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15 Mar, 2021 17:13

I went on an unconscious bias course, and you know what? I still don’t like some people… and I’m perfectly OK with that

I went on an unconscious bias course, and you know what? I still don’t like some people… and I’m perfectly OK with that

Unconscious bias training has become quite trendy in woke circles, but why do we need it and what do you get taught? I booked myself on to a course on behalf of RT to see if I need to change the way I think about certain people.

I’m cured. I am the most woke guy on this website, and I have a piece of paper to prove it. Right now, I feel like all the biased things I have ever thought, said or done in my whole life have been washed away. I’m absolved of those sins. Phew! And it only cost £295.

If it was good enough for a man who wants to be prime minister of the UK, then it’s good enough for me. Sir Keir Starmer did an unconscious bias course and said all Labour Party staff were to follow in his Superman-hairstyle-wearing wake.

“I think everybody should have unconscious bias training. I think it is important,” he told an LBC radio listener on his ‘Call Keir’ show last summer. “There is always the risk of unconscious bias and just saying ‘Oh well it only applies to other people and not me’ is not the right thing to do. So, I am going to lead from the front on this and do the training.”

He was so chuffed after he did his class a couple of months later that his spokesman announced – via the Sun’s deputy political editor – that he had “passed his unconscious bias training.” I wonder if it’s actually possible to fail? If so, what does one have to do? Someone should find out.

It’s not just the Labour Party, though. The government has shelled out over £400,000 to put civil servants on anti-bias training in the past couple of years. Anyway, now it was my turn. And I came to a revelation. I’ve been ‘suffering’ from a nasty, irrational bias for a very long time, which I feel – in true Oprah style – I must admit to publicly. Here goes. Are you ready?

I have a bias against Manchester United fans who are not from the city of Manchester. Particularly red-football-top-wearing fans sipping a lager top (that’s a glass of lager with a splash of lemonade) and watching the Premier League in a London bar. And especially if they have a plummy posh-boy accent from somewhere deep down in the Shires, and don’t swear at the referee.

Football is tribal. Just because Manchester United were flying high when you were a kid, that doesn’t make them your team. Wait a few years, and there’ll be loads of Manchester City and Liverpool shirts in those London pubs, as they’ve been doing rather better than United in recent years. Anyway…

So, what’s the course all about then? Well, it’s five hours long so I can only give a sketch, and only of the one I sneaked into. Plus, to be honest, it’s mostly an exercise in stating the bloody obvious. “We’re all biased, due to a lifetime of all sorts of inputs and assumptions.” Er, no s**t, Sherlock.

As I sat through those five hours, I couldn’t help but repeatedly think of a quote by Tony Soprano. He’s on the phone with his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi and says, “There’s no cure for life.” Also, if you prefer your cultural references a little more upmarket, Samuel Beckett said, “You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that.”

A dozen or so very nice people joined together in a digital room via a Zoom call, led by a trainer from Equality and Diversity UK. It was like all these courses – you know what I’m talking about – where you have to introduce yourself and chip in with comments and questions. And then you’re set little tasks for which you scribble away furiously. David Brent of ‘The Office’ would love it.

I drifted off at times. I did, I admit it, and that’s so much easier to do on a Zoom call than in a real live class. I wonder if Sir Keir did too? He’s much too sensible and polite, plus he’s a lawyer.

It kicked off with ‘two truths and a lie’, meaning you have to write down two things which are true and one thing that’s not true and then discuss these revelations with your new chums. Dating apps like Bumble have been using that icebreaker for ages. I did two lies and a truth and consciously made them bland and harmless. Nobody even noticed.

Whatever your answer, it reveals all sorts of biases. But also, everyone is making unconscious calculations based on the other person’s gender, skin colour, age, accent, hairstyle, etc. More so, probably, than what they actually say.

You’d doubtless receive even more information – of which you may or may not unconsciously approve – in the flesh, in a real classroom. Height. Weight. A limp. A squint. Is he or she attractive? Does she smell of smoke? Or garlic? And so on. My filter is usually simple enough… ‘Would I go for a beer with this person?’ Not if you’re gonna lecture me on trans rights, or Manchester United, that’s for damn sure. Dog breath is a killer for me too. I’ll be biased against that guy or girl, probably forever.

The first chunk of the course is about government policy and what’s allowed in the workplace. I won’t bore you with that. It’s mainly for employers anyway.

Bias is subtle. Most of the processing done in our brains is unconscious, for speed and because that’s just the way human beings are wired up. We make rapid links to memories and make assumptions about the here and now upon those previous connections. If, for example, family and friends and the TV – or books, the radio and the internet – have all told us that it’s a white man’s world through endless words and images then we’re wired to think it’s a white man’s world.

The man is a worker. The woman stays at home cooking and raising kids. All of that. If you’re conscious that your brain is leaping to these assumptions, though, you can say ‘No, that’s not the way it always is.’ Fair enough. But I knew that already, I’ve had a brain for as long as I can remember.

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And then comes a whole load of inevitable buzzwords for these biases in a handy flowchart: affinity bias, confirmation bias, beauty bias, benevolence bias, anchoring bias, conformity bias. Plus, there’s the ‘halo/horns effect’ – for example, if you’re an employer and someone did a great job once, then they’re an angel. If they made a mistake, they’re a devil (or maybe, just maybe, they’re actually crap at their job).

Then there are things like ‘micro-aggressions’, meaning subtle acts of exclusion, and making people feel like they’re invisible or excluded or somehow a threat or burden. How the hell did the human species survive and thrive so far without this terminology?

So far, so good? Er, well, it’s an interesting enough talking point, but there are no huge surprises.

But this is where life gets complicated. This is where you have to fit your brain up in a nice uniform and start policing your language. Your thoughts, even. Especially if you’re a boss. It’s a minefield out there. Truly, it is. And those mines are sunk into shifting sands that change all the time. If you wanna be truly woke, you need to be doing regular check-ups about who can be offended and why.

There’s a four-page sheet that arrives later in an email with a list of dos and don’ts around sensitive groups: age, disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, marriage/civil partnership, pregnancy, religion and beliefs. None of them, though – unfortunately for me – mentions a Manchester United supporter with a plummy voice sitting in a bar. Oh dear.

Don’t you dare, for example, use gender-specific terms such as ‘mate’ to a bloke or ‘love’ to a woman. Dunno why, though; my grandfather called all females ‘love’ or ‘petal.’ It was sweet. I don’t think any woman was ever offended, not once. He wasn’t trying to bed them, he was just being friendly.

And don’t say ‘he should’ – use ‘one’ or ‘we’ or ‘they.’ Don’t refer to a mixed sex group as ‘guys’ – use ‘people’ or ‘folks.’ Sir Keir might have to keep that sheet of paper in his wallet, though, to check every now and again. Otherwise it’s exhausting.

Transgender terminology, I admit, I struggle with. When to call a he a ‘she’ and such like. If a man or woman wants to identify as the opposite, I simply don’t care. That’s his (or her) choice. But how much must the whole world have to participate in their search for their identity? I have met two transgender women in my whole life. They’re a tiny minority.

Plus, I know several lesbians and feminists – born female – who simply refuse to recognise a transgender woman as a woman. What about their views? I don’t know the answer. But it seems a very loud lobby has simply stolen the debate and then shut it down. One has to basically accept it, or risk being hit with a brand new legal stick.

Also, even if everyone in the whole world policed their pronouns, would it really make all that much of a difference? Somehow, I doubt it. It seems to me to be the wrong battle, plus a massive waste of energy and doomed to fail. Why not just accept yourself as who you are and stop worrying about the rest of the world? That’s their problem, not yours.

The class did have a little discussion about a hypothetical trans colleague for a short while, and I was tempted to say this person should stop being so sensitive and ‘grow some balls,’ but I was sure to get in trouble for that one. Plus, well, I was too busy tittering internally at my own evil and biased joke.

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Also, what happens if you just don’t like someone? There are a handful of people in this world that just rub me up the wrong way – they’re all white men, and a couple of white women. You’re unlikely to live a life and like everyone you ever meet. That’s just not human.

I shared an anecdote, for example, about a gay friend who married his partner. I simply don’t like his husband, and never will. If I’m homophobic, then how come I have very good gay friends? I have nothing against men marrying – I don’t, actually, much believe in marriage as an institution. This guy is also Turkish, a foreigner with darker skin. If he was an old guy in a wheelchair, I’d almost have a full house.

None of this explains why I don’t like the fella. I don’t like him because I don’t trust him because of what he says and does. I dislike his lies and vanity and self-obsession. It’s nothing to do with his sexuality or race. Full stop, end of story. My choice. Leave me alone.

Anyway, Sir Keir et al. Good luck to you all. And good luck to the woke crowd behind this, trying to change the world a dozen or so people at a time. You’ve only got about 7.9 billion left to go. It’s growing faster than you can keep up.

Still though, if the organisers can get 12 people on a course at £295 a pop, that’s £3,540 per class. Not bad for five hours’ work, and in the time of Covid-19, they don’t even have to hire a classroom.

Now I’ll let you into a little secret. You know what? I still don’t much like those Manchester United fans with plummy south-of-England accents. If you have breezed through private education and on to Oxford or Cambridge University and into a job at the BBC or the civil service, then I’m biased: I’m probably never gonna like you, either. Sorry.

Man (or woman), come on. Is it, really, the worst thing in the world to occasionally be offended or, God forbid, occasionally offensive? Is it worse than a Covid-19 diagnosis or a slap across the face? Is it worse than the love of your life telling you she/he is leaving you for the postman or fireman? Oops, sorry, the ‘postal worker’ or ‘firefighter’.

I, personally, don’t think so. Even after my five hours of training. Oh. So, I’m not actually cured at all then? Do I have to give my certificate back?

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.