Oct 30, 2014

    Don't let political bias cloud your judgment

    THERE'S a lot more political discrimination than I thought. In fact, the best recent research suggests that there's more political discrimination than there is racial discrimination.

    For example, political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood gave 1,000 people student resumes and asked them which students should get scholarships. The resumes had some racial cues (membership in African-American Students Association) and political ones (member of Young Republicans).

    Race influenced decisions. Blacks favoured black students 73 per cent to 27 per cent, and whites favoured black students slightly.

    But political cues were more powerful. Both Democrats and Republicans favoured students who agreed with them 80 per cent of the time. They favoured students from their party even when others had better credentials.

    Professor Iyengar and Dr Westwood conducted other experiments to measure what Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School calls "partyism".

    They gave subjects implicit association tests, which measure whether people associate different qualities with positive or negative emotions. They had people play the trust game, which measures how much people are willing to trust different kinds of people.

    In those situations, they found pervasive prejudice. And political biases were stronger than racial ones.

    Politics is obviously a passionate activity, in which moral values clash. But these studies are measuring something different. People's essential worth is being measured by a political label: Whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.

    The broad social phenomenon is that, as personal life is being demoralised, political life is being hyper-moralised. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

    The features of the hyper-moralised mindset are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

    Politics becomes a marker for basic decency. Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion or basic loyalty to country.

    Finally, political issues are no longer just about themselves; they are also symbols of worth and dignity. When many rural people defend gun rights, they're defending the dignity and respect of rural values against urban snobbery.

    The problem is that hyper-moralisation destroys politics. Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths.

    But, in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity.

    When schools, community groups and workplaces get defined by political membership, when speakers get disinvited from campus because they are beyond the pale, then every community gets dumber because they can't reap the benefits of diverging viewpoints and competing thoughts.

    This mentality also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party.

    To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.

    The personal is not political. If you're judging a potential daughter-in-law on political grounds, your values are out of whack.