The Facts

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BIAS AND THE SOCIAL ORDER[image, unknown] Three views explained

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Bias and power

Opinions about bias reflect opinions about the power structure. Here the New Internationalist sets out the three prevalent attitudes towards bias and power and illustrates them with the case of an inner city motorway.


Towards Bias

Forget all these theories, just stick to the facts and you won’t go far wrong. You only have to look at the diversity of opinions and lobbying groups all around you to see how open, free and unbiased our society as a whole is.

You should take people at face value — their interests and preferences are shown by what they say and how they act. And you should analyse events by what happened and not just read in sinister meanings.

Towards Power

Political preferences are shown, for example, by voting patterns; Western democracies are systems which, for all their faults, distribute power reasonably well among competing groups.

The only people who say that our present social and political system is biased are themselves dangerously biased.

The Establishment motorway

Town planning experts decide that a motorway should be built to run through an inner-city neighbourhood. The benefits of the highway are explained through the local press. Local meetings to hear objections are poorly attended with only some desultory opposition — so it is clear that the residents do not feel to strongly about it. It is true that at the next elections ‘stop the motorway’ candidates are returned in the affected neighbourhood. But representatives of the party committed to building the road have the overall majority in the city.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, so some immediate local interests will unfortunately have to be sacrificed for urgent commuting needs.


Towards Bias

One has to accept that in business and industry, in our public institutions and in the communications media there is a systematic bias in favour of the powerful. Those with the power tend to overemphasise the importance of certain ritualised conflicts, such as general elections, while playing down more fundamental contradictions such as those between the wishes and desires of the privileged and those of the underprivileged. One also has to beware of the rhetoric of ‘consensus’ which often manages to confuse what are really quite opposing political interests.

Towards Power

The political system does not operate like a school textbook. There are plenty of under-the-table deals and secret manoeuvres — one only has to think of the Watergate cover-up or the Lockheed Aviation scandals. But on the other hand one should watch out too for the paranoia of the radicals and their tendency to see an establishment conspiracy at every turn — usually one involving the CIA. Most of their ‘theories’ are based on unsubstantiated assertions.

The Reformist motorway

There is a lot of hidden resistance from local residents to the construction of the proposed road. But they are not very skilled at drawing up petitions, making speeches or political lobbying in general. Many of them are immigrants who don’t really understand the local government system and indeed may be nervous about standing up to authority in case their work permits are withdrawn.

‘Democratic’ decisions made at city council meetings are greatly influenced by the secret party caucus meetings.

Here there is bound to be horse-trading between those who want to keep public spending down and those who want to satisfy electors who are fed up with stewing in traffic jams. One shouldn’t discount either the possibility of murky dealings between the town planners and the construction companies over the awarding of contracts.

Yet when all is said and done, we have to do what the electors say and there was a clear mandate for the building of the highway from the voters of the city as a whole.


On Bias

The dominant ideology is so strong that it is not recognised, even by the establishment. People will behave and think along lines laid down by the governing classes, even when they are against their own real interests. You have what amounts to a system of thought control set up by the education system and fed by the mass media.

It is hardly surprising that the establishment, who already have most things biased in their favour, are reluctant to see any analysis of this kind that shows how the system works. So they are generally anti-intellectual and particularly hostile towards the social sciences.

On Power

It is clear that the establishment does not even need to win in conflict with other groups. There are, unfortunately, whole sections of the population who will accept what they are told in deference to their ‘superiors’ — sometimes because they believe the others know better, other times because they rally to patriotic appeals which line them up behind the governing interests. And simultaneously there are huge areas of political debate — like a fairer distribution of national wealth — which are set aside and never seem to appear on the agenda for discussion.

The Radical motorway

Society seems prepared to meet any demand of the private car. There are even government subsidies for city highway construction which indirectly act as subsidies to the private car manufacturer. Yet less than half the adult populations even in Western countries are car owners — why should they be so favoured? The fact that inner-city residents lack political skills is the result of generations of apathy, resignation and deference. They are used to being pushed around.

There are a whole string of important questions, central to this issue, which are not even on the agenda for discussion:

I. Why is private transport being promoted instead of cleaner and more economic public alternatives?

2. What right does any group here — even when they are in the majority — to pollute the environment where others live?

3. Why are there no really serious efforts being made to find out what the local people want?

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New Internationalist issue 115 magazine cover This article is from the September 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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