You’re Biased … and I’m Objective

One of the easiest (and laziest) ways to engage in what passes in some circles for critical thinking is to claim that someone who does not agree with you is biased. The implications of such a declaration are not difficult to discover. First, because someone is “biased,” they must be wrong. Second, the person making the accusation is suggesting that they themselves are not biased, and that their view of what happened, how, and why is dispassionate, objective, and thus correct. Third, the declaration of bias in itself is enough to discredit one’s findings or interpretation. One need not demonstrate the existence of said bias or how such alleged bias distorts or discredits one’s scholarship or one’s argument. Asserting it seems to be enough.

Often bias is associated with one’s presumed identity. That is, one’s a Yankee historian, for example, or a Lincoln court historian, or a Lost Causer. If a historian critical of some aspects of the Confederacy hails from the former Confederate states, they must be a scalawag in the eyes of their critics who are far more sympathetic to the Confederacy. Race,  ethnicity, and gender are also part of the playbook of presumed bias criticism. Biographers are assumed to be in love with or defending their subject, or are described as out to get someone: a declaration of presumed motive seems sufficient in the minds of some as meeting the requirements of critical discourse, allowing one to forego the need to demonstrate the existence of said motive or its manifestation in one’s work. This is an especially vibrant them in the minds of those who claim that there’s a “conspiracy” against so-and-so that has lasted for decades if not centuries, as if there’s some sort of secret guild established to protect the reputation of whomever and attack someone else.

What unites these approaches is easy to understand. Explanations of motivation or bias serve as substitutes for actual critical engagement with a historian’s argument or use of sources. Indeed, it’s a way to avoid intellectual engagement altogether. Moreover, one senses a bit of projection going on. Critics who rely upon notions of conspiracy, bias, and identity as the substance of their criticism quite often are rather impassioned believers in someone or something who are blind to their own bias and rooting preferences. I recall when someone asked the late Tom Buell, who had a fondness for George H. Thomas, to discuss what mistakes Thomas might have made and what shortcomings he might have had. Buell pondered the question, then answered that he did not know of any.

Lately I’ve seen an increased tendency to use other labels as well, sometimes in wildly indiscriminate fashion. People are “politically correct”; they are “leftists” or “Marxists” and so on (recall that I once asked someone to define what he meant by “Marxist methods of interpretation of history,” and he couldn’t).  I’ve discussed these matters before. These labels are always tossed around in a critical context as a substitute for critical thought.

That, in the end, is the problem with such thumbnail analysis: it refuses to come to grips with the necessity of first proving that an argument or interpretation is flawed or simply wrong-headed. It simply rushes to explain why that analysis is wrong-headed, without first demonstrating that it is, in fact, wrong-headed. It simply presumes that it’s wrong-headed, primarily because the person making offering the criticism thinks it’s wrong-headed, but either finds it beyond their ability to explain why or simply refuses to do so. In other words, the criticism is grounded in one’s own bias and discredits one’s own claim to dispassionate objectivity, or it’s a wonderful exhibition of intellectual laziness or simple inability to engage in intellectual discourse.

Good scholars look to subject the arguments of their peers to critical analysis. All too often we see people who fancy themselves to be historically literate skip that essential step in their rush to explain that the reason an argument is flawed is because of the supposed bias of the person making it … never pausing to consider what that says about the critic’s own lack of objectivity, intellectual capacity, or evident bias.  Show me (don’t simply tell me) that an argument is flawed, not that the person making it is flawed, at least in your eyes.

13 thoughts on “You’re Biased … and I’m Objective

  1. Eric A. Jacobson December 9, 2013 / 11:30 am

    Just had a conversation somewhat along these lines today. If I don’t agree with Forrest being a sort of battlefield God, then I’m a biased Yankee. If I don’t agree that Hood was a total loon, then I’m just biased against Cleburne and Forrest and misinformed. If I talk about the role of Federal troops at Franklin, then I’m really a biased Yankee. So you’re right, the inability of some to partake in intellectual discourse = good times for me (and I know many others).

  2. Michael Confoy December 9, 2013 / 12:28 pm

    I refuse to read history unless it has high quality reference for this very reason. Of course it always requires careful use of references and not picking and choosing of references that only support your argument.

  3. Rob Wick December 9, 2013 / 12:39 pm

    So does that mean a historian can’t use the issue of bias in a critical analysis? Admittedly, it has been a long time since my historical methods class, but I thought bias was one of the benchmarks under which a text could be interpreted and analyzed.


    • Brooks D. Simpson December 9, 2013 / 12:47 pm

      You can discuss how bias shaped the narrative/interpretation/whatever, but the first focus should be on the work itself, especially if one is going to criticize it for shortcomings.

      So, for example, simply to dismiss what Shelby Foote says about Union black troops or Nathan Bedford Forrest on the grounds that he’s a white southerner from Mississippi who lived in Memphis and was infatuated with Forrest isn’t a very intellectually satisfying criticism. That doesn’t tell me much about the shortcomings or perspective itself and why one would question the words on the page. Read what Foote says about the assault on Battery Wagner or about Fort Pillow and tell me what you think of those passages and whether you think they stand up. Then you can speculate on why Foote wrote as he did … but the criticism of the product, not the producer, should be foremost in your mind.

      • John Foskett December 9, 2013 / 1:58 pm

        Excellent, concise analysis. Figure out if there’s a problem first and then figure out (if you can) why it occurred. I’m not “moving the ball” one inch if I take what X writes in defense of McClellan’s decisions on June 30, 1862 by starting and ending with “X is a pro-McClellan revisionist”. Instead, if I examine X’s analysis and determine that it is off base, I can move on to “why” and (maybe) answer that question. In other words, sometimes somebody who can be said to have a “bias” nonetheless comes up with the correct explanation of an event.

        • Bryn Monnery December 10, 2013 / 6:35 am

          Revisionism is not necessarily pro or anti anyone/thing, especially if revising any obviously flawed preposition. Take a simple question like when McClellan was on USS Galena on 30th June 1862 (since you brought it up). Stephen Sears’ preposition that McClellan stayed on the Galena that night and had a “good dinner with good linen and wine” (paraphrased). Even the most casual consultation of the primary sources shows this isn’t true (in fact he’s probably confused this with the dinner McClellan sat down to on the Galena on the night of the 1st July). Now, if one reacts against an unsustainable anti-McClellan position is one being pro-McClellan or not?

  4. James F. Epperson December 9, 2013 / 3:42 pm

    I call it “labelism:” Take a pejorative label and throw it at someone, rather than deal with their argument on its merits

  5. Tony December 9, 2013 / 5:12 pm

    Exactly what I would expect a Marxist Revisionist to say.

  6. Joshism December 9, 2013 / 9:43 pm

    “as if there’s some sort of secret guild established to protect the reputation of whomever and attack someone else”

    Except, at least so far as Civil War history goes, such a guild did exist at least for awhile, although perhaps not so secretly. Jubal Early and other early Lost Causers did seek to protect certain reputations (mostly Lee’s) and attack certain others (particularly Longstreet’s).

  7. Joshism December 9, 2013 / 9:48 pm

    “Marxist methods of interpretation of history” seems pretty easy to define to me: the belief that class struggle and/or the relationship between Labor/labor and Capital/capital is the most important struggle in history and the primary focus of the work.

    A liberal or leftist interpretation of history is the label I usually see applied to history that marginalizes the classic historical emphasis (political and military history, especially the actions of kings, presidents, generals, and other major leaders who are usually white males) to focus on social/cultural history, particular that of women, the poor, and/or minorities. In some cases, this includes running themes of “white men (especially rich ones) have spent history oppressing everyone else.”

    There is also another bias I have not heard given a name (although a “Tea Party interpretation of history” would seem accurate), but which seems mostly limited to political hacks rather than people who would commonly be called “historians.”

    Whether or not any of those are pejoratives would depend on the reader. It’s even possible to use it as a pejorative without completely dismissing the author’s work or conclusions, but simply disagreeing with their focus. A certain recent hot topic book review included a disagreement over what the author’s focus was and what it should have been.

    • Pat Young December 10, 2013 / 5:59 am

      Joshism wrote: “Marxist methods of interpretation of history” seems pretty easy to define to me: the belief that class struggle and/or the relationship between Labor/labor and Capital/capital is the most important struggle in history and the primary focus of the work.”

      I would think that to be Marxist the work would have to be undergirded by dialectical materialism. An author can view labor exploitation as the primary frame for understanding slavery and see racism, coercive violence, etc. as a superstructure built on that base without embracing Marx’s Young Hegelianism with it teleological implications.

  8. eshonk December 10, 2013 / 10:40 am

    Unfortunately, one of the most pervasive examples of bias in American society, is the continued claim that the Confederate Battle Flag represents slavery and racism. This is incorrect, but is still touted as “gospel.” The Confederate Battle Flag was the soldiers’ flag, not the flag of the Confederate government, in case that’s the reason for the claim. If any flag represented slavery, that would be the United States Flag, since the United States was founded by a generation that embraced slavery, and that saw its flag flown on slave ships…something with which the Confederate Battle Flag was not involved. Both the Union and the Confederacy contained slave States, thus, per the ill-conceived reasoning of some, would prove that the soldiers in both armies were fighting to preserve slavery. Americans must face the truth re: the relationship between slavery and American History…it was an American problem, not a Southern problem. Racism, the outgrowth of the hate of Africans…especially by Northerners, is still an American problem, and until Americans are willing to accept the fact that racism is not a problem relegated to Southerners, but is actually more prevalent among Northerners, racism will continue to flourish to the detriment of all of us. So, let’s try to learn the truth about the Confederate Battle Flag, once and for all, and put a stop to this unwarranted bias.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 10, 2013 / 11:13 am

      Thanks for offering us more insight into your perspective about the Confederate flag, slavery, and so on. It’s always interesting to see your reasoning on such matters.

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