by Damien Patrick Williams
Today I want us to talk about a concept I like to call “The Invisible Architecture of Bias.” A bit of this discussion will have appeared elsewhere, but I felt it was high time I stitched a lot of these thoughts together, and used them as a platform to dive deep into one overarching idea. What I mean is that I’ve mentioned this concept before, and I’ve even used the thinking behind it to bring our attention to a great many issues in technology, race, gender, sexuality, and society, but I have not yet fully and clearly laid out a definition for the phrase, itself. Well, not here, at any rate.
Back in the days of a more lively LiveJournal I talked about the genesis of the phrase “The Invisible Architecture of Bias,” and, as I said there, I first came up with it back in 2010, in a conversation with my friend Rebekah, and it describes the assumptions we make and the forces that shape us so deeply that we don’t merely assume them, we live in them. It’s what we would encounter if we asked a 7th generation farmer in a wheat-farming community “Why do you farm wheat?” The question you’re asking is so fundamentally contra the Fact Of Their Lives that they can’t hear it or even think of an actual answer. It simply is the world in which they live.
David Foster Wallace, in his piece “This is Water,” recounts the following joke: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys; how’s the water?’
“And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
That reaction is why it’s the Invisible Architecture of Bias, because we don’t even, can’t even think about the reasons behind the structure of the house—the nature of the reality—in which we live, until we’re forced to come to think about it. That is, until either we train ourselves to become aware of it after something innocuous catches the combined intersection of our unconscious and aesthetic attention—piques our curiosity—or until something goes terribly, catastrophically wrong.
We’ve talked before about what’s known as “Normalization”—the process of that which is merely common becoming seen as “The Norm” and of that norm coming to be seen as “right,” and “good.” Leaving aside Mr. David Hume’s proof that you can’t validly infer a prescription of what “ought to be” from a description of what merely is, normalization is an insidious process, in and of itself. It preys upon our almost-species-wide susceptibility to familiarity. One of the major traits of the human brain is a predilection toward patterns. Pattern making, pattern-matching, and pattern appreciating are all things we think of as “good” and “right,” because they’re what we tend to do. We do them so much, in fact, that we’ve even gone about telling ourselves a series of evolutionary Just-So Stories about how our ability to appreciate patterns is likely what accounts for our dominance as a species on Earth.
But even these words, and the meaning behind them, are rooted in the self-same assumptions—assumptions about what’s true, about what’s right, and about what is. And while the experience of something challenging our understanding of what’s good and right and normal can make acutely aware of what we expected to be the case, this doesn’t mean that we’re then ready, willing, and able to change those assumptions. Quite the opposite, in fact, as we usually tend to double down on those assumptions, to crouch and huddle into them, the better to avoid ever questioning them. We like to protect our patterns, you see, because they’re the foundation and the rock from which we craft our world. The problem is, if that foundation’s flawed, then whatever we build upon it is eventually going to shift, and crack. And personally, I’d rather work to build a more adaptable foundation, than try to convince people that a pile of rubble is a perfectly viable house.
In case it wasn’t clear, yet, I think a lot of people are doing that second one.
So let’s spend some time talking about how we come to accept and even depend on those shaky assumptions. Let’s talk about the structures of society which consciously and unconsciously guide the decision-making processes of people like departmental faculty hiring committees, the people who award funding grants, cops, jurors, judges, DA’s, the media in their reportage, and especially you and me. Because we are the people who are, every day, consuming and attempting to process a fire hose’s worth of information. Information that gets held up to and turned around in the light of what we already believe and know, and then more like than not gets categorized and sorted into pre-existing boxes. But these boxes aren’t without their limitations and detriments. For instance, if we want to, we can describe anything as a relational dichotomy, but to do so will place us within the realm and rules of the particular dialectic at hand.
For the sake of this example, consider that the more you talk in terms of “Liberty” and “Tyranny,” the more you show yourself as having accepted a) the definitions of those terms in relationship with one another and b) the “correct” mode of their perceived conflict’s resolution. The latter is something others have laid down for you. But there is a way around this, and that’s by working to see a larger picture. If Freedom and Restriction are your dichotomy, then what’s the larger system in which they exist and from which they take their meaning?
Now some might say that the idea of a “larger structure” is only ever the fantasy of a deluded mind, and others might say it is the secret truth which has been hidden from us by controlling Illuminati overlords, but at a basic level, to subscribe to either view is to buy the dichotomy and ignore the dialectic. You’re still locked into the pattern, and you’re ignoring its edges.
Every preference you have—everything you love, or want, or like the taste of, or fear, or hate— is something you’ve been taught to prefer, and some of those things you’ve been taught so completely and for so long to prefer that you don’t even recognise that you’ve been taught to prefer them. You just think it’s “right” and “Natural” that you prefer these things. That this is the world around you, and you don’t think to investigate it—let alone critique it—because, in your mind, it’s just “The World.” This extends to everything from gender norms; expectations regarding recommended levels of diet and physical activity; women in the military; entertainment; fashion; geek culture; the recapitulation of racism in photographic technology; our enculturated responses to the progress of technology; race; and sexuality.
Now, chances are you encountered some members of that list and you thought some variant on two things, depending on the item; either 1) “Well obviously, that’s a problem,” or 2) “Wait, how is that a problem?” There is the possibility that you also thought a third thing: “I think I can see how that might be a problem, but I can’t quite place why.” So, if you thought things one or two, then congratulations! Here are some of your uninvestigated biases! If you thought thing three (and I hope that you did), then good, because that kind of itching, niggling sensation that there’s something wrong that you just can’t quite suss out is one of the best places to start. You’re open to the possibility of change in your understanding of how the world works, and a bit more likely to be willing to accept that what’s wrong is something from which you’ve benefitted or in which you’ve been complicit, for a very long time. That’s a good start; much better than the alternative.
Now this was going to be the place where I was going to outline several different studies on ableism, racism, sexism, gender bias, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. I was going to lay out the stats on the likelihood of female service members being sexually assaulted in the military; and the history of the colour pink and how it used to be a boy’s colour until a particular advertising push swapped it to blue; and how recent popular discussion of the dangers of sitting/a sedentary lifestyle and the corresponding admonishment that we “need to get up and move around” don’t really take into account people who, y’know, can’t; and how we’re more willing to admit the possibility of mythological species in games and movies than we are for their gender, sexual, or racial coding to be other than what we consider “Normal;” and how most people forget that black people make up the largest single ethnic group within the LGTBQIA community; and how strange the conceptual baggage is in society’s unwillingness to compare a preference and practice of fundamentally queer-coded polyamoury to the heteronormative a) idealization of the ménage-a-trois and b) institution of “dating.”
I say I was going to go into all of that, and exhort you all to take all of this information out into the world to convince them all…! …But then I found this study that shows how when people are confronted with evidence that shakes our biases? We double down on those biases.
Yeah. See above.
The study specifically shows that white people who are confronted with evidence that the justice system is not equally weighted in its treatment across all racial and ethnic groups—people who are clearly shown that cops, judges, lawyers, and juries exhibit vastly different responses when confronted with white defendants than they do when confronted with Black or Hispanic defendants—do not respond as we all like to think that we would, when we’re confronted with evidence that casts our assumptions into doubt. Overwhelmingly, those people did not say, “Man. That is Fucked. Up. I should really keep a look out for those behaviours in myself, so I don’t make things so much worse for people who are already having a shitty time of it. In fact, I’ll do some extra work to try to make their lives less shitty.”
Instead, those studied overwhelmingly said, “The System Is Fair. If You Were Punished, You Must Have Done Something Wrong.”
They locked themselves even further into the system.
You see how maddening that is? Again, I’ve seen this happen as I’ve watched people who benefit from the existing power structures in this world cling so very tightly to the idea that the game can’t be rigged, the system can’t be unjust, because they’ve lived their lives under its shelter and in its thrall, playing by the rules it’s laid out. Because if they question it, then they have to question themselves. How are they complicit, how have they unknowingly done harm, how has the playing field been so uneven for everyone? And those questions are challenging. They’re what we like to call “ontological shocks” and “epistemic threats.”
Simply put, epistemic threats are threats to your knowledge of the world and your way of thinking, and ontological shocks are threats to what you think is Real and possible. Epistemic threats challenge what you think you know as true, and if we are honest then they should happen to us every day. A new class, new books, new writings, a conversation with a friend you haven’t heard from in months—everything you encounter should be capable of shaking your view of the world. But we need knowledge, right? Again, we need patterns and foundations, and our beliefs and knowledge allow us to build those. When we shake those knowledge forms and those beliefs, then we are shaking the building blocks of what is real. Once we’ve done that, we have escalated into the realm of ontological shocks, threats, terror, and violence.
The scene in the Matrix where Agent Smith seals Neo’s mouth shut? That’s a prime example of someone undergoing an Ontological Shock, but they can be more subtle than that. They can be a new form of art, a new style of music, a new explanation for old data that challenges the metaphysical foundations of the world in which we live. Again, if we are honest, this shouldn’t terrify us, shouldn’t threaten us, and yet, every time we encounter one of these things, our instinct is to wrap ourselves in the very thing they challenge. Why?
We’re presented with an epistemic or ontological threat and we have a fear reaction, we have a hate reaction, a distaste, a displeasure, an annoyance: Why? What is it about that thing, about us, about the world as it has been presented that makes our intersection with that thing/person/situation what it is? It’s because, ultimately, the ease of our doubling-down, our folding into the fabric of our biases works like this: if the world from which we benefit and on which we depend is shown to be unjust, then that must mean that we are unjust. But that’s a conflation of the attributes of the system with the attributes of its components, and that is what we call the Fallacy of Division. All the ants in the world weigh more than all the elephants in the world, but that doesn’t mean that each ant weighs more than each elephant. It’s only by the interaction of the category’s components that the category can even come to be, let alone have the attributes it has. We need to learn to separate the fact of our existence and complicity within a system from the idea that that mere fact is somehow a value judgment on us.
So your assumptions were wrong, or incomplete. So your beliefs weren’t fully formed, or you didn’t have all the relevant data. So what? I didn’t realise you were omniscient, thus making any failure of knowledge a personal and permanent failure, on your part. I didn’t realise that the truth of the fact that we all exist in and (to varying degrees) benefit from a racist, sexist, generally prejudicial system would make each and every one of us A Racist, A Sexist, or A Generally and Actively Prejudiced Person.
That’d be like saying that because we exist within and benefit from a plant-based biosphere, we ourselves must be plants.
The value judgement only comes when the nature of the system is clear—when we can see how all the pieces fit together, and can puzzle out the narrative and even something like a way to dismantle the structure—and yet we do nothing about it. And so we have to ask ourselves: Could my assumptions and beliefs be otherwise? Of course they could have, but they only ever can if we first admit the possibility that a) there are things we do not know, and b) we have extant assumptions preventing us from seeing what those things are. What would that possibility mean? What would it take for us to change those assumptions? How can we become more than we presently are?
So, I’ve tended to think that we can only force ourselves into the investigation of invisible architectures of bias by highlighting the disparities in application of the law, societal norms, grouped expectations, and the reactions of systems of authority in the same. What I’m saying now, however, is that, in the face of the evidence that people double down on their biases, I’ve come to suspect this may not be the best use of our time. I know, I know: that’s weird to say, 2600 words into the process of what was ostensibly me doing just exactly that. But the fact is this exercise was only ever going to be me preaching to the proverbial choir.
You and I already know that if we do not confront and account for these proven biases, they will guide our thought processes and we will think of those processes as “normal,” because they are unquestioned and they are uninvestigated, because they are unnoticed and they are active. We already know that our unquestioning support of these things, both directly and indirectly, is what gives them power over us, power to direct our actions and create the frameworks in which our lives can play out, all while we think of ourselves as “free” and “choosing.”
We already know that any time we ask “well what was this person doing wrong to deserve getting shot/charged with murder/raped/etc,” that we inherently dismiss the power of extant, unexamined bias in the minds of those doing the shooting, the charging, the judging of the rape victim. We already know that our biases exist in us and in our society, but that they aren’t called “biases.” They aren’t called anything. They’re just “The Way Things Are.”
We don’t need to be told to remember at every step of the way that nothing simply “IS” “a way.”
But the minds of those in or who benefit from authority—from heteronormativity, and cissexism, and all forms of ableism, and racism, and misogyny, and transmisogyny, and bi-erasure—do everything they can—consciously or not—to create and maintain those structures which keep them in the good graces of that authority. The struggle against their complicity is difficult to maintain, but it’s most difficult to even begin, as it means questioning the foundation of every assumption about “The Way Things Are.” The people without (here meaning both “lacking” and “outside the protections of”) that authority can either a) capitulate to it, in hopes that it does not injure them too badly, or b) stand against it at every turn they can manage, until such time as authority and power are not seen as zero-sum games, and are shared amongst all of us.
See for reference: fighters for civil rights throughout history.
But I honestly don’t know how to combat that shell of wilful and chosen ignorance, other than by chipping away at it, daily. I don’t know how to get people to recognise that these structures are at work, other than by throwing sand on the invisible steps, like I’m Dr Henry Jones, Jr., PhD, to try to give everyone a clearer path. So, here. Let’s do the hard work of making unignorable the nature of how our assumptions can control us. Let’s try to make the Invisible Architecture of Bias super Visible.
1st Example: In December 2013 in Texas, a guy, suspected of drugs, has his house entered on a no-knock warrant. Guy, fearing for his life, shoots one of the intruders, in accordance with Texas law. Intruder dies.
“Intruder” was a cop.
Drugs—The Stated Purpose of the No-Knock—are found.
Guy was out on bail pending trial for drug charges, but was cleared of murder by the grand jury who declared that he performed “a completely reasonable act of self-defence.”
Guy is white.
2nd Example: In May 2014 in Texas, a guy, suspected of drugs, has his house entered on a no-knock warrant. Guy, fearing for his life, shoots one of the intruders, in accordance with Texas law. Intruder dies.
“Intruder” was a cop.
Drugs—The Stated Purpose of the No-Knock—are not found.
Guy is currently awaiting trial on capital murder charges.
Guy is, of course, black.
Now I want to make it clear that I’m not exactly talking about what a decent lawyer should be able to do for the latter gentleman’s case, in light of the former case; I’m not worried about that part. Well, what I mean is that I AM WORRIED ABOUT THAT, but moreover that worry exists as a by-product in light of the architecture of thought that led to the initial disparity in those two grand jury pronouncements.
As a bit of a refresher, grand juries determine not guilt or innocence but whether to try a case, at all. To quote from the article on criminal.findlaw.com, “under normal courtroom rules of evidence, exhibits and other testimony must adhere to strict rules before admission. However, a grand jury has broad power to see and hear almost anything they would like.” Both of these cases occurred in Texas and the reasoning of the two shooters and the subsequent events on the sites of their arrests were nearly identical except for a) whether drugs were found, and b) their race.
So now, let’s Ask Some More Questions. Questions like “In the case of the Black suspect, what kind of things did the grand jury ask to see, and what did the prosecution choose to show?”
And “How did these things differ from the kinds of things the grand jury chose to ask for and the prosecution chose to show in the case of the White suspect?”
And “Why were these kinds of things different, if they were?”
Because the answer to that last question isn’t “they just were, is all.” That’s a cop-out that seeks to curtail the investigation of people’s motivations before as many reasons and biases as possible can be examined, and it’s that tendency that we’ve been talking about. The tendency to shy away in the face of stark comparisons like:
A no-knock warrant for drugs executed on a white guy turned up drugs and said guy killed a cop; that guy is cleared of murder by a grand jury.
A no-knock warrant for drugs executed on a black guy turned up no drugs and said guy killed a cop; that guy is put on trial for murder by a grand jury.
At the end of the day, we need to come up with methods to respond to those of us who stubbornly refuse to see how shifting the burden of proof to the groups of people who traditionally have no power and authority only reinforces the systemic structures of bias and oppression that lead to things like police abuses and juries doling out higher sentences to oppressed groups for the same kinds of crimes—or lesser crimes, as in the case of the trail record of the infamous “Affluenza” judge—as those committed by suspects who benefit from extant systems of authority or power. We need to get us to compare rates and length of incarceration for women and men who kill their spouses, and to not forget to look at the reasons they tend to. We need to think about the ways in which gender presentation in the sciences can determine the kinds of career path guidance a person is given.
We need to ask ourselves this: “What kind of questions am I quickest to ask, and why is it easier to ask those kinds of questions?”
Every system that exists requires the input and maintenance of the components of the system, in order to continue to exist. Whether intentional and explicit or coincidentally implicit—or any combination of the four—we are all complicit in holding up the walls of these structures. And so I can promise you that the status quo needs everyone’s help to stay the status quo, and that it’s hoping that some significant portion of all of us will never realise that. So our only hope is to account for the reality structures created by our biases—and the disgraceful short-sightedness those structures and biases impose—to find a way to use their tendencies for self-reinforcement against them, and keep working in our ways to make sure that everyone does.
Because if we do see these structures, and we do want to change them, then one thing that we can do is work to show them to more and more people, so that, together, we can do the hard and unending work of building and living in a better kind of world.
- Links to a great many seriously upsetting statistics: http://lordbape.tumblr.com/post/93357010164/killed-for-being-black-theres-more-black-on-white
- “Michael Brown, Ferguson, and The Logic of Slavery”: http://www.racefiles.com/2014/08/20/michael-brown-ferguson-and-the-logic-of-slavery/
- Four Youths Claimed to Have Committed Suicide, With Guns. While in Police Custody. And Handcuffed: https://38.media.tumblr.com/bc066f62b8cb99b0c8b2e0aefa87abac/tumblr_naxi6iOfOu1qkoj3co1_500.jpg
- Shaun King on The Murder of John Crawford, III, and How it Fits into American Society: http://poldberg.tumblr.com/post/97152925423/while-there-is-a-lot-of-appropriate-rage-about
- Also: Autopsy and video show John Crawford shot from behind in Wal-Mart
- Also: Witness in murder of John Crawford changes story
- “Actress Daniel Watts Wrongfully Detained on Accusations of Prostitution”: http://www.forharriet.com/2014/09/actress-daniele-watts-wrongfully.html?m=1
- A Non-Famous Person Recounts Several Similar Experiences: https://twitter.com/FunSizeBytes/timelines/511261473046528001
- “Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds; Police likelier to use force against black children when officers ‘dehumanize’ blacks, study says”: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/03/black-boys-older.aspx
- “Men And Women Appear To Suffer Pain Differently. So Do Blacks And Whites. Modern Medicine Has Trouble Even Talking About It.”
- ‘Paradoxically, the same groups accused of insensitivity often were also said to respond to pain with insufficient stoicism. Black people’s supposed indifference to pain was used to justify colonization and slavery; at the same time, slaves were often accused of overreacting to pain. Bourke looked as far back as the 18th century and found that some groups were accused of widely disparate kinds of “improper” pain responses practically all at the same time. “It’s a really a Catch-22,” she said. “They’re either not really feeling, and it’s just reflexes, or they’re feeling too much and it’s exaggerated or it’s hysterical.’ http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/06/14/don-feel-your-pain/cIrKD5czM0pgZQv7PgCmxI/story.html
- ‘“Affluenza” Judge Gave 14-Year Old Black Boy 10 Years in Prison for a Far Lesser Crime’
- ‘Race As A Social Construct: Resisting The “Pseudo-Science” Of Race’ http://minerva.stkate.edu/people.nsf/files/mina-82v8bu/%24file/inclusivescience.pdf
- “What We Mean When We Say ‘Race Is a Social Construct’” http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/what-we-mean-when-we-say-race-is-a-social-construct/275872/
- “’Racism’ Of Early Colour Photography Explored In Art Exhibition: Artists Spent A Month In South Africa Taking Pictures On Decades-Old Film Engineered With Only White Faces In Mind”
- “Texas Man Won’t Be Prosecuted For Killing Cop In No-Knock Raid”
- “[Texas Man Being Prosecuted For Capital Murder After] SWAT Officer Shot In The Face Breaking Into Window During No-Knock Raid”: http://www.policestateusa.com/2014/killeen-texas-fatal-raid/
- “Professors Love Answering Cold Emails from White Dudes, “Meh” on Everyone Else”
- “Why It’s So Hard For Men To See Misogyny”
“Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” ‘So, the challenge: how to get across the ideas bound up in the word “privilege,” in a way that your average straight white man will get, without freaking out about it?
‘Being a white guy who likes women, here’s how I would do it…’ http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/
- “Girls and boys’ differing understanding of when to talk, when to be quiet, what is polite and so on, has a visible impact on the dynamics of the classroom. Just as men dominate the floor in business meetings, academic conferences and so on, so little boys dominate in the classroom – and little girls let them.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/yourvoice/classroom_talk.shtml
- “NPR- Casting Call: Hollywood Needs More Women”
“My theory is that since all anybody has seen, when they are growing up, is this big imbalance – that the movies that they’ve watched are about, let’s say, 5 to 1, as far as female presence is concerned – that’s what starts to look normal. And let’s think about – in different segments of society, 17 percent of cardiac surgeons are women; 17 percent of tenured professors are women. It just goes on and on. And isn’t that strange that that’s also the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies? What if we’re actually training people to see that ratio as normal so that when you’re an adult, you don’t notice?” -Geena Davis
- PBS “Language Myth # 6: Women Talk Too Much”
“No, they don’t. Rather, they don’t in every situation. Social context and relative power determine who talks more, men or women. Janet Holmes sets the record straight and establishes the reasons for the lingering myth of female chattiness. (The research cited in this essay was first published in 1999.)”: http://www.pbs.org/speak/speech/prejudice/women/
- Continual Depictions of ONLY MALE Cardiac Arrest on Television colour what we expect ALL CARDIAC ARREST to look like: http://feministing.com/2012/02/23/for-women-heart-attacks-look-different-and-so-do-heart-health-outcomes/
- Lewis’ Law: http://wilwheaton.tumblr.com/post/61622240642/birchbone-queensassyofthefatties-lewiss
- Audio of the Panel “Gender, Race, and Identities in Comics,” from the Comics and Popular Arts Academic Conference at 2013’s Dragon Con, with Presenters Kari Storla and Daniel Amrhein: http://thehangedman.com/cpac-files/02GenderRaceAndIdentitiesInComics.mp3
- Audio of the Panel “Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Cosplay and Fandom,” from the Comics and Popular Arts Academic Conference at 2013’s Dragon Con, with presenters John Flowers, Kari Storla, and Daniel Amrhein: http://thehangedman.com/cpac-files/05RaceGenderAndSexualityInCosplayAndFandom.m4a
- A Cartoon: http://seriouslyamerica.tumblr.com/post/86909058080/the-rugrats-dont-have-time-for-your
- “Queer Science: LGBT Scientists Discuss Coming Out at Work.”
- A reminder to think intersectionally, as it is often forgotten that Black People Make Up Largest Share of LGBT Community
- “From Norma to Normalization”: http://www.patreon.com/creation?alert=2&hid=635526
- David Hume and the Is-Ought Gap: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume-moral/#io
- Cosmic Anthropology Broadcast System #2, “Roll Your Own Culture”
“…on building your own reality map”: https://soundcloud.com/pir8m1k3y/roll-your-own-culture-a-chat-with-gordon-white-of-runesoupcom