I consider myself to be a fairly typical American. Well, slightly atypical because I grew up in a city away from the isolationist tendencies of the suburban culture that makes up the majority of America. I realize that I embrace the very American conceit that I am pretty much in control of my beliefs - that I am the captain of my ship of consciousness. But with just a little reflection, it becomes obvious that there is a fathomless ocean of prejudice, culturally determined attitudes, and peer pressures that my little ship of consciousness precariously tries to stay afloat on. In other words, I am aware that there is a system of beliefs beyond myself that has helped to shape who I am.
Even without taking the IAT test, I know that cognitive dissonance is ever present in myself. An event that is most revealing is my response to my grandfather after his stroke. My grandfather is an enormously erudite, cultured man, trained as a civil engineer and architect, who spent most of his adult life as a painter of marinescapes. He is a man who knows at least something about everything, can easily talk about almost any subject, writes poetry, and has a wonderful sense of humor - a man that you could look up to and admire. So it was a bit of a shock when, due to a massive stroke, he lost control of the right side of his body and his ability to talk and express his ideas clearly.
Although he didn’t lose any of his mental capacity or his encyclopaedic knowledge, I noticed that somehow he sank in how others perceived him. Even worse I noticed that I was one of those people who underestimated his abilities! Somehow a person who can speak persuasively and with ease seems more intelligent than a person who cannot. It didn’t seem to matter that I knew my grandfather to be a really smart man and loved him dearly, or that I knew that he was still all there and that none of his intellect had deteriorated. A built-in bias was tinting my view of him. Clearly an unconscious, automatic system is present that dictates my thoughts or the way I see the world. It was not until seeing the way others acted around him, or the way they talked down to him in a demeaning manner, like he was a small child, that I realized my own bias. I realized that I, too, had to monitor myself to make sure that I didn’t let his current disabilities obscure who he really was in my eyes. I cannot imagine a worse punishment than having someone treat you that way when in your mind you still feel the same. You have retained all your knowledge, but it almost torments you because you can’t express yourself through words, people make assumptions and place labels. People treat you as though you are lesser simply because you have difficulty articulating your thoughts.
This unconscious bias also affects how I see myself. From an early age, I can remember how it feels to fail to meet my own expectations of perfection in oral and written communication skills. My older siblings were reading fluently, while I struggled to read a simple sentence. Granted that they were much older than I was, yet I noticed that some of my classmates were reading rather large books as well. I can remember my teacher telling me to keep at it and that I was improving and would eventually “catch up.” This was a double edged sword because it told me that I was lacking in a much-valued societal skill. I perceived that I was “not good enough.”
What these memories reveal to me is that much of our respond to the world is not shaped by our private system of beliefs or values. It is obvious that our society favors certain traits above others, that it has a clear and strict idea of what it means to be intelligent, and that it imposes strict criteria on us that we are forced to use to judge each other. We are rarely conscious of this system, rather, we learn society’s idea of the ideal person from our elders, parents, siblings, teachers and others from the time we are born. We then measure ourselves and others by this impossible ideal for a lifetime, automatically making judgements without consciously knowing why. We become our own harshest critic, punishing ourselves repeatedly for each perceived misstep.
As I watched my grandfather struggle to regain some of his ability to read, to write, and to speak; I understood that the part of him that was the man I knew him to be - that sees the greater picture, that appreciates beauty, that understands people’s true intentions, that loves - that part is still all there. My biases only create a separation that I don’t want. Similarly, my anxieties about my reading ability only made it harder for me throw myself into every challenge and succeed, which is certainly something that I didn’t want to happen. I reassure myself that, with work, these biases can be overcome, or at least managed. This may be a delusion, but I need to feel that I have at least a little control of my life.
While our society imposes on us certain biases that discredit some individuals unjustly while putting undeserved importance on others, it is helpful to remind ourselves that these cultural biases can be overcome when they conflict with the core ideals and values that identify a community. As the reading noted, we as individuals have an amazing ability to tolerate a fair amount of “dissonance,” but when the tension becomes too great, we are forced to respond even if we don’t want to. If nothing else this should be reassuring and appealing to the that other American bias - optimism. We put up with a lot, but then we use our consciousness to struggle and to change ourselves and the world around us.