Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Implicit Bias and Conflicting Views in the Church

Kate Kirkpatrick’s article on in the Church Times (28 November 2014, p. 14) is worth a read. She discusses the concept of implicit bias and, far more briefly, muses on what this means for the Church. Here are a few quotations from the article:

“Implicit biases” so permeate our attitudes and our actions that even those of us who believe ourselves to be committed to equality and justice may unwittingly perpetuate inequality and injustice.

[O]ur unconscious attitudes do not always agree with our conscious commitments: psychologists have discovered significant differences between attitudes at the implicit and explicit levels, particularly with respect to marginalised groups. Human beings have a tendency to think they are more committed to ideals such as justice and equality than we are in practice.

Explicitly, few of us would own up to sexism or racism, or to thinking that the rich are more worthy human beings than the poor; nevertheless, when tested on the implicit level, we do.

Even highly qualified and successful women exhibit [gender] bias. Marin Alsop, the first female conductor of a prominent US orchestra, . . . , is a frequent flyer. But, if she hears the welcome “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking” uttered in a female voice, she confesses to having a momentary reaction: “God, I hope she can fly the plane.” / Her response is fleeting but real, and quickly overtaken by a secondary reaction: “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course she can. She’s had the training; she’s just as good as anyone else,” etc.

The first step is to be aware that it is not only “bad” people who are unconsciously biased. We all have blind spots. But at least implicit-bias research, and the tools that have been developed from it, provide an opportunity to remove some logs from our eyes.

Kirkpatrick’s article feeds into a couple of conversations I’ve been having recently on Facebook and in person about the idea of privilege and how the privileged often fail to see the ways in which they are privileged. This is a concept that unsettles me, not so much for its perspectivism as for its prophetic condemnation of my ignorance of my place in imposing systemic injustice and evil – though I do have reservations about its apparent assumption that ‘the privileged’ are somehow outside the system and are merely enforcing it, rather than being caught up in it themselves. But the central point here is surely incontestable: We all seek to maintain our own privileged positions, whatever they may be. And some, of course, have more privileges than others.

These concepts of implicit bias and privilege also resonate with some other thoughts I’ve been having about the place of underpinning values in the members of our local churches. Take, for example, discussions about the place of children in the local church and the important question of how to engage them so they grow in faith. Is the best practice to include the children in the church’s worship for the first ten minutes or so before sending them to Sunday school classes while the adults continue worshipping in the main service? (This happens in so many churches – certainly ones I’ve attended, anyway.) Should the liturgy be so shaped as to incorporate the children within the main service (as sometimes happens in ‘family’ services or ‘all-age’ services)? Or are there other options to consider? I’m not offering any particular response to these questions, at least not here; but the answers given to these questions will surely incarnate the underlying assumptions or underpinning values each of us holds. So, to take my first question as the example, if we conclude that the children are better off going to Sunday school rather than staying in the main service, do our underpinning values assume that children will be too disruptive for the adults; that the children will be bored; that the sermon will have to be dumbed down so the children can understand it; that children prefer action songs to hymns or modern choruses; that children need to learn Bible stories rather than engage in formal, liturgical worship (whatever this might mean in practice in our particular ecclesial tradition); and so on? While the issue of children in churches is but an illustration here, I hope I’ve shown to an extent how our underpinning values might determine any answer we give to an ostensibly simple question such as: ‘How do we engage the children in our church?’

But, of course, in discussing matters such as these, there are plenty of opportunities for our particular underpinning values to clash with those of others. I’m beginning to think that a lot of the inner-church battles we fight are more due to a failure to see things from another’s point of view than due to an inherent flaw in that person’s position. The more serious conflicts (if indeed conflicts can be quantified in this way) over race, gender, class, and so on, no doubt stem in large part from the implicit biases of privilege. But other, less serious conflicts – such as the place of children in worship (and I suspect that my description of the place of children in worship as ‘less serious’ means I’m working with an adult–child binary despite my best intentions, for it suggests the matter depends solely on what the adults think) – are probably more due to the implicit biases created by our underpinning values (or the underpinning values created by our implicit biases). Regardless of the severity of the conflict, an important component for reaching any resolution is surely the act of listening, of really listening, so that all voices in the conversation are heard. It will not do for the Church, for local churches, and for individual Christians to hold values of justice, equality, and so on, and then somehow exclude others from the conversations. It’s easy to see these issues from our own perspectives; but genuine, Christlike empathy surely requires Christians to look at these issues from the perspectives of the underprivileged.

So what could this look like in practice? At the simplistic level at which I’m reflecting (this is a blog post, after all, not a treatise), I can only assume that, in the first instance, it means asking not merely what views a person has on any given matter, but asking why that person holds those views – and, importantly, to ask this not for the sake of challenging or confronting that person or his or her views, but so that I, as the person asking the question, can truly hear that person’s heart. We cannot avoid our inherent biases, whether these arise simply as a matter of perspective or from a position of privilege. But what we can do, as Kate Kirkpatrick observes so keenly, is to acknowledge our implicit biases, and that in doing so, we create an opportunity to remove the splintering logs from our eyes.

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