How much does groupthink contribute to implicit bias?

This sounds like the title for an academic paper, doesn’t it? Heh. Maybe I should work my way into academia and write thoughtful, philosophical papers on the human condition. Yeah … no. That’s not me. Not in the least.

I may not be model material for academia, but I do think a great deal about the human condition. Maybe too much. In fact, my husband would agree that I think too much. He’s told me that on several occasions. My reaction is that I’ve got a brain and brains do best when used and I use mine to think. Thus, I am using my brain – exercising it, if you’d like, in much the same way people go to step class. /nod When they cut me open, they’ll find my brain limber and beautifully muscle-toned. I am rambling …

While putting sheets and towels in the washing machine, loading the dishwasher, and making breakfast (including gloriously stand-the-spoon-up-in-it coffee) this morning, it occurred to me that maybe part of what we’re seeing with this categorical denial of racial bias and the perpetuation of systems that exhibit racial bias is less about systems theory (although I am sure there is plenty of that), and plenty to do with groupthink. How else can you justify an entire police department participating in behaviour that is as reprehensible as confiscating a “bike of a 54-year-old black man because he didn’t have a receipt proving that it belonged to him”?

Yes. I am aware that my linked article is from a well-known progressive site. Based on how articles are written, it’s pretty obvious that if they were going to be classified on one or another side of the political spectrum, they would necessarily fall centre of left. I don’t care. This isn’t about politics. I’m apolitical, remember?

It doesn’t matter who you are, when you look at the big picture, one cannot deny that there does seem to be an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports a pattern of racial bias. And I am not calling anyone a racist. I can’t do that. I don’t have enough info about anyone. Besides, I don’t want to. Being called a racist is horrible. Ugh. I can’t even begin to imagine …

I am a big picture person. I tend to see the overall view rather than the detailed individualised view. I don’t know where that came from. I can’t trace back to any particular event or lesson in my life. I just tend to look at things from a broader perspective than most people I’ve met. It’s a curse sometimes because it makes me deny myself things I want “for the greater good”. Bah. Hate that shit. Sometimes I wish I could be selfish. I don’t think I know how. But I digress …

The big picture shows that there is something going on. There has to be. And here’s what I think it is: groupthink. Know what that is? It’s that shit that happens when you’re with a group of people and you’re all having a grand old time and one person says “we should go get a few brews” and someone else goes “yeah! great idea. let’s do that” and a few more people nod and smile and agree (you never notice that some of this agreement is kind of lacklustre, like they’d rather not) and before you know it, you’re thinking “I may as well go too cos if I don’t they’ll think I’m a snob or something”. That’s groupthink … a rather simplified version, but still exemplary.

I am perfectly able to envision a situation where a seasoned policeman says he thinks that dude stole the bicycle he’s on, and his rookie partner accepts that because experience is valued highly in law enforcement. And before you know it, an entire police department is going along with it because “cop instincts”.

I am not ridiculing cop instincts. Far from it. It’s kept my own husband alive more than once. Cop instincts tend to be good ones. They deal with all kinds of people all day long, every day, for years; decades. You kinda get a feel for how people think after a while. “Cop instincts” saves lives.

I wonder if you can spot the point of failure in my scenario, though. Can you? I’ll wait.

It’s the seasoned policeman. He’s got this little bias thing going on in his head. He probably doesn’t even realise it. It’s been there for all his life, ever since that old granduncle of his told him that there was something inherently bad about black people. He doesn’t consciously think there is something bad about black people and he certainly would not be one to say it out loud, even if he had doubts about it. Hell, maybe he even had a run in or two with a black guy once who stole bikes constantly and who stood out in his memory for some reason. Nothing wrong with that at all. Perfectly understandable. “Cop instincts” – right? They might have kept him safe from that good-for-nothing-bike-thief way back before now. Except, that memory, that instinct made him target someone entirely different without any obvious reason and his experience and respected “cop instincts” made everyone else support him.

It’s important to remember that I’m not blaming our seasoned policeman for anything. I’m not saying he’s a bad person or a bad policeman. I’m not even saying that anything should be done to him as a result. Hell, I’d probably have sided with him too were I his partner.

No; the effects of psychological phenomena such as groupthink isn’t something we can always see or even prevent. It happens even when we don’t even realise it – like that bloody night out with the boys drinking when you really would have preferred to just go home and binge-watch Dexter on Netflix.

What’s the solution? I dunno. Do you have any ideas? Cos all I do is think of causes and effects, dude. I haven’t quite gotten to solutions yet. I may need help there. I think my strengths are more seeing “what is and why”, rather than the creation of the “how it should be”. Hell, how can we build a “what should be” when human nature consistently and relentlessly sabotages every attempt, anyway?

Seriously. All I am asking is that we can at least admit that something is wrong and that maybe we need to take a closer look at the shit we do, say, and think before we go off half-cocked. Yeah? How’s that sound?

What depression really is … from someone who knows.

The other day I wrote a phrase/quote and posted it on my respective social media timelines. It got some attention because of the really apt imagery it evoked. But I wanted to talk about it more, because this is a thing most people don’t understand and probably one of the most often miscategorised afflictions of all time.

Here’s what I wrote:

Depression is like trying to climb up a muddy hillside. There’s no place to grip & you keep falling face down in sucking, cold mud.

I had to condense it down to less than 140 characters so it’d fit on Twitter too. But the whole thought as it initially started out was this:

It feels like trying to climb up a steep, muddy hillside. There’s no where to put your hands and feet and you keep falling back down into the muck and you’re covered head to toe in sticky, sucking, cold mud.

I thought it was some pretty powerful imagery. Cold, muddy, mucky, the inability to be really comfortable with yourself and your surroundings for no reason that you can discern. Furthermore, there is so very little you can do until you find the help you need. In this imagery, a ladder or a rope or simply a helping hand would work great …  if only you could get your hand on it.

The worst part about depression is that somehow you find yourself thinking you deserve to be sitting in that bloody mud. It’s pretty irrational, but something about how you view your life up to that point tells you that being in that mud is all the result of every decision you ever made up to that point and thus a perfectly justifiable position to be in.

Some of us are able to keep trying until we get out and those people think, “Well, if I can do it, anyone can.” Which is kind of a cop-out on empathy. There is no natural or unnatural law anywhere that makes us all the same and capable of the same things at the same levels of competence. You may think I am just as smart as you are and thus able to accomplish the same things, but that isn’t true. We are individual people capable of different things. And being depressed – chronically now, not just feeling blue today – means we just want to lay down in that mud and say, “I’ll try again tomorrow … maybe” because it is truly exhausting have to keep trying to climb out day in, day out.


Why yelling to be heard is perfectly understandable

In my earlier adult years, I often found myself shouting over everyone else when I wanted to be heard. I would get angry when people said things like “She’s cute” or “She’s so tiny” or “Are you sure you can manage?” because in my mind, it reinforced this idea I had that people saw me as incompetent or incapable of very basic adult functions. In discussions with others, I realised my concept wasn’t far wrong. People saw me as diminutive and thus thought of me as less capable. It echoed in the ways they treated me and how they almost never listened to me. Thus my impulse was correct, but my reaction was wrong.

This is something I observe happening time and again with the conversations that go on around me. One morning, I shared a thoughtful discussion on racism with a dear friend and her reaction was knee-jerk and very defensive. The content of the article itself is the kind that does move people to become defensive because race is such a touchy topic in the United States right now. In this case, however, I found the reaction far more pronounced than I had imagined it would have been. On closer examination, I found out that (a) the article had already been shared but from a quarter that had caused trauma before me and (b) the friend was in a small personal crisis of her own at that moment.

It struck me, then, that our reactions to difficult conversations are often a result of our own internal dialogue than anything being said. When someone tells me I am tiny, I react based on this idea that they find me incompetent … when really they are likely simply commenting on how small bodied I am. My reaction in older days of getting angry and telling whoever it was off was because of my baggage – not theirs or not anything they said in that moment. And this is the case with most of our knee-jerk reactions. They come from a place that has encompassed history and context outside of the current situation.

One of the points I took from that article on race was this question: “How then can we have a conversation about race without evoking those impulsive defensive reactions in people?” He made the point that the only way to get the attention of people is to shock them. I think that’s precisely what got us into this mess in the first place. Shock value dialogue. And in spite of all the bad I see in that particular course of action, there is much good too. Shocking people often gives them pause and that pause is what you want to get in on and make your point.

How often have you said “Will you shut up and listen?” and then gleefully stepped into the subsequent horrified silence and made your point? I know I have. The stunned looks on the faces of those I am speaking to is a clue that they aren’t hearing me – even though I got them to be quiet. But I need to make my point – I need it to be heard and considering the noise I have to get through, the only way to get that space to make my point is through shock.

Not surprisingly, that doesn’t work. When people are outraged or offended, they stop listening. I don’t even have to prove that to you … you already know that. The noise of “what did she just do?” is too loud to even hear what I’ve said after the face slap. True?

So the question remains – how do we make that space within which we can be heard without that shock? How do we get people to be quiet long enough to listen to our story? How is it some of us can stop long enough to hear of someone else’s pain – even amidst our own? Tell me what it takes for you to stop talking and start listening? Maybe if we all pitch in with our own insight we can find some common ground and forge a new way to hear one another.

On echo chambers and the stark contrasts that exist among them

I think I sit in a particularly advantageous position of straddling several different cultures and ideologies because of the friends I have on my many social media contact lists. For some reason, I have collected a most diverse group of friends.

Facebook provides the most of this experience because of the nature of Facebook sharing. As a sampling of all the different people on my list, there’s the ultra conservatives (whose posts I have to go searching for because they don’t show up in my news feed – damn that filter bubble), and the staunch liberals, and there are the Jamaicans and the other Caribbeanites, then I have the Europeans (who I also have to go seeking their posts out separately too – probably Facebook’s annoying geographic filtering at work), and the Asians (same – have to seek their posts out) … and then national and political sectioning aside, I see the women and the men, the non-whites and the whites, the religious and the not-so-religious, and the downright irreligious … the point I am trying to make is that there are so many different people in my friends lists that I get to see all different perspectives play out on social media and it is fascinating. Especially when I have these visceral reactions to the things they post. That is usually a signal to me that I need to work on something internally.

One of the ways I know that my list is so diverse is when I see something pop up in my news feed that is just completely outside the rest of things on my feed (… one of these things is not like the other …) and I think, “Well, that kind of doesn’t fit in with the general flow of things”. And then I realise that on their feed, that is likely a post that fits right in. And right there is the whole “oh-shit” moment when I realise just how much of an echo chamber our news feeds can be. If we don’t hear the voices of those outside our general circles, we don’t realise just how insulated we are from the rest of the world. I mean, there’s so much happening elsewhere in the world and we often forget (or can’t handle it) because we are so embroiled in what’s happening within our circle.

I like to seek out as much of the different chambers as I can to get a better feel of what it’s like in someone else’s chamber. I like to keep myself reminded that my world is small and closeted and that there is a whole other world out there to partake of. One that doesn’t resemble my world in any way, shape, or form. It’s humbling and grounding. And something I would highly recommend to anyone.

Trevor Noah is slated to be the new Daily Show host, yeah.

I have this feeling that it’s all a big April Fool’s Joke and that Jon is going to tell us in a week or two that it was all a big joke and Trevor is just simply joining their staff as a regular “correspondent”. I don’t know why that is. All I know that after watching his routine on Netflix, that surreality is a bit stronger. Why? Let me tell you …

Two things struck me as I watched him: (1) that he seemed very uncomfortable in front of the audience; almost amateurish and inexperienced; and (2) that his routine seems overly obsessed with race in America. That he is inexperienced is probably true. His Wikipedia page states that he’s met with considerable success in other countries but that he is still quite new on the US circuit. That feeling of inexperience is likely to smooth out over the course of time as he gets a feel of what US audiences like and don’t like.

There has been much controversy surrounding his being named Jon successor. At first it was all about the fat jokes and the Jew jokes; and now there are those atheist jokes. And they all seem to have fallen so hard they fell through several floors before falling flat … assuming they were jokes at all. I notice that the first horror at his Twitter timeline was over the fat jokes and Jew jokes and the fact that he could make such ambiguous statements (because we still aren’t sure they are not jokes) about a marginalised group. It took a whole 2 days before I saw that the atheists also have bones to pick with him over statements made in the wake of Christopher Hitchens passing that were also ambiguously offensive (because those are also supposed to be jokes too although one wonders … but I digress). Atheists are also a marginalised group, but that they were left out of the initial outrage speaks volumes about our individual perspectives. I wonder how many other groups have been targeted by his so-called jokes but went unnoticed because those groups are so invisible that no one notices when they are being targeted?

Perspective is a hell of an equaliser. Take his race-centric routine. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to make a reference to how the US has traditionally handled race issues and what impact those ways have on his experiences here. He is from South Africa where race has always been a high stakes issue. He was born into a racial divide that personifies racism. In spite of his experiences at home in South Africa, the issue of race in the US is very confusing to him and he works it out in his comedy routine. The thing is, US Americans claim that this is a post-racial society. But those of us coming from outside think that is the most oblivious statement ever. The US is more embroiled in racial issues than they ever have been because now the racism is no longer obvious and on the individual “you stay over there” level. It’s in the system and the tiny little biases no one is even aware they have until they call an 18 year old man a demon (and sometimes even then they don’t realise it).

If nothing else, Noah will be good for this so-called “post-racial” society because he can shine some light into places most US Americans don’t even know exist. It’s the same place I find myself in. They say you never see yourself more clearly than when someone tells you how you look. (I don’t know who said that. I just pulled that out of my ass. It sounded good at the time. Sue me.) Noah and others like him bring a perspective that the US ought to welcome. Even if you don’t see his perspective as being unquestionably neutral, you can at least see it as bringing contrasts to a situation that has too long been seen in insular ways.

And to those who wonder whether he can be trusted with our national media spotlight, I say he will be good for some issues. His thoughts and opinions on fat people, or Jews, or religious/irreligious may be controversial, but we can’t expect him to be perfect. And he will be very good for the discussion on race – which is a discussion that still needs to happen. Maybe even more so than the fat, Jew, religious ones because those are already happening. The one on race isn’t. At least not in ways that it needs to.


That thing where someone sees something differently …

I had a surreal moment the other night.

I showed my husband an article that purported to be dispelling the age-old debate on whether the toilet paper roll should be over or under. You know the one. That debate is so old, its got a walker. Anyway, the article showed images from this old patent in which the roll is shown to be mounted with the flap over the top. Commentary on social media seemed to side with the idea that the patent proves that the roll should be mounted with the flap over. At least the commentary I saw.

The surreal moment was when, after showing him this article, my husband said to me that all of us who have been hanging our rolls with the flap over have been violating the patent all these years. He thought the patent proved that those in the “under” camp were right all along. And it was surreal because in that moment it was clear to me that my husband and I see things vastly different. The next thought was, “What else have we been disagreeing on all these years based on differences in perspective?”

The thing is, neither of us is “wrong”. Not really. I mean … really. How can either be wrong? It is literally a matter of preference, circumstance, and/or convenience. Sometimes “under” can serve us better than “over” and sometimes it’s the other way around. We really shouldn’t be spending any time arguing over it though. I mean, they are both valid and logical conclusions with a lay-person’s understanding of patents.

This is now a challenge to me. And whenever I can step outside the content of our discussion, I will probe at that concept. That concept that says there may be other issues are we applying our unique logic to and coming up with completely different conclusions. I will ask for clarification on how he sees the subject at hand because I am now fascinated by how easily that could have turned into an argument.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all, as human beings, solve our polarising arguments by simply realising that each of us have very different perspectives that provide us with completely different conclusions. And none of us are entirely wrong in our conclusions; just different.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for arguments that, based in emotion, seek to debunk scientific evidence. No, I am talking about opinions on aesthetics. Whether we should be hanging the toilet paper roll with the flap over or under, not whether to vaccinate your kids. There is a vast difference between arguing over something that doesn’t affect anyone at all versus something that most definitely can and will affect someone else negatively.

Oh and by the way, if you happen to be one of those people who managed to completely miss the uproar over the toilet paper roll patent images, here’s a piece from CNET for your edification.

Accents, the effects of migration, and the concept of “twanging”

I so often hear sentiments like, “Oh, but your accent is so mild/strong/faint/nonexistent”. My best friend teases me because I sound “so foreign now”. I’ve been told that I sound like I am “twanging” to impress people. (Note: there is no dictionary definition for what “twang” means to Jamaicans – it is essentially a horribly, awful sound of someone attempting to sound foreign.) And then I listen to people who have lived away from Jamaica for years … decades. And they all sound as if they’d not left the island … ever. And that sometimes makes me feel like the sellout I think a lot of people think of me as. I’m not; and I am going to explain why it is I “sound so foreign already”.

You see, the thing is, most of us, when speaking to people who share cultural imagery and language with us, speak really fast and in shortcuts. When I talk to my husband, or my best friend, or people who are Jamaican, I use the word “thing” a lot, for example. In fact, one of the funniest moments I remember from when a former close friend told stories about her schooling in the US was with that word. Jamaicans (used to?) have this habit of saying, “Aaaaaaahmmm…. ting deh” (and it sounds exactly like how you might imagine it – long and drawled). This friend regaled us with a funny story of how she walked up to a student who was from the US and went, “Aaaaaaahmmm … ting deh …” and got such an odd look that everyone broke up laughing because … well, what the hell does that even mean? To a Jamaican, it simply means that you are trying to say something (a name or reference to some obscure event or person or fact) and you can’t quite remember what it is, so you fill the silence with sounds.

If we dissect our everyday speech, we’d realise very quickly how many assumptions about the other person’s knowledge we make. That was never brought closer to home to me than when I married into the military. Hubby and I talk about PCSing (PCS = Permanent Change of Station; the military process of being reassigned and moved to a new military installation) all the time. I’ve said it to my best friend no less than 5 times in the last 8 years. But every single time I say it, I have to explain what that means because it is so alien to him. Which is fine … it’s expected … it’s normal. And it exemplifies that cultural nuance that we often ignore when we talk within our respective cultures.

I guess on some subliminal level I have always been aware of cultural and sub-cultural differences when talking to people. As a result, I end up doing everything I know how to do to ease that cross-cultural interaction so that each person gets the least amount of friction in that interaction, the end result hopefully being that the content is memorable and not so much the people or the mechanics.

Does that make sense?

Lemme try again…

I try to talk to you in a way that I know you will find little to no difficulty understanding me so that we aren’t caught up in who we are and focus, instead, on the what of the conversation. What that boils down to for me moving to the US and “suddenly sounding so foreign” is that to you, my fellow yaadies, I sound like a sellout but to everyone else outside of Jamaica, I sound … understandable. And to you, my new US family, I simply sound like I’ve been here for a while and “lost my accent” because I don’t sound like any other Jamaican you’ve ever spoken to.

Don’t get me wrong … sounding Jamaican is something I wish I could do all the time. This is evidenced by the fact that now that my husband is a bit better attuned to Jamaican accents and words I now speak more like a Jamaican when with him. I am pedantic, however, and I’d rather get on to the next milepost in the conversation than spend double time explaining what I just said because you didn’t understand clearly because I spoke too fast/used a word you don’t know/made a reference to something you have no knowledge of (side note: ” … because … because …” ugh – inner grammar nerd screaming in agony).

In the end, think of my “accent” as just me being typical introvert me wanting to get to the substance as quickly as possible so we can all get on with our day. :)

Ideally, it would be culturally enriching to spend time explaining those differences in an edifying way but those opportunities don’t often present themselves and when circumstances don’t allow for that, we have to focus on the what rather than the who. Know what I mean?