Busting biases

Chintan Girish Modi

If the world was coming to an end, and you had the power to shortlist seven people to go on a special spaceship designed to preserve human life, who would you send? Here is what you need to remember. At this moment, there are 15 people left on earth, and you have to decide which of these seven can continue to live, and which eight will have to die.

Now this is a rather difficult dilemma but it makes for a very engaging classroom activity around the theme of ‘bias’, which the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Seventh Edition) describes as “a strong feeling in favour of or against one group of people, or one side in an argument, often not based on fair judgment.”

I have used this activity with two groups of students in two different school settings in Hyderabad, during workshops on education for peace. The outcome it led to, by way of reflection and discussion, was quite phenomenal.

I divided the total number of students into smaller groups, each one consisting of four to five people. Each group was given a brief about what they were expected to do, and the list of 15 was put up on a blackboard. They were given 10 minutes to come up with their shortlist of seven.

The catch was that if they protested saying, “Oh, but that’s too little time,” one told them, “Well, that’s what you have. If you do not make your choice within 10 minutes, none of them get to go. If you want at least seven of them to survive, you have to be quick.” The tension that is built up is essential to this activity.

Here is the list of 15 that they were given:
1. Artist
2. Poet
3. Doctor
4. Engineer
5. Teacher
6. Eunuch
7. Mother
8. Three-year-old
9. Security guard
10. Singer
11. Sweeper
12. Politician
13. Priest
14. Farmer
15. Ninety-five-year-old

At the end of 10 minutes, I called out each ‘item’ on the list, and put tally marks against them, based on the shortlists made by the groups. After this process was completed, they were told that fresh information had arrived about some of the ‘candidates’. What they were required to do was to examine this information carefully, and feel free to change their initial decision about who they would nominate for the spaceship.

1. The eunuch works for Hindu-Muslim unity.
2. The mother hates her children.
3. The engineer is a serial killer.
4. The singer has lost his voice.
5. The security guard volunteers as a yoga teacher in a slum.
6. The child is suffering from a rare disease.
7. The doctor was arrested for a wrongly done surgery.
8. The farmer uses genetically modified seeds.
9. The politician is an ardent campaigner for women’s rights.

As you can imagine, there were some significant changes to the shortlist each group had made. Once they had shared their lists with each other, and the tally marks were noted down, we had a whole-class discussion. What, do you think, were some of the points that might have come up?

After the second round, none of the groups wanted to send the mother. Why? A mother who hates her children was not acceptable to any of them. They expected her to be loving and nurturing, without really thinking about why she hates her children. One of the students mentioned, “She could be the mother of the serial killer and the doctor. Perhaps that is why she hates her children.”

What was missed out in the discussion, and something that I had to point out, was that ‘mother’ was probably just one of her roles, and that she was being asked to pay the price for not measuring up to the expectations associated with that role. Perhaps she was very skilled at her work, and was highly respected by her colleagues. Moreover, why did she come to hate her children? Perhaps she was forced into having them at a time when she wanted to focus on her career. Perhaps she was being ill-treated by them.

Each choice made by the groups can be discussed in this manner, in order to explore biases around gender, caste, profession, age, sexuality, etc. A range of previously unacknowledged biases crop up as the discussion moves further, and participants have a chance to learn a lot about themselves. For example, nobody wanted to send the 95 year-old on the spaceship, either in the first round or the second round. Why? The answer was unanimous. “He is going to die soon. Why should we take him?” Everyone wanted to take the three-year-old until they were told that the child suffers from a rare disease. The conversation quickly moved to, “We need to take people who will be useful in some way.”

The old man was considered ‘useless’ because it was assumed that he would not be able to help with any work, would be a liability, and would not even be able to reproduce. The child was, by default, assumed to be healthy and “someone who has a future.” Yes, ‘useful’ was the term mentioned by quite a few students. It is surprising, isn’t it? We all engage in this kind of thinking, consciously or unconsciously.

The mother was not considered ‘useful’ because she would not take good care of the children. The 95 year-old was not considered useful because she/he would not be able to work productively. The eunuch was considered useless until the second round of selection began. The engineer was chosen because she/he could help build new structures if needed.

The doctor was chosen because she/he would help to cure diseases or save lives. It was also quite interesting to note the pronouns participants used in these discussions. The doctor and engineer were referred to as ‘he’, assuming they were male. The teacher was assumed to be ‘she’. This activity does a very effective job of holding up a mirror to our beliefs and attitudes.

This activity was a modified version of an activity I participated in at a Peace and Conflict Studies Program offered by the Norway-based organization Kulturstudier. The exciting bit about this activity is that it can be modified depending on the context and the participants. Some of the ‘items’ on the list can be taken off, and replaced with ‘Pakistani’, ‘African American’, ‘lesbian’, ‘prostitute’, ‘banker’, ‘cancer patient’, ‘visually impaired person’, ‘rape survivor’, ‘alcoholic’, ‘secular’, ‘religious’, ‘film star’, ‘refugee’, ‘vernacular medium student’, etc. A whole range of biases are mobilized as soon as we hear some of these words because we have long held assumptions and associations.

Regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have biases about various groups of people. When we assign labels, judge people, call them names, put them into little boxes, or think of them as bigoted, evil and filthy, we see only a fragment of the reality. There is no one else to blame but ourselves. Is it possible to transform our outlook in a way that we can be completely free of biases? Perhaps. I, for one, am not free of biases. However, I do feel that acknowledging one’s biases is a good first step. I am taking that step.

And I feel encouraged by what the 13th century Sufi mystic Shams of Tabriz is quoted as saying in Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love: “The only filth is the filth inside.” He says this to a prostitute who is chased out by some self-righteous people when she is found disguised in a mosque. They hurl curses at her, and beat her to a point where she starts bleeding. Shams helps her escape, and he tells her that she need not feel captive to the image people have constructed of her. She is not filthy because of the work she does, and the people who throw her out are certainly not closer to God.

I wish we could look at people the way Shams does.

The author is an educator, writer, researcher and peace builder. He is the founder of ‘Friendships Across Borders’, an initiative to transform the hostile relationship between India and Pakistan through sharing of stories that celebrate cross-border friendships. He can be reached at chintan.backups@gmail.com.