Friday, September 12, 2008

Bias

I was in the midst of a class discussion, but I had yet to speak. We were talking about a legend from West Africa that has been passed down orally for hundreds of years, and the question being put to us concerned it's reliability as an historical document. Having sworn an oath to participate in class discussions, I raised my hand and was called on.
"I had serious problems thinking of this as an historical record," I said, trying my best to sound like I wasn't an idiot. "How can you believe something that is passed down orally like this? Even if people are trying to be as honest as they can, everyone has a bias that's going to creep in. And over generations, don't biases just build on top of each other? How can we know that any of this is true at all? And all that stuff about shooting someone with an arrow tipped in a white rooster's comb. Am I supposed to take that to be historical fact?"
Someone else raised her hand and pointed out to me that I was missing the symbolism of the story, which I'll grant her even though I noticed she didn't seem to know what the rooster's comb symbolized anymore than I do.
But now discussion was picking up, and people were starting to rebut what I had said, and I stopped raising my hand before responding.
"There are lots of instances of this sort of legend being used as historical evidence. The Odyssey for example. Archaeologists have found Troy."
"Yes," I said, "but nobody believes that Odysseus actually fought a Cyclops."
"A lot of people take the Bible literally," someone else said.
"Yes, and those people are crazy," I said without thinking.

"You really said that?" my friend Cara asked me later when I told her the story. "What happened? What did people say?"
"There was some nervous laughter, and the Professor kind of smiled uncomfortably, and then class was sort of over anyway, so we all left."
"Weren't you afraid of offending anyone?"
The truth is that I didn't think before I spoke and the moment after I called fundamentalists crazy I did get very nervous that I had offended someone. But I didn't say that to my friends.
"I guess I assumed that nobody who would be offended would be in the room. I guess I figured fundamentalists don't take classes. It's not like they have any interest in learning or rational thought."
And another friend abruptly changed the subject, without looking at me. I realized that she was offended that I was being a bigot, and I further realized that I had been perfectly aware that I was being one. It occurred to me that being aware of it didn't make it okay.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like someone needs to sit on the lap of Bungles the Christian Clown.

Sarah said...

i feel that even a low-income/middleclass male whitey can make comments like that abut fundamentalist christians. especially living in america and having been brought up christian. i mean, its ultimatly not ok to look down on somebody for their beliefs. but i think people who take the bible literally are pretty fucking deserving of being thought of as crazy. they think homosexuality's a sin, global warming isn't real, that we can treat animals anyway we want, and that one day they fly up to heaven naked while everybody else is tortured and dies terrible deaths or some shit.