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Let’s hear it for the awkward squad

July 28, 2020

Unconscious bias is a very cool concept these days. We talk about it most when we’re examining the causes of racism. Why should a white person feel more threatened when he’s being followed in the street by a black guy with a hoodie than he is in the presence of a white guy wearing Boden?

There are, however, many other causes of bias. Whether they’re rooted in the unconscious or are the result of conscious, known bias depends on the individual. Or at least I imagine so. The difference, perhaps. between “I’m not a racist, but…” and “I am a racist”.

I mention this after watching a video of a group of doctors, one of whom, a woman from Texas, extols the virtues of hydroxychloroquine, the wonder drug that Trump believes cures the coronavirus. My immediate reaction is to ask who is behind this obviously staged event. Steve Bannon, Breitbart and the Republican Tea Party group, it seems. Ah. Then Trump (or his son, not quite sure which) retweets somebody who in turn has retweeted the video:

At which point I turn off. Trump propaganda. Not worth wasting brain cells on this stuff. I long ago ceased to see any merit in anything he endorses or claims to believe. As a side issue, the background to this story is hilarious. The doctor in question believes all kind of weird stuff including “alien DNA and the physical effects of having sex with witches and demons in your dreams.” This article in the Daily Beast, from which I’ve quoted, is a must-read for anyone with a dark sense of humour. 

So what’s going on here? Basically, I think Trump is an arse. So I ignore anything he says unless it serves to prove that he’s an arse. Why do I think he’s an arse? Because of his repellent personality as much as because of his repellent policies.

So you could say that I’m guilty of personality bias, for want of a better phrase. In the same way as I despise Trump and Boris Johnson, I’m prepared to give Joe Biden and Keir Starmer the benefit of the doubt. Not because of their policies, but because I’m attracted to their personalities. Uncle Joe and Steady Starmer, as opposed to Donald the Bully and Blatherous Boris.

Perhaps my bias has roots in my unconscious, but it feels very conscious to me. The trouble is, as we know, bias towards people we consider empathetic, sympathique, can blind us to their flaws and hidden agendas. Which is why we end up falling victim to charming con artists. And why many of us make decisions primarily based on personality. I like him, therefore, I’ll marry him, I’ll vote for him, I’ll go into business with him, I’ll buy something from him.

Apart from the obvious pitfalls of marrying a charming person who ends up as controlling and abusive, or voting for a politician who fails to deliver, there are other pitfalls to personality bias. Combined with the cancel culture – another vogue phenomenon – it can lead us to dismiss a person’s life achievements because of a single misstep.

Take Dr David Starkey, for example. His personality isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. His public persona is acerbic, sarcastic and bad-tempered. Yet he’s made a career out of his books and and documentaries on the Tudors. I’ve found them entertaining and insightful. Now that he’s cast into the outer darkness because of a racist remark in an interview, he may publish more books, but it would be a brave TV producer who would commission another documentary series from him. He will be forever known for his views on slavery. Part of the reason will be because of his spiky personality and love of controversy.

JK Rowling, on the other hand, will most likely survive and prosper despite her views on gender which so enraged trans activists. Millions of Harry Potter fans will stay with her, and because of her empathetic, compassionate personality she will always win more admirers than detractors.

Are we more likely these days to make snap decisions about people based on their likeability or their repellent personalities? Yes, I think we probably are. It’s nothing new, but I do wonder how many people who have much to offer, and whose talents may have flowered in times gone by, find themselves dead in the water because of the imperative to be liked. Whether or not the social media has anything to do with this I’m not sure. But certainly the key to online popularity is how many people hit the like button in response to something you say or do.

Would Beethoven’s genius have been fully appreciated today if his success had depended on social media approval? Likewise Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and a host of other artists, writers and performers whose personalities and private lives would not have escaped scrutiny in today’s censorious culture.

So this is a gentle reminder that nobody is all bad and nobody is all good. That even Donald Trump, the very sight or mention of whom induces in me almost a physical revulsion, might occasionally be capable of doing something that I might consider positive, not that I can think of anything at the moment.

Yes, some people are beyond the pale, and probably would be in any age. We shouldn’t, for example, give Hitler any credit for his love of dogs and watercolours. But let’s not be too quick to write off the awkward, spiky, unpleasant souls whose achievements might nonetheless change us for the better.

Whatever Facebook or Instagram might lead you to think, being likeable isn’t the the be-all and end-all of life.

From → Art, Books, History, Music, Politics, UK, USA

  1. Exactly as you say: Nobody is all bad and nobody is all good

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