Lazer Gurkow
Lazer Gurkow

Implicit Bias

Implicit bias is the idea that we all harbor prejudices and stereotypes without our conscious knowledge. It rests on theory that since most of our actions are governed by our subconscious, implicit biases are more accurate predictors of our behavior than conscious values.

In other words, we don’t need to behave badly to be a bad person. We don’t even need to speak or think ill of others to be bad. All we need to do, is exist. We are bad by our very existence because we are implicitly biased. What’s worse, it is a non falsifiable accusation. You can’t deny implicit bias because you don’t even know you have it. Funny thing though. If you don’t know that you have it, how can your accusers know you have it? Can they explore your subconscious?

They know it because we all have bias. They have it too. And why? Because bias is endemic to human nature. It is how G-d created us. The Torah tells us that G-d deliberately demarcated borders between countries and boundaries between nations. G-d deliberately assigned each nation its own language and each people its own location to distinguish each from all others. Moreover, when the Jewish people were formed, they were, and still are, divided into twelve tribes.

Tribalism
Tribalism is ingrained in the very fabric of our being. We all have our people—our group. It gives us identity and shapes our character. With our nation, we share climate, culture, and language. With our community, we share values, orientations, and life principles. With our friends, we share character traits, interest, and passions. With our family, we share genetics and love.

By nature, we seek out and form community with those who think, feel, believe, and behave like us. It shapes and reinforces our identity. Beyond these close-knit communities, which define our individuality, we connect with our nation, which defines our nationality. We don’t share characteristics and interests with our entire nation, but we share a general loyalty and affinity for our country.

A nation is comprised of a mosaic of communities; it is a kaleidoscope of faiths, cultures, races, and backgrounds. Each group stands tall and proud in their individualism, and interfaces with the nation. The nation doesn’t require its citizens to be perfectly alike. It encourages all people to coalesce around their groupings and tribes and to share their national values with the nation.

The same is true on an even broader scale for the globe. Globalism can’t mean that all people share a single set of values, faith, traits, and culture. Globalism means that all people appreciate the common gift that we share, namely our planet. We come together under universal values to respect each other, learn about each other, and to discharge our common duty to teach other and to the world that we inhabit.

Particular and Respectful
To identify with a particular, family, community, or tribe is to embrace particularism. It means to have an affinity for and to share solidarity with our tribe. If we allowed the globe into our intimate circles, our circles would no longer be intimate.

At the same time, the purpose of particularism, is to serve as a springboard from which to reach out to others with love and respect. This is why it is important that our tribal identity doesn’t devolve into elitism, superiority, prejudice, or stereotyping. If we look down on those outside our circle, we won’t accept them as equals. If we don’t accept them as equals, we can’t enrich their lives and they can’t enrich ours. They are different from our core identity, but they are neither better nor worse. We were all created equally in the image of G-d.

Striking a balance between tribalism and universalism can be a delicate affair. We don’t want to circle the tribal wagons and block everyone out. Isolation denies us the enrichment of interaction and leads to elitism and discrimination. On the other hand, we don’t want to open our tribal gates so wide as to welcome the entire globe to join. This would dilute or wash away our individuality.

To contribute to the globe, we must preserve our individuality. Our personalities, cultures, and values are forged first in the home, then in the community, then in the country, and finally the world. If we erase the village to embrace the globe, the world will lose the fullness of our contribution; the richness that can only come from individual and tribal interaction.

Negative Bias
Researchers discover implicit bias in us because we are all biased toward our people. This doesn’t mean that we need to be biased against others. There is positive bias and negative bias. Positive bias is the affinity and connection we feel with our group. Negative bias is elitism and discrimination toward others. Negative bias is bad, but positive bias is not only good, it is critical for human development. It helps us put down roots with our group, tribe, friends, and family—the people that form the bedrock of our identity.

Positive bias creates the person that I am, which enables me to share that with others. It can devolve into negative bias, but the solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t discard all bias in the hope of removing negative bias. And I say this for two reasons:

  1. It is a zero-sum game that you can’t win. There is no way to remove implicit bias from our nature. The very argument of implicit bias bears this out. If it is so endemic to our nature that we are unaware of even having it, it is part of who we are. It is our nature to form groups, to coalesce into tribes, and to identify with like minded people. To cut that away, is to cut away our very selves. It is not how G-d made us or intended for us to be.
  2. To argue that implicit bias is evil is to argue that humanity is inherently evil. The Torah approach is that we are only evil if we think, speak, or do evil. Anything beyond that is not in our control. If you can’t identify it and don’t even know its there, you can’t be held responsible for it. We must work to end discriminatory practice, not implicit bias.

Jewish Tribes
G-d formed the Jewish nation as a loose coalition of tribes. When they traveled across the desert, they were arrayed in tribal formation; each with its own position, princes, and flag.

They did not coalesce into a nation until nearly four hundred years later, when Saul, and later David, was appointed king. The message is clear. We can’t come together as a nation until our individuality is fully formed. Our biases are not designed to shut others down. Our biases are designed to create our unique individuality so that we can go forth and contribute to the world.

Not by condemning and criticizing the world will we move forward. We will move forward when all of humanity grants individuals, families, communities, and tribes, the right to form their identity without censure.

If someone tells you that you are inherently evil simply for being, don’t listen. Their utopian vision is a mirage. They likely know it too. Their objective is most likely not to cleanse you of yourself. They know that isn’t possible. Their objective is likely to convince you that you are bad so that they can take from you what is yours and create their own hegemony.

All dictatorships begin with propaganda. And the propaganda of implicit bias is as ingenious and creative as it is diabolical and destructive. Embrace the Torah vision of tribe first, nation second, and finally humanity. This is the path to true growth, fulfillment, and universal meaning.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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