In his year-end interview with Vassy Kapelos of CBC’s Power and Politics, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the phrase, “unconscious bias” in his attempt to confront the story about “black-face” from his teaching years, photos that threatened to derail his party’s re-election last fall.
As a privileged man, son of a former Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau acknowledged his own blind-spot in applying black-face make-up to attend a party. Fair enough as far as it goes. But, the phrase opens a labyrinth of unconscious biases that are rooted in a fundamental “unconscious bias against the unconscious.”
Men, especially, carry an unconscious bias against hidden truths, traumas, tragedies and psychological minefields. Perhaps they could also be referred to as “mind-fields!” Concentrating on the outer world, the “facts” of each situation as ascertained and discerned by the senses, and then injected like an intellectual serum into the cognitive files of our brains seems diagnoseable as our modus operandi. And this innate process has many valuable rewards and justifications. It exercises our instinctual radar, programmed from a very early age, warning us of danger, of imminent threats, of discomfort, of ill-ease, and perhaps even of opportunities. And, as popular vernacular has it, our inner voice talks to an “adult” voice expressing what might be considered a personal assessment of the relative significance of the specific “flag”. As an integral component of that assessment process, there are some larger and more deeply embedded foundations about what it is to be a man.
A significant impetus to constructing a man’s world view is his concept of the difference(s) between how a man reacts compared to how a woman reacts to a given situation. Comfortable with the intricate and “in-the-weeds” details of the “other’s” emotional, intuitive, imaginative, spiritual and ethical responses to a situation, women, generally, find a compassionate, caring, emotive and relational response more natural than do most men. This is definitely not to say that men are devoid of compassion, caring, empathy and spirituality. In fact, some research indicates that men have a very deep reservoir of empathy while restraining its expression and deployment to those situations they consider serious, emergent and “code red”. Whether or not the male orientation to trauma is qualitatively different from that of women, the male response is generally less “heated” or “emotional” or dramatic, and stereotyped as “hard-assed” and macho, and detached.
A male attitude to trauma, as portrayed through millions of hours of television and movie programming, is often an explosive surge of adrenalin, and an “attack” rush of energy. The relationship and emotional aspects of how individuals’ lives are and will be impacted by the emergency can come later, after the threat has been addressed.
This kind of natural well of masculine hard-wiring has implications for many of the historic and foundational programs that define the inferential structure of western culture. In our personal attention (avoidance) of our own bodies, except as instruments of a skill, or as magnets for relationships with others, we generally tend to leave our medical condition in a file marked “annoyance” or “irrelevance” unless and until we can no longer breathe, or digest our food, or remember our name. Not only is this attitude endemic to most men, (verified by family physicians who assert that men comply with treatment plans because when they finally arrive in the doctor’s office, the condition is so serious there is no other option), it also pervades our health care system, as well as the systems that control much of our western culture.
Our hospital wards are filled with patients in “crisis” conditions, as we are told, in order to better optimize limited, finite resources. Our insurance plans place little or no obligation either on doctors or patients to “prevent” health from deteriorating even though the pathway to prevention is well known, well documented, proven by research and relatively easily implemented, if we have the personal and collective will. Health education, however, remains at best a tertiary function in our health care system. Embedded in our collective co-dependence in the dynamic of crisis management is our insistence on independent, private, individualistic value of personal absolute control of our bodies, and our lives.
And herein lies another of the masculine mandates of not merely preference for, but actual religious dogma, that dictates silo “rights” of the individual, that aspirationally support freedom of choice, and the access of tankers of cash to those choices through advertising and political propaganda, all in the service of private enterprise at the expense of anything the smacks of a moderate posture of balance. Absolute (ism) whether it be ideological, theological, economic or nationalistic, and the perfection it both fosters and requires, is a serious threat not only to the masculine gender who defer to it far more readily than our female partners. A cliché has it that men live for their chosen task, while women exist for their relationship with tasks taking a second place. And the pre-eminence of how we perform our tasks, whether as brands of corporations or more insidiously as human “professionals” has now been reduced to a social compulsion that completely rejects imperfection. It is as if a human being is now analogous to the Lexus that comes off the assembly line, striving for perfection.
Problem is, however, that we are not produced by programmed robots, hygienically sanitized laboratories and factories, and reproduced perpetually by the same, identical parts and processes. The masculine relationship to technology, from the plow to the knife, to the hammer, the water-wheel, the miller-wheel, the combustion engine, the chemical test-tube and Bunsen burner, and more recently the nuclear reactor and rocket, and the digital chip continues to provide the sign-posts of western cultural development. It also undergirds the relative position of the human being to the machine, and to the corporation that controls first the machine and then, by default, the human operator. As machines are incapable of protesting working conditions, and immune to hand-overs, heart-attacks, cancers and ebola, corporations are incentivized to value them more highly than those imperfect human beings. This hierarchy is just another of the multiple hierarchies of power that, like barnacles, cling to the western culture, without being fully addressed as significant influences on how we live, and how we perceive our culture “works”.
Men have a predisposition that incarnates anxiety in chaos, in ambiguity, and in complexity, unless it captures the attention of those (historically mostly men) whose scientific skill, training and dedication seek to untangle those complexities.
In our daily lives, nevertheless, men and women carve out paths of convenience, comfort, predictability, and a path of least resistance, as well documented in numerous research projects. And then, we attempt to imply, if not actually impose a similar pattern on each of the situations we face in our work days. Measurement of costs and benefits, like technologies themselves, efficiencies more dominant than effectiveness, demonstrable and measureable productions/including savings and new processes tend to dominate many of the decisions taken in and by our organizations. Human need, by imposed “deference” tends to have to be relegated to the back of the cultural bus, given the unconscious bias of men to seek and to hold what we/they believe to be power and control.
The human need for food, shelter, and work with dignity, a universal and historic given in all cultures, is considered an “expense” on the public accounts, and that fact is relegated to a social impediment based on the simplistic, reductionistic and, it says here, masculine-based conception of the relative importance of humans as compared with machines, profits and power. Indigents, illiterates, mentally challenged, emotionally destitute, unemployed and homeless are the effluent of a masculine-dominated ethos and culture, and our shared “unconscious bias” that refuses to acknowledge complicity in rendering these people expendable and more insidious than that a serious “cost” to our economy.
How can we possible even begin to address the unconscious bias against other races if we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge our unconscious bias to the unconscious in our personal lives, and in our collective and shared lives.
Making nice, looking perfect, adopting zero-tolerance and zero-sum approaches to our problems, while neglecting the elephants that are sucking the oxygen out of our atmosphere, simply because we are not having the conversations that come from our unconscious, including our legitimate fear (another masculine symptom of denial), and our creativity that might begin to solve the impending crises, (another feature of humans denigrated by men, especially fathers whose sons wish to pursue careers in the arts,) and collaboration (another of the less valued potential values, when compared with competition, winning and conquering, all worshipped by the masculine stereotype.
How did men get here?
We followed in the foot-steps of our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. And we also found support and encouragement from our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who were tragically silenced, either by compliance or by overt repression or both. Of course, there are glimpses of emergence from the darkness of our private unconscious, however, limited. Some men are actually reading, writing, painting, acting, dancing, composing, performing and conducting, directing, producing and creating in many fields. Additionally, men are also taking leading positions in philanthropics across the planet. Additionally, school programs include peer monitors in school yards, student input in discipline discussions. And while church attendance has fallen dramatically (well warranted, given the extrinsic, authority-obsessed, punishment-driven, and sin-seeded theology that dominates), men, like our female partners, are searching for meaning, purpose and identity that includes our emotions, relationships, parenting, and even the support for other men that can be seen in men’s groups, and Men’s Advocacy Agencies.
Recently my wife and I watched the movie, As Good As It Gets, with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. The issues facing men, among men, lept graphically and assaultingly off the screen. Nicholson’s character as obsessive-compulsive writer, hates gay men, and is manipulated into a hint of compassion by a gay man who comes to his partner’s aid against “Mervin” (Nicholson). Resisting the rigors of psychotherapy, Mervin also initially abuses the waitress who serves his daily meal in the New York restaurant. Upon learning of her son’s serious asthmatic condition, and repeated, unfulfilling visits to the emergency room, he asks his agent to have her doctor husband assess and treat the young boy on his nickel. Confident in his full and complete treatment, by a fully funded medical professional, the boy’s mother is at first sceptical and only fully rejoices when she learns he has scored a goal in a soccer game. The inattentive, cash-driven, superficial emergency-room treatment previously administered to this young boy and his cash-strapped mother is exposed as another of the “balance-sheet” idols of the American health-care system.
And only after a series of surprising and somewhat farcical, if realistic episodes, does Mervin actually come to his senses that his “waitress” means more than the fulfillment and delivery of his obsessive-compulsively driven daily meal. His awakening to his own unconscious, at the moment he utters these words, is an epiphany for which millions of men yearn, if still unconsciously: “You make me want to be a better man!”
As the stated or hidden goal of each man, Melvin’s utterance touches every member of the audience, and none more than his remark moves Carol, the waitress: “That is the best compliment I have ever received.”
Tortuous though the relationship is throughout the movie, Carol and Melvin as vulnerable and somewhat tortured individuals, nevertheless continue to grow from isolated independence and prickly postures that put others off to little “shoots” of dependence, kindness, compassion, empathy and the confidence that makes them possible. Being able to “see” the other, while continuing to resist a full-acknowledgement of the inner truths of one’s self, enhances the melting of the self-sabotage and the mask that attends the lives of millions of men.
Would that more “Melvin’s” would open to their own “gold” within the caves of their unconscious! And would that Justin Trudeau would open to the full implications of our shared “unconscious bias to the unconscious”!