In order to create an “open” and “welcoming” environment for all students, the University of Michigan tends to emphasize political neutrality and objectivity, especially within their classrooms. When I was a sophomore, I took a philosophy course titled “Contemporary Moral Problems” where we debated the most contentious topics in America: abortion, affirmative action, gun control laws … Many of our discussions were tense, not because of the topics themselves, but because of how we argued about them. These U-M classes encourage objectivity by making sure “all sides of a story are heard” (letting a student say whatever they believe even if it’s rooted in oppressive ideologies), hoping that, in validating narratives that have historically been assumed as true, the actual moral “truth” would come out. This struck me as an unusual and counterproductive method of trying to reach “classroom equality and comfort” because it catered to students who have faced less societal resistance and violence than others while neglecting marginalized students who had to prove why their real-life experiences should be heard.
Everything we consume is purposed to preserve hegemonic narratives and perspectives. Science, education, medicine, healthcare, the news — all of these resources and institutions that we assume are infallible and objective are not. Believing that institutions are neutral and fair lets them hide behind the buzzword “objectivity.” They all are constructed with bias. Biases and biased information have negative connotations, but just because something is biased doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “bad.” In fact, trying to obscure that everything has bias is dangerous because then these biases might be further suppressed instead of addressed. Having biases isn’t “bad” if we’re able to confront them to understand where they came from and how they inform our beliefs and values. When we understand where biases come from, we can analyze and criticize what we consume and work to construct more informed perspectives on our world.
This concept of bias within media has become a public obsession and reason for avoiding certain media outlets and common arguments on controversial social issues. For instance, a lot of people avoid CNN or FOX News for being biased to the “left” or “right.” But there isn’t really much of a difference between these seemingly opposite networks — both operate to maintain the systems that create societal problems that the news report on. Both serve (neo)liberal and conservative agendas. They prioritize profiting from stories of suffering; this is a product of capitalism which both neoliberal and conservative agendas uphold as a social and economic system. In America, six major media conglomerates own and operate 90% of what we consume. CNN and FOX News are owned by two of these conglomerates (Warner Bros and News-Corp, respectively). Major companies like these don’t really care about sharing “the truth” (whatever that is) or parsing through information to break down why “newsworthy” issues occur. Almost every mainstream news and media outlet you trust cares most about preserving their reputations and with it, their funding and income. Each network cares more about validating the American political system by framing each party as opposites (though they serve the same agendas to ensure public faith in the government) and endorsing different Democrats and Republicans than reporting on and analyzing issues that could be addressed by the public (like the homelessness crisis in their community).
Regardless of outlets being biased because they’re swayed by factors like money and reputation, how the public conceptualizes objectivity in media is premised on a dominant and oppressive understanding of “fairness” and “equality.” “Objectivity” and “fairness” in reporting stories and debating about social issues are achieved by “listening to all sides of the story.” This assumes “all sides” are already on equal enough standing that when you give “equal voice” to each side, the “truth” will eventually come out, and you will be presented with “unbiased” information. However, hegemonic narratives (narratives that are well-known and widely accepted because they’re held by dominant groups, and therefore already validated) have leverage compared to marginalized narratives (narratives that are already invalidated societally, and therefore already not believed or understood). In other words, this perspective of objectivity neglects and discounts social systems and marginalized people and their identities. It assumes fairness in our current social systems and that everyone is already equal enough to have each of their narratives be fairly understood when this isn’t the case. We don’t live in an equal, or even equitable, world. Discriminatory biases come from an inequitable, unequal world where people are conditioned to discriminate against minoritized groups. They’re not inherent to us, but they’re learned.
Our personal experiences inform our understandings of the world, so nothing can ever be approached “objectively.” Our information is given to us subjectively, and it’s processed subjectively by us too. It’s then our responsibility to be critical of ourselves and our environments. I heard dangerous arguments from peers in that philosophy class trying to argue against affirmative action and justify reverse racism because they, as white people, grew up in a predominantly Black town where they were socially outcasted. What my peers didn’t understand was that racism is not predicated on an individual level, but on a systemic one.
Biases are systemic (and informed by social systems like racism) as much as they are individual (but they can still be acted against). Again, in trying to “eliminate your biases,” you’re actually suppressing them, which narrows your perspective and ability to understand how your biases impact others and how you approach these conversations around social issues.
Generally, we’re intentionally not given the opportunity to question, especially the information we consume as “true.” Just because you’re told something by authority doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right because even authority is swayed by social power. There’s complacency (whether conscious or unconscious) in our consumption. Critical consumption can be learned and should be applied to everything we internalize. It’s up to us as individuals to choose whether or not we want to synthesize information critically and then decide to act against what we used to know.
MiC Columnist Phoebe Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.