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Bias, Civility and Discourse in a Highly Connected World

As I’ve said before, I can be a pretty judgmental person. I don’t like being that way but I find that it’s almost automatic. And the outcome of my judgmentalism is usually a criticism, whether internally thought or externally spoken, of another person’s behavior or words. And almost always, this judgmentalism comes from my biases.

I think we are all biased no matter how much we’d like to think that we’re not. Whether we’re biased of culture, appearance, language, or behavior, we tend to make judgments based on those biases which have developed from our own experiences and beliefs. Some of these biases are benign and become nothing more than an opinion. Others can lead to discrimination, hurtful behavior, and even violence.

As a graduate student in social work, I was taught to be aware of my biases and to try not to let them interfere with my work. As a therapist in training, I did not want my clients to feel that I was not objective in the manner in which I provided services.

But, as I get older, I realize how harmful these biases can be and how hard it can be to keep them in check. Today, we live in a world that is so technologically connected, we have online conversations that allow us to open up dialogues we would have never had otherwise. But with that benefit comes toxic comments with no regard for the people at which they are directed. This is one of the dangers of biases.

Recently, I read a news article about a traffic death in a nearby community. The original report had few details and immediately, the online comments assumed that a homeless person was the victim. Several people disregarded the loss of life, because of who the victim was, and one person expressed more concern for the vehicle involved than the person. When the correct details of the accident were revealed, the victim was not who the readers had assumed but was instead, a child.

This is the new reality. While harsh opinions are not new, access for them and to them through online news, blogs, and social media is new. And I can’t help but wonder if the anonymity of online identities gives people even more freedom to speak critically than if we knew who they are.

I believe in the freedom to express ourselves and I would not want to restrict that freedom. At the same time, I wish we all could express ourselves with compassion and civility no matter how strongly we may feel about the issue being discussed.

Like I said, I tend to be judgmental. But when I see the intensity of online criticism and judgment, I realize how painful my own biases can be.

I’m committed to keeping my biases in check – or at least being more respectful in the way I express them. Will you join me? I think that’s what it means to Do it Well.


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