Ever since the New York Times published a devastating account of decades of predatory behavior by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, the worlds of Hollywood, politics, business, and unions have been blindsided by revelations of an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault plaguing the leadership of our nation’s preeminent institutions. As illustrated by the #MeToo campaign which arose in the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal, sexual harassment has also affected women of all stripes in America. Yet after reading D.C. McAllister’s article “Women Should Stop Insisting Men Are Bad Just Because They Feel Sexual Tension,” which exhorts women not to mistake sexual tension for sexual harassment, one is inclined to wonder if the media storm and the #MeToo campaign have come up short in one important respect: defining precise contours around behavior that constitutes sexual harassment. In other words, what exactly is sexual harassment?
This is not an idle or insensitive question. Nor is the question motivated by concerns about a witch hunt. Rather, it goes to the heart of due process in a society based on rule of law and, one hopes, sober and rational inquiry. Granted, as should be obvious from the allegations that have come to light in the many cases cited above, one often knows sexual harassment and assault when one sees it. One need only read the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey to feel a disgust and aversion for behavior that clearly violates the dignity and autonomy of their victims.
But what about sexual tension?
In her column, D.C. McAllister writes: “I don’t care if you’re tending to business in the board room, working in a research lab, sitting in class, or attending church, if men and women are in close proximity, there is going to be some measure of sexual tension. The intensity of its heat will depend on the level of attraction, but it’s there. We all feel it in our hearts and bones. And you know what? It’s nothing to be scared of!”
Indeed, it’s not, except for one thing. What if the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior becomes blurred by an excess of zeal to root out unacceptable behavior? What if the campaign to eradicate sexual harassment and assault gives rise to an environment in which men or women feel compelled to distrust every stirring of sexual tension they feel in the presence of the opposite sex? What if, in short, the campaign to eradicate sexual harassment and assault does, in fact, become a witch hunt?
Of course, one must take care when expressing this concern. As is evident from the spate of allegations, harassment and assault are pervasive and surely necessitate changes in our culture. Moreover, it goes without saying that there is no excuse for harassment, assault, or rape. But as Ms. McAllister argues, we must be alert not to mistake sexual tension for sexual harassment. She writes: “I know when a man is violating me and when he is just hitting on me. I know when a man is desperately trying to get my attention just because he is attracted to me, and when he has crossed the line of harassment. I know when guys are expressing their pent-up aggression and male sexuality—as well as their competitive nature—as they interact with one another, and when men are in gang-like mode and threatening my well-being. Other women need to learn the same. They need to learn the difference between natural sexuality and sexism.”
This distinction between sexuality and sexism highlights a central question: are we to treat sexual tension as harassment? The answer, I hope, is no. But if one conceives of a spectrum of behavior with sexual tension at one end and sexual harassment at another, it is possible that disagreements can arise about where to draw the line between behavior that constitutes sexual tension and behavior that constitutes sexual harassment.
Bringing attention to this potential for disagreement is by no means an attempt to trivialize or remain oblivious to the complaints levied by scores of women who have been victims of sexual harassment. Rather, it is meant to highlight a problem of much broader scope that is plaguing the intellectual landscape of the modern-day social justice crusade. I am referring to confirmation bias, a cognitive error in reasoning that is currently running rampant in the modern social justice crusade.
Confirmation bias is a cognitive tendency to find what one is looking for even when it is not there. It is to assess a situation or conflict through the lens of a biased perspective. One takes into account information that supports one’s preconceptions while discounting or ignoring information that runs counter to narratives associated with one’s preconceptions. According to Shahram Heshmat on Psychology Today, confirmation bias “leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.” If, for example, a man compliments a woman for wearing a pretty dress at work, the woman may misconstrue the intent of the compliment as an unwarranted advance rather than innocent small talk meant to “break the ice” of a social encounter. This is not to dismiss the possibility that a compliment may turn out to be an unwanted advance, nor to ignore the instances in which a woman does not misconstrue the intent of a compliment. Rather, it is be alert to the possibility that a recipient of a compliment may be inclined to see a compliment for more than what it often is.
At the heart of confirmation bias, like other cognitive and emotional biases (such as availability bias, according to which recent newsworthy events seem more probable than they are simply they can be recalled more easily, a bias that can frame the interpretation of subsequent experiences in a way that does not do justice to the unique merits of an experience that has its own context and content), is irrationality. Though capable of rational thought, humans are fundamentally irrational in many areas of life, however much they cling to a stubborn belief in their own objectivity, and despite the simplifying assumptions of “rational economic man” in classical economic theory. This claim is not necessarily lobbed as an insult. It is stating a fact. One hopes it will motivate individuals to be on guard against the pitfalls of irrationality, rather than trigger an emotional backlash that stems from hurt feelings.
Confirmation bias manifests in many areas of life. Politics. Business. Investment. Relationship conflicts. And so on. But it runs rampant in the social justice movement.
Though the background to social justice is more extensive than can be addressed in this article, suffice to say that the modern-day social justice crusade is primarily concerned with the deconstruction of institutional arrangements that exploit and oppress marginalized groups. For example, one target of the social justice crusade is patriarchy, which exploits women when it systematically condones behavior that denigrates or marginalizes women. This concern is by no means a bad thing.
The controversy arises, however, because people can disagree about the nuanced ways in which embedded institutions affect various factions and interests in society. For example, debates about “toxic masculinity” sometimes center on the taboo against allowing a man to cry. It is said that for a man to “man up” and not cry is harmful to his health and contributes to a host of social problems like suicide, homicide, and domestic abuse. But a man who refuses to cry may not necessarily be burdened with “toxic masculinity”. As I have written in an article about why I am a man who chooses not to cry, emotional restraint is not the same as emotional repression. One must not impute “toxic masculinity” to the congenital reticence of a man who has been raised in a more laconic culture like in New England, or to the reserve of a man who is a natural introvert.
The point here is not to address the intricacies of toxic masculinity, but rather to note that the generic social justice warrior often comes armed to such discussions with knee-jerk gripes against norms of masculinity that purportedly underlie patriarchal exploitation. In so doing, he may fail to appreciate that healthy emotional restraint is not the same as toxic emotional repression.
As the example of “toxic masculinity” illustrates, there is perhaps no area where confirmation bias exerts a more insidious effect on the social justice warrior than in the so-called culture wars. One sees this most clearly on university campuses, where one of the most salient debates is about who can say what. Safe spaces. Trigger warnings. No-platforming. So-called micro-aggressions. The hyper-sensitivity not only severely undermines constructive, rational debate, but mistakes extreme delicacy for civility, tolerance, and inclusion. The most potent way to win a debate and silence an interlocutor with whom one disagrees is to say the magic words “I am offended.” Instead of rational and objective inquiry, the social discourse is driven by ideological proclivities rather than objective, rational inquiry. In such an environment, confirmation bias is likely to manifest.
The problem extends to the culture at large. “Micro-aggressions” provide a ready example. Defined by Derald Wing Sue and colleagues in the Teachers College at Columbia University as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group,” the concept received a major blow with the publication last year of a paper by Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, who analyzes the “conceptual and empirical foundations” of what he calls the micro-aggression research program (MRP) and finds that the concept of micro-aggression, given the current state of research, is not conceptually coherent or methodologically robust.
Among the many shortcomings is a failure to adequately account for, or make provision for, the appearance of confirmation bias when recording a purported victim’s claim that he has been a victim of a micro-aggression. For example, a purported victim may be afflicted with what Dr. Lilienfeld identifies as “negative emotionality”. According to Dr. Lilienfeld, “[i]ndividuals with elevated levels of [negative emotionality] tend to be critical and judgmental of both themselves and others, vulnerable to distress and emotional maladjustment, and inclined to focus on the negative aspects of life.” Someone afflicted with “negative emotionality” is perhaps more likely to misconstrue certain innocent remarks as micro-aggressions, and researchers who do not adequately employ control groups and independent perspectives may be more likely to give this person the benefit of the doubt. In other words, confirmation bias.
This susceptibility affects other concepts in the social justice lexicon. Recently, I was reading an interview of Michael Dyson, a renowned Georgetown sociologist who recounts a recent experience in which he “was outside of Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington at 3 a.m., and a young white kid is cursing the police, and I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to shoot him.’ And then it occurred to me that they wouldn’t — he’s a white kid. And what did I hear the police say? ‘Now, son, you’re clearly inebriated. You need to go home and sleep this off.’ And I said to myself: ‘My God! This is what we want!’ We can’t even afford a display of anger that many white people have.” In Professor Dyson’s telling, a black kid would not have been let off so easily.
This may be true, but ultimately we don’t know. Unless we can read the cop’s mind, or conduct a rigorous interrogation after the fact, or force him to take a lie detector test, we don’t know exactly what motivated the cop to give the white kid a pass. This example illustrates a key wrinkle in the concept of white-privilege. How can we tell in any given conflict or situation that white privilege is a relevant factor, or the main factor, to consider? Writing about the related issue of whiteness studies, George Washington University historian Eric Arsenen writes that “whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings.” In other words, confirmation bias.
Other examples abound, to the extent that one could write a paper delineating examples of confirmation bias in the same way researchers have written papers delineating examples of white privilege or micro-aggressions. None of this is to dismiss legitimate areas of concern in the social justice movement. Sexual harassment, for example, is a serious concern and has been exposed as an epidemic in our culture. But that does not mean we should allow ourselves to confuse harassment with sexual tension, or sexuality with sexism.
The zeal for justice is no guarantee that truth or justice will be well-served. In their zeal to expose instances of social injustice, social justice warriors often fall prey to confirmation bias, distorting truth by jumping to conclusions, omitting relevant variables in the analysis, or allowing themselves to be blinded by the darkness of a boxed-in perspective. In short, the dark side of social justice activism is confirmation bias.
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