• Paul Rutherford

BIAS ALERT! BIAS ALERT!


How a standard filler for a newpaper's lifestyle section became an exploration of biases, meaning, values. And how a blog post, like a poem,'is never finished, only abandoned.'

The quotation in the headline caught my eye: "I didn't show enough vulnerability".

Only after, did I notice the name George Osborne.

I read the 10-minute edited transcript, ending with a great thought: "I wasn't showing enough vulnerability and acceptance that I was getting things wrong."

We all think we're better than we are; we all try to project our competency to the rest of the world. We find it so hard to say 'I don't know'.

Humility would go a long way in really connecting human to hu...

'Hang on!' the voice in my head yelled. 'This is George Osborne! GEORGE OSBORNE!! Former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who got fired by the new PM, cleaning house after the Brexit vote;

the former chancellor who squeezed the nation's pips in his 'Austerity' budgets;

the former chancellor who was in the infamous Bullingdon Club (below, far left), like Cameron and Boris Johnson!

'Why am I reading this article? More to the point, why do I like it and don't like it at the same time?'

Such is the nature of biases.

Some biases perch very high in our consciousness, a collection of go-to reference points that get us through the day. Others are buried very deep, affecting everything we do-see-think without any awareness of them at all.

At the risk of sharing too much, there follows are some examples of the layers that unpacked as I read and re-read the article.

This one runs multiple versions sequentially: Narrative in black; article quotations in italic; my first impressions, in red; second thoughts, in green. Different thoughts at different times for different reasons. I hope that makes sense.

1. CONTENT.

I started with an expectation: Listening and vulnerability have both come up in recent coaching sessions. The article might be a good future reference point, either during a one-on-one or in a published article.

In the intro, Yuval Noah Harari (historian, the other person in the interview) says he "meditates for two hours every day." Ergo, he's a good guy.

(I know nothing about him, nor read his books, yet he's already in the positive column of life because of a single data point. Such is the nature of bias).

GO says that "government is very complicated, large organizations that don't respond well to immediate orders." Having worked in and with large organizations I can hear the frustration in his voice when he says this. Chancellor must be a tough gig.

GO has 20 active years in British politics. "It's almost always cock-up, not conspiracy... It's almost always a mistake. Then governments try to pretend that they knew what they were going." GO's pulling back the curtain. That's very human.

Alternatively, conspiracy / cock-up is not really a dramatic revelation, is it GO? The comment is pretty safe territory.

YNH refers to Francis Fukuyama (another historian, the 'end of history' guru). "Democracy won, the free market won. So what went wrong, from the moment of victory to today's dire situation?" Get out of that, GO.

GO: "Maybe it's both a great thing to celebrate and a curse of humankind: we're not always happy with our condition, we're always reaching for some kind of meaning."

Wow! GO brings existentialism into the conversation. Perhaps there’s more to him than the public persona has presented this past six years.

They move on to privacy and being in the public eye. GO talks about his family holiday in Vietnam, shooting a machine gun, then being on the front page of the UK press the next day. Assuming the gun was on a firing range - not my kind of thing, but each to his own - I feel rather sorry for him. He’s on his family holiday, and he's still fair game for the tabloids.

But it's George Osborne! Austerity George!!

Yes – a man with a spouse and children and a need to escape. Cut him some slack, Paul. Cut him some slack.

YNH to GO: “You're a kind of brand and you live a double life. And you can't even resign" (from that brand).

GO: "There's a real me here, and then there's this other character, the George Osborne who's on the newspapers or on the TV, and he's separate from me. I think that can be a bit self-deceptive... You can try to change it, and you can try to respond to it, but there is an element of reality."

With that, GO moves from existentialism to George Herbert Mead's theory of Social Self - the notion that 'we' are created in the context of everyone else. GO doesn't reference Mead by name, but it's a very provocative idea, labelled or otherwise.

Closing the conversation, we get to the 'vulnerability' thought:

GO: "My preoccupation was to show that I was on top of the job... certainly after six years of doing the job I came to understand - but maybe not enough - that I also had to go and explain what I was doing. And I had to go and listen to people who did not think I was doing the right things...

“I wasn't showing enough vulnerability and acceptance that I was getting things wrong."

How many Always Right people will read this? And of those who do, I wonder how much of it will impact their usual modus operandi? Full marks to GO for putting up his hand.

As he says in the penultimate paragraph, "the last thing you want to do is admit you got something wrong, because that's the only story you're going to hear."

Remember, he is no longer in office. In his very secure Conservative seat, constituents are unlikely to chase him down the street, screaming for his resignation. Is it easier to say 'vulnerable' now, no longer in office and under pressure?

2. CONTEXT

Why can't I read the article at face value?

Here's a highly visible public person who didn't lose his job because of marital affairs or financial misconduct. He wasn't one of the MPs caught claiming expenses on multiple properties, nor seeking cash for questions. He's coming clean about what he's learned.

At the same time, I find it hard to read any interview with a politician and not think 'spin'. Even GO alludes to it. He references Hillary Clinton's campaign being uninspiring because of the "world of the guarded comment, the 20-second sound bite, the heavily researched political slogan from a focus group."

GO continues: "That looks a bit tired and jaded." Better to have something authentic "rather than, you know, 500 campaign consultants."

How does that land with you? Appealing?

Now read it again when you know that the 'authentic' comparison is with Donald Trump Tweeting at three in the morning.

Does it mean that GO supports Trump? Or that GO is making a legitimate comment about the manufacture of political campaigns, speeches, and - ultimately - policy.

GO can't escape from the political sphere and its reference points, because we know him as a politician. While I want this interview to be entirely his idea, and the content purely his thought, it’s hard not to think that he is 'spinning', or being spun by an advisor, trying to get back from the political wilderness.

It was the headline’s "vulnerability" that caught my attention. My bias wants its intentions and conclusion to be genuine. Likewise the emotion it generates.

But the political context can't take it at face value. A reflection of my biases? A measure of the difficulty facing GO to be ‘normal’? Both?

3. CONFLUENCE

So far, acknowledgment of my biases have been prompted by the content (the conversation) and the context (the political sphere in which GO is still caught).

Only after the blog's first draft do I realize that there's yet another layer, colouring my reading. Perhaps call it a 'metabias' - a bias shaping biases.

In this case, it’s the frame in which the article appears: The Guardian newspaper. A publication aligned with left-of-centre, liberal values, and hardly supporters of the government in which GO served. (Although The Guardian and the Cameron-Osborne duo were on the same 'Remain' side for the EU referendum.)

Consider this: would I have read this article had it run in The Daily Telegraph? Probably not (and I read that too). An interview with a Conservative MP in a Conservative newspaper wouldn't have been noteworthy. It would have blended into editorial beige.

Juxtaposition of The Guardian and Osborne make it more noticeable.

Which in turn flushes out another bias - an expectation that The Daily Telegraph wouldn't run an interview about a sacked minister with a headline referring to 'vulnerability'.

Shame on me for leaping to that conclusion.

4. REFLECTION

If you're still with me, thank you for reading this far. It may take you longer than the original article. It's certainly taken me longer to write it.

I might lose some readers because they don't like my biases; I hope that a greater number take the opportunity to reflect on their own.

That's the purpose of this post; to encourage you to find an article about a person or an issue that doesn't entirely align with your thinking. Read it once, then reflect if there's anything specific in there that doesn't sit well with you. Make a note.

Then read it again, this time more slowly, repeatedly returning to these questions:

  • TOPIC: What's said?

  • SPEAKER: Who says it?

  • TIMING: When was it said?

  • FORM: How is it presented?

  • ASSOCIATIONS: Where is it presented?

Having gone through the Osborne interview here, it might be a useful to start. Answer these questions from your point of view, not through my lens. Especially if you're either a non-Brit or someone not interested in politics. What does or does not come into focus?

You might wonder what all the fuss is about, or you might find another dozen issues that I've missed.

Hopefully, the exercise may solidify some biases you know you have, and surface some of which you’re unaware. As Donald Rumsfeld said, “there are things we don't know we don't know.”

Make a list of your biases, and watch how they surface in the coming days and weeks

- biases that may rush you to conclusions, or may close you away from possibilities;

- biases that may help you find solutions, or may dismiss further exploration.

And perhaps self-awareness of biases will encourage you to step further out of your comfort bubble, to consider other points of view.

Unlike those who left comments after the GO/YNH conversation.

PS. Two days after writing this, I read that GO made £320,000 giving speeches to financial institutions and banks since he left his job - including £141k for two at JP Morgan and £80k at Palmex Derivatives. And so the bias pendulum continues to swing.

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