to see their kids, and 2) social workers hastily remove kids from their working class parents. My world has been continually told that ‘we don’t know what’s best for our kids’.”[1]

On the other hand he commented that:

“Last Saturday I saw articles being shared on Facebook that reminded me of the typical narrative that if working class people have a different view, they must be ignorant and manipulated, and not objective. One of those articles was by Melanie Phillips. She didn’t go so far as to explicitly say that Charlie’s parents had been ignorant, but calling the campaign ‘ignorant’ was close, and she used emotional language when describing either the parents or protestors. So I wrote that, ‘ it immediately reminded me the spin put on the Brexit referendum. This spin goes like this, ‘working class people have fought for an opinion they have, they must be ignorant.’ If you listened to Melanie’s later article you know that she thinks that the courts, GOSH and herself are objective and only used the facts. She does not however include the working class parent’s own assessments of Charlie’s condition as facts. I on the other hand believe (as a former doctor told me the other day), that usually its the parents that know best about their children’s health. I suspect that some people would agree, but more so depending on the class of the parents.”[2]

As I explained here, whilst I agreed that bias existed, I did not think that this was necessarily the case with the specific article Duncan was responding to. That is not to say that people’s views were and are affected by prejudice.

But do you see the danger here? It goes both ways. On the one hand, if I am reading views and arguments with in built prejudice then I may miss out on something vital, I may miss out on the truth. However, just as equally, my perception that someone else has implicit bias may stop me from hearing truth from them.

The issues at stake in the Charlie Gard case were about what was the right care for a seriously ill baby.  As Duncan outlines in his argument: this includes questions about:

–          Who actually knows best when it comes to the needs of the child? The parents or the medical team?

–          To what extent can we and should we take risks in terms of experimental treatment?

–          What are our responsibilities towards someone with severe brain damage?

The case was complex because it was not about euthanasia -so doctors and later courts were not being asked to make a decision to pro-actively end a life. However, they were making decisions about whether or not to continue providing treatment.

There was the additional complication in that according to the hospital,

–          they did seek to consult with the US based consultant

–          The consultant was given the opportunity to see the relevant medical case files but had not taken up the offer prior to pronouncing on whether his treatment might help

–          The consultant had a vested financial interest in experimental treatment.

So, was this a case of a family standing up to and uncaring, ethically compromised, bureaucratic medical profession? Or was it about a caring medical profession seeking to do what was right for the child and “ignorant” parents and campaigners fighting against that?  Or was it about a family caught up in the middle whilst different interest groups fought their own

It is possible to conclude that whilst the loss of a life is tragic, and even that a better outcome might have been possible if some decisions had been pursued at an earlier stage in the process. It is possible to insist on a “right to life” as a Christian but also to believe that keeping someone alive and pursuing medical solutions at any cost is not necessarily right.

Now this means that someone who isn’t alert to their own implicit bias towards the medical profession and against working class people might miss points about what the Bible says about life and protection of the vulnerable. They may miss the way that underlying philosophical presuppositions might be shaping the way that the NHS and the courts make decisions. They may be missing out on the way that a parent has a particular and precious responsibility to their child that the state does not.

On the other hand, if we feel that we experience prejudice against us and indeed if we have experienced prejudice against us over the years, then this might cause us to discount the arguments made by others when they may be valid.  Those who agree with the court’s conclusions may or may not be middle class, may or may not have prejudices but this does not necessarily mean that their arguments are wrong either.

Furthermore, if I fear that disagreeing with a brother will simply lead to me being accused of prejudice or disowned from a community, if I’m afraid of saying what I believe to be true because it might cause offence then implicit bias has won the battle against truth and love.

We will see a bit more of this in our second example coming up in a future post. Then we will look at some practical ways that we can overcome this challenge.