Apramāda

Buddhist perspectives on society and culture

The One-Sided War on Bias

Posted in: Politics
Bias

Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) was much in the headlines in 2021, and the conversation around it was focussed on the issue of racism. On the global stage, public concern was aroused by the widespread perception of racial bias as a factor in the George Floyd murder. Here in the UK, the conversation flared into controversy with the publication of the report of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities. The Commission, headed by Dr Tony Sewell (and composed almost entirely of experts drawn from ethnic minorities) had been charged by the government to look into disparities in racial outcomes in Britain. Its report generated a media furore by concluding that ‘disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism’.1

For Buddhists, the phrase ‘unconscious bias’ may serve as a modern reminder of a very ancient Dharmic idea: that of avidya or ’ignorance’, the first of the twelve nidanas and, according to Sangharakshita, ‘in some ways the most important of all’. Avidya is a central aspect of our unenlightened existence, and we are all subject to it. This insight is crucial for any attempt we might make as Buddhists to examine the current cultural moment, with its predilection with race and racism. It alerts us to the possibility that even a critique of bias may not be free from bias.

The phrase ‘unconscious bias’ may serve as a modern reminder of a very ancient Dharmic idea: that of avidya or ‘ignorance’

In this article, I intend to look at those who advocate for Unconscious Bias Training, and how their own claims may be skewed by biases. What follows therefore focusses on the blind spots of advocates of ‘antiracism’, who are especially numerous in the left-wing and left-leaning press. In their accounts of current race relations in the UK, they tend to claim objective reality for things like ‘institutional racism’. They are eager to discern bias on ‘the other side’, and to promote UBT to correct it. But to be a genuine enemy of bias, one must be willing to sift for it within oneself.

Throughout the article, I am concerned with not being biased. Anything that can help us break down veils of ignorance, including those which underlie racial prejudice, I vigorously support. Yet not to look at the potential for delusion on this side of the argument would be imbalanced.

One of the questions addressed by the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities was whether UBT actually works in combatting discrimination. Drawing upon a great deal of evidence, the report concluded that it did not. Yet, as the report also noted, there is a slew of top institutions and companies that have publicly stated their commitment to such training — a trend that was accelerated by the Black Lives Matter protests. As a result of its scepticism about the extent of racial bias and the value of UBT, the Sewell Report was nowhere more hotly debated than in the House of Commons. In a number of Commons debates last year, Labour, the SNP and Lib Dem MPs vituperatively criticised the report from the floor of the House.

While denying that racism was the main driver of disparities in outcome, the Sewell Report by no means denied that racism still existed, or that it exerted a continuing influence on British life, and it made various recommendations for government action. Consequently, in March 2022, we saw the Government response to the report in the form of a strategy entitled ‘Inclusive Britain’. This set out a list of seventy actions that aimed ‘to tackle racial disparities, boost opportunity and promote fairness’. The media response to Inclusive Britain echoed the initial controversy. The right-wing and right-leaning press supported the Government, while the left-wing and left-leaning press denounced the strategy for failing to address the real issues of race in the UK.

Bias at the Top

Aware of some of the literature around Unconscious Bias Training and the lack of evidence for its efficacy, I sent a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Commons’ internal HR function about their use of such training. By this means, I discovered that the House of Commons management team (these are non-political Parliamentary workers, not MPs) recently flirted with the idea of rolling out UBT to Members of Parliament. This was distinct from the discrimination training MPs have already done in recent times. What this means is that, despite the fact that Ministers and the Civil Service had scrapped the use of UBT, and despite the lack of evidence for its efficacy, somehow the highest legislative organ of the state was recently in a place where it unquestioningly and irrationally supported an intervention that doesn’t actually work.

How did this happen? Firstly, it is worth pointing out that Unconscious Bias Training is already big business and so is often seen as a requisite by corporations looking to prove their inclusion credentials. McKinsey, the famous management consultancy, values the ‘Diversity Industry’ at $8billion per annum in the USA. The UBT component of that is thought to cost corporate America about $1billion. That amounts to a lot of people, staring at a lot of screens, doing a lot of training courses.

And it might, at first glance, seem that there is a good case for UBT, especially looking at the evidence that human beings are horribly biased. This fact is one of the most well-supported findings in social psychology. Quite how biased we are is hard to keep track of. An excellent, recent introduction to the subject from Bobby Duffy laid out over fifty basic types. So, what’s wrong with following the trend and embedding Unconscious Bias Training in the House of Commons? Unconscious bias is a fact, isn’t it? Why not seek to eliminate it with UBT?

Well, as I have said, the reason why not is pretty simple: it doesn’t work. But more interestingly, this case also shows how the most enthusiastic advocates of Unconscious Bias Training are themselves suffering from a form of unconscious bias. Leading from the front, the powerful — in political parties, in HR departments and scores of institutions — while climbing over each other to sign up to this training, are actually leading us and our culture down a blind alley. And it matters that the most influential and powerful organisations in the UK, like the House of Commons, are being swept away in the current. This could lead to things worsening for the groups that the training is supposed to help and increase resentment amongst those who are unjustly characterised by it.

To get down to particulars, my Freedom of Information request revealed the following. Throughout 2019-2020, MPs within the House of Commons and their staff underwent a wide-scale training programme called Valuing Everyone run by an organisation called the Challenge Consultancy. Actually, this information was already in the public domain (you may have seen media reports about a course for MPs featuring a big blue puppet.) The firm was paid £746,250 to conduct the training, which focused on harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct. As former MEP Dan Hannan pointed out recently, such training is now mandatory for all Members and Rt Hon. Members of the Commons and Lords.

Following that inaugural training, and as part of the Members’ Professional Development programme, the House of Commons Authorities (specifically the Learning & Organisational Development team and the HR & Diversity teams) provided a ‘small-scale’ Unconscious Bias Training pilot. This was separate to the original Valuing Everyone training and had not been reported on previously. This second training course was the focus of my Freedom of Information Act request.

In the response to my request, the genesis of the second training course was said to be ‘wider feedback from MPs during Valuing Everyone training that they would welcome the opportunity for further discussion on this topic’. This pilot was open ‘to all parties who may wish to access it’. The Unconscious Bias Training was specifically focussed on unconscious bias in relation only to race, which was also specified up-front by the authorities. The pilot ran over October, November and December 2020.

A budget of £25k was confirmed which included ‘scoping’, writing, research and delivery (an equivalent of £4,166.60 per session). However, the House Authorities, writing to me personally, separately from the FOI’s content, stated in an update that ‘the pilot (was) expected to cost approximately £10,000.’

The email correspondence internally also showed that the Challenge Consultancy requested ‘examples of intersectionality and bias’ as key organising themes for the training. It additionally proposed the idea of offering a one-off ninety-minute facilitated closed group for ‘BAME’ MPs for a sharing session where one of their peers would say how they deal with racism. One purpose of that session would have been to ‘think about what a supportive response from Parliament might feel like’ in regard to racism.

One interesting email came from a redacted source who appears to have some influence on the House’s top-level policies and guidance. Firstly, in relation to the suggestion for a standalone session, this individual replied, ‘I think a separate session to talk to BAME MPs manage racism is something we should be very cautious of (partly because most BAME people have already learned the hard way how to navigate racism, and partly as this could be seen as us almost saying we cannot manage it so you learn to deal with it) [sic].’

This person goes on to state the training should ‘look at not just how to mitigate bias not just in their interactions with others, but also in their beliefs and wider behaviours [sic].’ He or she also mentions ‘ally behaviour’, ‘micro moments’, ‘social solidarity and status barriers’, and is concerned that ‘there is nothing about understanding your privilege and using it effectively’ in the training proposal.

The Biased Enemies of Bias

Notice two things in the above: the discussion focusses only on unconscious bias in relation to race; and the references justifying the training include shibboleths drawn from Critical Race Theory (which are assumed to be true).

There is no compelling evidence of a tacit system that ‘supports’ racism, to which most ‘BAME’ people adapt. 

The assumption that CRT is true is so commonplace at the moment that it almost escapes notice. By now, anyone in a position of organisational responsibility in a mainstream occupation has probably been required at some point to undergo training that included ideas derived from CRT. But the fact remains, it is a terribly biased way to approach bias.

Firstly, Critical Race Theory is just that: a theory (more on this later). Its propositions are not established facts. There is no compelling evidence of a tacit system that ‘supports’ racism, to which most ‘BAME’ people adapt. The evidence for widespread racial bias, which the typical enterprising HR head assumes, is much, much more inconclusive than he or she makes it sound.2 None of this means that racism does not exist, nor that it does not play a role in recruitment, as indeed it can. But unconscious or even conscious bias in certain areas would appear to have declined and in some specific cases be statistically insignificant.

In addition, according to Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist interested in the production of ‘knowledge’, a further downside of painting racism as commonplace is ‘…that it makes many feel more comfortable expressing biased attitudes or behaving in discriminatory ways. Insofar as it is depicted as ubiquitous, diversity-related training can actually normalise bias.’

Furthermore, despite unconscious bias being presented as simply synonymous with a supposedly ubiquitous ‘racism’, it is actually much more various. If HR departments were serious about addressing UBT, they would look at a much wider set of potential biases, including those relating to age, sex, class, sexuality — not to mention various other (currently non-‘protected’) characteristics. Instead, they choose to restrict it to race, thus showing clear bias about which bias to target.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, their bias in favour of the training itself is shown in the face of evidence that UBT doesn’t actually work. As stated, it is highly doubtful that training itself can address these kinds of unconscious biases. In essence, the difficulty is that they are deeply baked in. They are not the kind of thing that we can expect to resolve after a two-hour training course or an hour on an online learning platform.

In fact when examined, UB interventions failed basic test-retest validity even on measures that themselves presuppose the existence of stereotype effects, such as the Implicit Association Test. It is therefore unsurprising that the Civil Service has now dumped it. Julia Lopez, then Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, summarising a Nudge unit report into UB training, said: ‘…there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups.’ All of which is true. The Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities themselves simply recognised this, stating ‘(UBT) has been shown to have unclear or mixed impact’, and recommending that organisations move away from funding Unconscious Bias Training to develop ‘resources and evidence-based approaches of what does work to advance fairness in the workplace’.

So it is that HR departments unfortunately seems subject to the very curse that they aspire to remove. Scrutiny shows them to be subject to faulty thinking rooted in their own unconscious biases. In this case, these would include Groupthink and Confirmation Bias, skewing towards a fashionable and moralistic set of beliefs.

Yet the Commons’ HR department could have used plenty of readily available evidence to correct their bias. In March 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a somewhat understated but good report into why ‘UBT’s ability effectively to change behaviour is limited’. And a meta analysis of the ineffectiveness of such programmes has been around for a long time. Of course, in the public realm, various people have continually been pointing out that Critical Race Theory might not be true.

Despite the seriously underwhelming evidence for the efficacy of UBT, the House of Commons is just the tip of a large iceberg of elite, and not so elite, organisations, multinationals, and companies that seem intent on pursuing the combination of UBT and Critical Race Theory. In fact this kind of training seems to be growing exponentially — Coca Cola being one recent global behemoth to get sucked in.

The Biased Response to Sewell

Nowhere is this battery of biases better illustrated than in the reception of the Sewell Report itself. What would be striking to a hypothetical neutral observer about the rapid rebuttal of the Commission’s Report is that it focussed, not on the report’s findings, but on feelings about its findings. As chided the BBC: ‘the Runnymede Trust think tank said it felt ‘let down’ by the report.’ In fact there were almost no outlets, outside the right of centre, that did not include The Runnymede Trust’s quote about being ‘deeply, massively let down’ alongside the report’s conclusions.

Putting aside a real question about whether think tanks can or should have feelings rather than evidence-based policy recommendations, what was noticeable was that the ‘debate’ never directly contended with or contradicted any of the facts the report contained; although to be fair Runnymede and others did provide some limited, factual, although not directly contradictory, counterexamples.

Yet really that was not the point: the report and its authors must be damned a priori. As Shamir Shah, one of the commissioners, wrote, ‘We anticipated that many of the attacks would be ad hominem…But I had rather hoped we would be attacked with something more subtle than an array of blunderbusses.’ The Financial Times piled in on Dr Tony Sewell, who was elsewhere compared to Goebbels by the academic Priyamvada Gopal (Professor of Postcolonial Studies, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge). The emotive accusation of ‘gaslighting’ was used a lot by the critics.

As the melee continued, egged on by fantastic, mainstream coverage about Sewell endorsing slavery (in the Times), the report’s substance had almost entirely disappeared from view. As a result Matt Syed stated directly (also in the Times) that our culture has moved to a stage where ‘lived experience’ trumps factual accuracy.

The irony is that this precisely maps the Sewell Commission’s definition of unconscious bias: ‘social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness’. In this case, those groups of people are the Commissioners themselves: they must be wrong, or racist themselves, or both. The groupthink of what has become known as the Race Lobby, which seems to have captured large swathes of our major institutional backdrop, could not admit any challenge to the ‘institutional racism’ lens with which it views the UK.

So as corporate and public culture continues its tilt towards a biased view of the world we might start by questioning how to challenge these misguided attempts to ‘correct for bias’.

Theory or Dogma?

In this process, we first must become aware that there is something off about the whole enterprise. I think the first clue is in that word ‘theory’ and its central connection with the rebuttals I offered above.

A theory that cannot engage with any challenge is no theory at all

As Eric Kauffman succinctly comments in relation to Critical Race Theory, ‘Theories must be falsifiable and successfully address alternative explanations and confounding variables before they can stand.’ A theory that cannot engage with any challenge is no theory at all: it is merely dogma, or perhaps one might say, as in this case, a Theory. Its proponents must rebut, impugn, insult, discredit or debase any problem for or dissenters to their Theory. But they never directly falsify the alternative theories, and perhaps never can.

This is where it is useful to find philosophical analogues: look no further than Vidyaruchi’s excellent article on Popper here at Apramāda. Great minds like Popper’s can show us the extent to which theories are not proper theories but are just donning an often showy-but-empty Theory mantle. They are not true theories because they are not falsifiable. No evidence can really confound CRT, as the racket around the Sewell Report demonstrates: even empirical evidence of a high calibre, gathered from official data sets that have been quality assured, presented on the basis of careful nuance and caveat, are all ignored and left unaddressed by CRT advocates.

A Buddhist Approach to Bias

Yet a Buddhist approach to such matters introduces a further, vital question: why do we Theorise at all: that is to say, why do we humans create dogma(s)? This is where we can turn to Buddhism with its wonderfully useful teaching on avidya.

The central image will be familiar to us from the Wheel of Life: a blind man, stumbling in the dark, knocking stuff over, stick in hand. In Subhuti’s words, ‘He looks not only blind but also stupid… It might be more appropriate if he was shown not only blind but blind-folded with a scarf tied with his own hands.’ In short, he is a ‘blunderer’.3 Avidya is, according to Sangharakshita, ‘not ignorance in the intellectual sense but a lack of spiritual awareness’. It is an ‘almost deliberate wanton refusal to see the real nature of our existence’. To put it bluntly: just because you are smart, it doesn’t mean you are not deluded!

What this central image of Buddhism points to is a kind of double bind. I am utterly blind, and also blind to the fact of my blindness. Worse still, I am blind and I don’t want to know that I am blind.

That is because on the basis of avidya I start to form (via volitional biases) world views, opinions, ‘facts’ and beliefs of all sorts which become objects of attachment, to be defended at all costs. In modern psychological terms we can refer to the ‘discovery’ of cognitive dissonance as a direct corollary to the above. As Gurdjieff reputedly said, ‘Sleep is very comfortable, but waking is very bitter.’ Thus, the concept of avidya, properly understood, helps us to understand why people who entertain CRT simply cannot acknowledge that it might not work or be wrong. Our ignorance creates the world in which we act and the world is made to fit our belief structures, not the other way round. To willingly fashion a new reality is a tremendous undertaking and needs to come from a place of spiritual trust and confidence.

This final point seems to me to throw a revealing light upon the most zealous CRT advocates, who in some cases make a livelihood out of it. Not only does it serve me, if I’m a CRT trainer, to believe in it (not in some directly cynical way, although it is true I would lose my job if I ever admit its falsity) but my actions condition my experience to such an extent that I am lost in a self-reinforcing ‘reality’.4

In conclusion, we are not passive receivers of information, taking on board and updating our worldviews according to objective new facts established via rational assessment. Nor are we often able to distinguish good reasons from bad for taking a certain course of action, especially in situations lacking immediate feedback or correction. (It’s not that we don’t learn things. We do. It’s just that when we learn from our experience, we apply learning in ways that are prone to error, sometimes shockingly so.)

Unconscious bias extends to the way we think about racial bias itself

The substantive point to emphasise here is that unconscious bias extends to the way we think about racial bias itself. That’s because we are all subject to biases, so they affect our day-to-day judgement in all sorts of ways. Taking bias seriously means taking as central one important fact about the human experience: our perception and cognition (and hence our decisions and conclusions) are riddled with generalisations, guesstimates and ‘quick and dirty’ rules of thumb (a.k.a. heuristics). This is especially true in the domain of political or moral reasoning which we may apply in our workplaces as much as we do in the voting booth.5

But biases don’t only affect the judgement of our contemporaries, leaving us unscathed. We are not bias-free when we send others to the training suite as HR managers, activists or as a person of colour, however much it appears to us that we are on the side of truth. As the famous physicist Richard Feynman put it, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself … and you are the easiest person to fool.’

According to the Nobel prize-winning, theorist of bias, Danny Kahneman, although our biases are ‘quite useful they sometimes … lead to severe and systematic errors’. In fact, this may not always be a terrible thing. As Dan Bang and Chris Frith summarise: ‘Biases are the reality of our cognitive system. It is the cost we pay for efficiency. We can think of biases as priors… These priors have been passed on to us partly by nature and partly by culture. They often stand us in good stead. Biases can help us make decisions in novel situations where our learned habits cannot guide us. They avoid dithering, which can be fatal… But, biases are a bad thing when they are out of date and inappropriate. They can also lead us to get stuck on local maxima.’

We are all biased, and rightly the society-level question is how to deal with it. However, faulty thinking on both sides of a particular issue needs to be called out, whether the racist stereotyping of certain people or groups, or the firm convictions of so-called antiracists. An attitude of humble inquiry and self-reflection needs to be front and centre as we try to move forward together as deluded human beings.

Footnotes

  1. See the introduction (p.12) of The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
  2. See for example here.
  3. From Subhuti’s talk ‘The Endless Round – The Twelve Links’.
  4. For an interesting bit of background see Tarjinder Gill’s article ‘All in Britain’, on Ben Cobley’s book The Tribe
  5. Importantly this also affects critics of CRT, in all sorts of ways: not the least of which is threatening violence to the founders of CRT.
Hamilton-Shaw

Tom has been thinking and writing about culture, politics and policy since he studied Philosophy and Politics at University. Drawn into Westminster by the battle for ideas, he has been a policy advisor for various charities, and recently worked with David Goodhart as a researcher on the book Head, Hand, Heart. He has been a practising Buddhist for over a decade.

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