Subtle bias

Every forum of expression and every medium of expression as is found today (and was found yesterday as well) brim with content mixed with bias. A bias may be completely individual or may be institutionalized. Since views, opinions, assessments etc. are bound to contain a subjective element in almost all the cases, bias in general, is not something uncalled for. What’s uncalled for is something else.

Expressions in forms of speeches, articles, blogs, reviews etc. are meant to impress upon the readers (and not just to enlighten them), hence the bias inherent in them acts as a catalyst to sway their viewpoint in the direction of that of the speaker or the writer (as the case may be). It’s not at all wrong to take sides according to one’s own line of thinking, nor is it wrong to influence others’ minds in a bid to bring them to own side. The ethical issue (as I feel) comes into picture when the bias is not loud, it’s subtle.

When a bias is loud, the listener or the reader can judge it as per his / her wisdom and decide whether to accept the viewpoint of the speaker / writer and if yes, then to which extent. He / she can follow a Hindi maxim – Suno Sab Ki Karo Mann Ki (listen to all but do only what your heart tells you to do) for framing his / her own opinion about the subject-matter concerned. But the cunning (so-called) thinkers, activists, lobbyists and paid-reviewers know very well that loud bias works with those only who are already in favour of (or against) the issue or the person or the product they are propagating or maligning. To be more effective, therefore, they use subtle bias.

I had read about this kind of bias in my chapter of communication when I was studying Psychology as my optional paper for my Civil Services attempt. Cunning propagators present the things in such a way that their presentation appears to be completely neutral whereas actually it is biased but the tilt is so subtle that a person of normal IQ cannot identify it and he / she considers the material as completely objective and unbiased. But the bias which is meant to brainwash the genuinely neutral persons, acts smartly and in most of the cases, the naive and trusting readers / listeners are carried away by it. If, at the end of the day, even one neutral fellow finds his thoughts moving towards the side of the author / speaker, this subtle bias has served its purpose.

I read a lot of articles on a variety of subjects  viz. politics in India, world dynamics, social traditions vis-a-vis social reforms, the issues pertaining to womenfolk, caste system and caste-based reservations in India, approach of one religious community towards the other, explicit content in books and movies, brain-drain, crime and punishment, law, literature, cinema etc. And I find that a number of popular and acclaimed authors (most of them being the so-called intellectuals) use subtle bias to sway the popular opinion towards their own (based on their ideology or their vested interest). The articles appear to be completely neutral at a glance and apparently every argument or every assertion therein is objective and fact-based. But as it is asserted for statistics that they can prove everything as well as nothing, it demands a careful examination on the part of the reader to be sure that lies and unconfirmed pieces of information are not mixed with known facts. Mostly such segregation of fact and fiction from the composite work presented is not easy. And that ensures the triumph of the author who is actually biased but appears neutral.

Subtle bias mixes with the known facts just like water is mixed with milk, losing its colour in that but diluting the quality of the milk. When the quantum of water mixed in the milk is relatively low, even the consumer of the milk (containing that water) cannot guess that he is not consuming pure milk. The colour of the drink being consumed by him is white only and without use of a lactometer, the manoeuvre of the shrewd milk-supplier cannot be caught. And the trick of the trade is not to get caught only. The users of subtle bias use this tool to aggravate trivial things and also to dilute serious matters according to their own convenience and interest. The way toned milk is the same as fatty milk in appearance, the same way such aggravated or diluted presentations of facts appear to be the same as they would have appeared had they been presented with complete objectivity.

The strength of subtle bias lies in its remaining hidden from the normal sight and hence it is a lethal weapon in the hands of the smart (or oversmart) ones which they strike at the genuinely unbiased and neutral people who trust their word. I personally consider it a crime, an intellectual crime which always goes unpunished. You take a stand, you take a side, you promote some ideology or thought but be clear and transparent in your expression. Usage of subtle bias is just like a wolf’s roaming around with the sheep while wearing the skin of a sheep, thereby hiding its true identity. It’s a glamorized hypocrisy. And a sin in my considered opinion.

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About Jitendra Mathur

A Chartered Accountant with literary passion and a fondness for fine arts
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12 Responses to Subtle bias

  1. gc1963 says:

    An absolutely thought provoking article. A new outlook altogether. I had never thought of distinguishing an article on the premise of subtle bias. As you say, it is difficult to segregate fact from fiction. Therefore, it presents an all the more formidable scenario what with so much of information barging in every moment on us with the onslaught of information technology. Perhaps you should have given a few illustrations to strengthen your viewpoint and make it more lucid for the general readers, like me, who while reading an article from now onwards will be hovering on the realms of doubt and incredulity. To believe or not to believe, to get swayed or not get swayed, as you put it. At the same time, it is pertinent to ask oneself how much thought do we give to an article to discern these subtle biases which may harm or influence our opinion to the benefit of the writer representing the vested group(s). As for me, I tend to get carried away judging an issue from its emotion quotient rather than factual. 😀

    While on the topic, I would also like to marvel at the cunning of the author who can “inspire” (read impact) readers’ minds and impel them to gulp down, without a protest, what he/she wants them to. Its villainy at its smoothest best. Like the sleight of hand which a pick pocket or a magician might employ for their respective purposes. For the latter, its art and attracts audience’s undiluted appreciation while in case of the former, it is perceived as a threat to society. Every action has got an equal and opposite reaction….its just a matter of perception!!!

    Again, we as a writer must acknowledge the fact that we are the biggest opinion builder. The component of neutrality is relative/highly subjective, however. What strikes as impartial to one, may not be so for the other.

    You have touched upon a very impalpable aspect of writing …. a marvelous attempt! 🙂

    Would like to see many more such posts on your blog henceforth…

  2. jmathur says:

    I will follow your advices Geeta Ji. Hearty thanks for the encouragement. The biases falling under this category can be identified in the articles penned on one religion vis-a-vis another religion, gender equality issue, reservations in India etc.



  3. Sha'Tara says:

    As per your suggestion, I have read the article on subtle bias. This is not something new at all for me, having worked 42.5 years for a multi-national corporation that made itself known world-wide by the pure power of advertising (Coca Cola); having worked in religious organizations; represented environmental groups and done a stint in politics. Success in these collectives all boils down to various degrees of “subtle bias” – influencing people to believe something, even support and defend something which, without the effect of propaganda they wouldn’t be aware of, or would know the actual idea/product being promoted to be a complete fake. My “Teachers” long ago taught me how to work through the world of beliefs and its propagators without stress and without engaging it emotionally: the motto: believe all things, believe IN NOTHING. That was the key. Every institution propped up by propaganda collapses in the face of such a stance. There is no argument against the pretense, just a satyagraha approach to it: non-violent (forceful arguments pro/con are violence) non cooperation, i.e., “I’m not buying into it, thanks.” In this country where there is basic freedom OF religion (but less freedom FROM religion!) it is common for religious groups, organizations, churches, to send people door-to-door to proselytize. These salesmen are trained in subtle bias promotion. Specific texts of their holy books to raise emotions; specific news or events they can use out of context to sway opinions pro/con. Arguing with them is a complete waste of time; it’s like arguing against a used car salesman – they can usually talk circles around you and make their malarkey sound plausible, if not actually valid and relevant to your own life. The thing to do with these promoters of product by subtle bias (read lies) is to tell them, not unkindly, that they are entitled to their opinions and I am entitled to mine. Ultimately, since we should all know by now the entire system of religion, politics and money is erected on a babel of lies, people have to take the initiative and learn to say no to bull shit. I think, for me, it’s about forty years since I’ve watched commercial TV, read pulp media or listened to radio. Coincidentally, it’s been the same number of years since I’ve had to consult a doctor about any sort of ailment. Listening to, and buying into lies makes us sick and dependent, no different that living in constant debt. We become indebted and addicted to the peddlers who feed our hopes and expectations to their own end. I always begin system interaction with the premise that anything anyone representing and/or promoting any kind of organization has to be lying through her/his teeth, and then the onus of proof they are not, falls on with them. The challenge? Show me, don’t tell me. This is why I constantly mention the concept of self-empowerment. Subtle bias won’t work on a self-empowered being because the mind isn’t tuned to either fear or hope, i.e., it doesn’t live in expectations of things good or evil happening. It accepts them, looks for solutions, of course, but isn’t deflected in its path by selfishness-based arguments, however subtly presented or however tempting.

  4. jmathur says:

    I am falling short of words to thank you properly Sha’Tara Ji. This comment is an article in itself. So enlightening and adding immense value to the original post ! Your comment is an eye-opener for me. Just discard biased and motivated opinions thrown at you through media and you don’t have to compromise with your physical and mental health. What a priceless advice ! Whenever you share something through your comment, it’s nothing but an invaluable thought (or a blend of invaluable thoughts). I am overwhelmed and feel fortunate to be associated with a person like you.


    • Sha'Tara says:

      Don’t make me appear so extraordinary, it’s scary! I’m actually quite an ordinary person. But thanks for the nice words, of course. I enjoyed that discussion on subtle bias because it’s the way I basically approach the world, and as my Teachers advised long ago: Trust no one. When you trust another, it’s like climbing a tree and trusting a dead branch: put your weight on it and it will break. To trust means to give up your personal sovereignty to another and that is never a good thing. Love demands trust, hence why I don’t “do” love. Love also uses truck loads of subtle (and often not so subtle) bias to achieve its own ends. People don’t see that so their love relationships are rocky, or founder on those rocks. As individuals (and eventually as a species) we have to develop the ability to live our lives without any trust mechanisms. That means self-empowerment through humility and compassion. No expectations, ever, from anyone or anything.

      Here we go again: I notice the previous commenter addressed you Mathur Ji. Is that the correct form, and not Jitendra Ji? I have to get this straight… 🙂

      • jmathur says:

        Hearty thanks for another detailed and highly useful comment Sha’Tara Ji. Jitendra is my first name and Mathur is my surname. Hence whether I’m addressed as Jitendra Ji or Mathur Ji, both ways it’s in order.

  5. Mathur ji , In my opinion this is a very subjective topic. Mostly things do not come in shades of pure black or pure white – they are somewhere in between.It is for us to judge the degree of off-white or grey that is practically acceptable to each of us. When someone is trying to sell an object or an idea to you, it is natural that they will have an interest to create a positive bias about it. Whether to create a loud or a subtle bias is the seller’s discretion to which no one can object as long as the seller is operating within a regulatory framework. Thus seller can use subtle bias to their advantage, and thereby comes the need for awareness at the end of the recipients of the idea or the product. Increase in consumer awareness can lessen the effect of subtle bias. Advertising, for instance, always hinge around emotions and creates subtle bias, but would you really believe that drinking ThumbsUp will make you more adventurous?

    • jmathur says:

      Hearty thanks Somali Ji but I have not expressed my views with respect to the field of advertising and selling of products (or services) only. Subtle bias has a much wider perspective which is much more dangerous than selling the products. Otherwise also advertising goes for clear and loud bias in favour of the advertised things and not subtle bias. Subtle bias is mainly used by the so-called intellectuals to sway neutral people in the favour of their ideology or camp. It is bad and undesirable because it’s a high level cheating by presenting oneself as unbiased or neutral and hiding his tilt with such a degree of cleverness that it cannot be caught easily. That’s why I have given the examples of mixing water with milk and a wolf’s roaming around while wearing the skin of a sheep. That’s how commoners are misguided. Presenting oneself as neutral makes one trustworthy for others but grinding own axe by hiding own bias under the false persona of neutrality and thus keeping the trusting ones in dark is certainly immoral. Subtle bias is used to sell the thoughts and (social, political and religious) ideologies by the actually biased people who show up as neutral ones. I feel that this topic itself is also subtle and requires a little bit of extra effort to be comprehended.

  6. As you’ve said, subtle bias can make people unaware of other’s true intentions in some cases, which, eventually can lead to an unwanted consequence. It’s difficult to get rid of subtle bias completely(after all, we are all human beings with our follies) but we can, at least, try to minimalize it… 🙂

    A very thought-provoking article from your side…

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