To create a fair society, we need to confront biases head-on.
John Rawls, when he theorised the veil of ignorance in A Theory of Justice, made an argument in accordance with the above statement. Both loosely make clear the need to shed the weights of our own predispositions and to look towards a greater society.
What I like most about Rawls’ theory is that it is fantastically apolitical. It takes a step back from the deeper arguments that torment modern society and considers how we might genuinely strive forward, rather than constantly exchange meaningless emotional headlines. Although the theory has its flaws, this idea alone is powerful and hard to disagree with.
So is Rawls’ theory simply one left to philosophers, or can we see it implemented in practice?
Essentially this is a question of education and approach. Individuals must be willing to learn – and learn well. This means approaching issues with a view to further understand them rather than to reinforce current standpoints. The first step to solving a problem is to recognise there is one, so it is imperative for individuals to attempt to identify what their predispositions are and become aware of how they impact their responses. Once these dispositions can be addressed, people may come to have a deeper understanding and justification of their own beliefs, making them harder to manipulate.
One of the most important spaces for challenging one’s own bias is at a university. This is an environment where, for the first time in many cases, students are forced to interact with people from different parts of the country with different stories and biases of their own. Having recently entered my final year, however, it appears to me as though our valued higher education facilities are letting us down.
Universities are the pinnacle of education. The students filling up the Russell Group roster in the UK are some of the brightest sparks from across the globe, let alone the country. These students will inevitably guide the path of the world’s future. The responsibility, daunting though it is for students, is therefore huge. The values on which we base our democratic exchanges and the future of liberalism are at stake.
It is disappointing, therefore, that many university lecturers see their treasured positions as platforms of ideological promotion, rather than beacons of knowledge. To do this is to disregard the trust of fee-paying students who are dependant on the social and economic benefits that universities provide.
Universities in the UK are predominantly occupied by the left. The Adam Smith Institute’s research identified a trend in the increase of left-wing influence since the 1960s. The report shows that 75 per cent of academics are left-leaning, compared to 12 per cent who lean towards the right. I have also discovered that at the University of Leeds where I study, the politics department is nearly entirely occupied by left-wing professors.
This statistic is not, in itself, necessarily something to be concerned about. My concern lies with the environment created, which seems to tacitly facilitate and reinforce these opinions. George Orwell had a lot to say about British intellectualism and identified in Notes on Nationalism that British professors tend to align most closely with communism.
I can say from experience that university lecturers have undoubtedly spoken to reinforce beliefs which they believe to be universally favourable – in other words, preaching to a choir. It may be a commonly accepted view among students that Trump’s presidency is a disaster and that Brexit is synonymous with a new kind of apocalypse, but this is not a justification for championing such opinions in a lecture theatre. In fact, views that are often seen as a given are arguably the ones most in need of criticism; quality debate and critiques can help people to genuinely understand why they believe what they do.
For students, being a Marxist is relatively easy and unchallenged. Idealistic views are inconsequential for students who generally receive income from wealthy parents or state handouts. This feeds into the nature of the sanctimonious university bubble, where a sense of entitlement is bred among people who have rarely achieved much for themselves. It is, therefore, imperative that students become aware of their place in the world, strive to tackle all perspectives with balance and challenge their own positions.
The same ASI report found that 90 per cent of universities in the UK censored free speech across their campuses in 2016. The problem is as clear here as it is in the US, where universities seek to “no-platform” views on the grounds of them being extreme. In the recently published book The Coddling of the American mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, they outline that suppressing alternative views has a negative impact on students’ psychological well-being.
This is not a political debate. Demonstrating such a bias is equally unsettling regardless of its standpoint. A promising example of an approach to tackle these problems was recently announced by the government. It consists of investing in a scheme which would seek to offer “male, pale and stale” professors a “reverse mentor”. The scheme would seek to force them to become aware of their unconscious biases by pairing them with much younger individuals of an entirely different political persuasion. The project predicts long-term success of achieving a more genuine diversity of background and opinion.
The need for such policies and changing of attitudes is ever-present in a world where determining the truth proves to be our most salient and difficult issue. Political actors are able to use the phenomenon of fake news to their own benefit, most commonly in populist movements. Donald Trump is particularly successful at this.
In the US, various media outlets are constantly rubbished by both sides of the political spectrum. Discreditation of the publisher or the individual speaking is a way for people to disregard things with which they do not agree. It is, therefore, much harder to determine what the real truth is, so many people find it easy to choose an interpretation which most appropriately suits their own moral code, as opposed to opening themselves up to uncomfortable truths. Quite often, this manifests in misled Trump supporters taking pointers from Trump’s twitter as their only trustworthy news source.
Emotional predispositions also give people an excuse to disbelieve statistics or opinions. People “feel” because thinking has become too complicated. So, it is imperative that we do not allow ourselves to give in to online material which seeks to capitalise on this particular trend – most commonly the phenomenon of clickbait and short, emotive headlines. In a post-truth world where the waters are constantly muddied, we must not allow ourselves to be swept away by misleading rhetoric.
It is important, if not vital, that we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable. Only then will we grow. Fundamentally, this requires a mantra of playing the ball and not the man. In theoretical terms, this translates to an understanding of true tolerance; to engage with views which we might find detestable and to not simply disregard an argument because of the mouth that it’s come from.
Identity politics has made the generalisation of views easier, as people become automatically associated with certain core values of a given group. We are all individuals with the capability for personalised nuanced understandings of the world and should be approached as such.
The values of liberalism – on which so many of our freedoms are guaranteed – are under threat from misleading truths and emotional manipulation, accelerated by all different types of social media. But we have a chance to reshape liberalism and restore its true values. If we are to overcome the sinister, Orwellian features of information manipulation, we must seek to push ourselves from our comfort zones, truly tolerate all views, and seek the truth.