The Unconscious Bias of Democracy

We are living in a world ridden with conflict. Every day our headlines are full of violence and hatred, the combined reality of which amounts to something like a Third World War. Within such unstable times, it is more important than ever that those of us who are able to, strive to uphold, promote and defend the notions of international human rights and equality to the absolute best of our abilities.

I know we hear this sort of thing all the time, particularly living in a Western democracy, however it seems we may have hit a sort of glass ceiling in terms of advancing human rights – we really want to keep reaching upwards but we are somewhat stuck. It may no longer be enough to simply hold these beliefs if we truly want to smash through this proverbial ceiling and obtain the kind of equality awaiting us on the other side.

It is a sad reality that many people with the very best intentions fall short of these noble ambitions simply due to their unconscious, inbuilt and often inherited biases.

Unconscious bias refers to those instances when our personal experiences impact upon our brain’s snap judgements or decisions; and our subsequent responses to events or people, without any conscious realisation of this. These judgements and decisions are implicit in our individual context and can be heavily influenced by the cultural or societal environment in which we grew up or live in now. This means that we probably are not even aware of the full extent of the implications of these almost inherent views, which makes them much harder to combat. Harder, but not impossible.

If we stop being passive couriers of unconscious bias and instead choose to actively remove bias from our every day, we will start to etch cracks into the glass which we will eventually break to reveal legitimate progress.

Education, I think, is key to this progress. Education is the key to any progress for that matter. If we cannot change the mindset of some members of the current generation of adults, at least we can ensure that the next generation of minds will be without the need for this change in the first place. It would be unwise to underestimate the power of education itself and indeed, the influence (both positive and negative) our teachers can have on the unconscious biases of our children. Children should be taught from a young age to be patient, understanding and sensitive to difference and to celebrate these differences, whether that be gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, religion or otherwise. They should be taught to treat everyone simply as a person, rather than put them into boxes which ultimately alter the way they treat them, whether they mean it to or not.

But how can we expect our children to uphold the principles of equality if the education system itself is far from equal? Private schools and grammar schools encourage the development of unconscious bias and are quite simply unfair (and this is coming from a person who went to a grammar school from the age of 11 until 18). Every child should be entitled to access to exactly the same level of education, regardless of which area they live in or how much money their parents make. The fact that this is evidently not the case in this country is quite frankly ludicrous and we cannot expect any true change to happen before a standard level of education across the country, for every child,  becomes a reality.

For now though, each of us must actively reflect on ourselves and question whether or not we hold biases of which we may not currently be aware. If we find that we do, we must find the strength to try and change this within ourselves before we can sincerely ask this of others. In this way hopefully we can all take individual steps towards removing stereotypes and biases from our society, making legitimate progress towards equality.


Image courtesy of Cary Bass-Deschenes via Flickr


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