Jonathan over at Catch a Fire has brought up the topic of racial profiling and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr, an acclaimed historian, Harvard professor and PBS documentarian. Jonathan claims:
“What I have trouble understanding is why the police officer found it necessary to arrest the Professor at that point. A little thinking and empathy on the part of the police officer should have told him to have the humility to accept the criticism and just leave it at that. My best guess is that the uniform went to his head and he flipped out on a little power trip. So I totally find the incident absurd.”
Jonathan readily sides with Mr. Gates and suggests that he believes the officer flipped out on a power trip. Should we jump on the bandwagon or first take a moment to consider the alternate possibility? Perhaps instead it was Mr. Gates’ status that went to his head and he flipped out on a little power trip himself? Without considering this alternate possibility how can we be certain we are fairly representing the truth behind the situation?
Having not actually been there we will never know the true details of what happened, though it is worthwhile to hesitate from presuming one thing or another when a lack of evidence is available. We can seek such evidence by further educating ourselves on the various accounts. For example we can compare the event as described by the supposed leaked police report and the statement Harvard professor Charles Ogletree made on Mr. Gates’ behalf. What is rather interesting is the rather stark contrast between these two accounts. A contrast which suggests that the true history of the incident is blurred somewhere between the two accounts and indeed both interpretations are possibilities so it is very difficult to conclude without seeking further evidence.
What is most interesting and perhaps a more important question to be asked is not who flipped out but rather how we react to such stories. Our history and experiences tend to guide our perceptions in one direction or another and we in turn end up seeking out information that confirms our beliefs while avoiding information that contradicts our beliefs. In the field of cognitive psychology this is referred to as confirmation bias.
People holding strong beliefs that racial profiling occurs with great significance are more likely to side with Jonathan and see this incident from the perspective of Mr. Gates while those holding opposing beliefs are likely to see things from the opposing angle. Which perspective we take guides what information we seek out to confirm our beliefs. Unfortunately this does indicate that we can be biased when taking positions on nearly any issue and as such should aim to consider the impact of such biases can have on our perceptions in seeking truths.
In the situation of Mr. Gates it is very difficult to make a true conclusion one way or another without further evidence. Even then a conclusion may not be available. What is important when dealing with these issues is to always try to recognize areas where you could be biased and try to view things from the opposite perspective to gain insight from the opposing point of view. By doing so you gain the ability to bring more balance and fairness to your positions and in turn could avoid persecuting the innocent or adding fuel to a bias which may not be fair or correct.