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Mitt Romney, Implicit Bias, and the 47%

“There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it…

Forget about what Mitt Romney really meant or whether his comment is insensitive to the middle and working classes. Forget whether the man behind the mask was finally revealed for all to see. You can even forget whether the numbers need to be fact checked.

The most important lesson to be gleaned from the most recent collective gasp of “Did that politician really say that?!” is the amazing power of implicit bias.  (Implicit bias – also known as unconscious bias, subconscious bias, and hidden bias- our brain’s “mental shortcut reflex reaction” without our utilizing conscious thought.  Basically, it is our immediate interpretation of something using past experience, social stereotypes, media images and the like.)  The implicit bias in Romney’s statement is so profound that even the people most angered by Mr. Romney’s statement have fallen into the trap of attacking the “values” it reveals instead of the validity of the statement itself.  By jumping into the combat zone, we risk missing the opportunity to examine what the comment says about how we collectively agreed, without question, to the implicit bias within the statement.

Implicit bias is powerful, and it is in full force in the phrase “dependent upon government.”  The attacks on this comment as well as the defense of the comment both start with the implicit agreement that “dependent upon government” means dependence of a particular kind: dependence in contrast with independence and dependence as avoidance of enterprise.  Let’s face it – the reaction to the comment is founded in our collective implicit bias, regardless of political affiliation, that people who are “dependent upon government” are people that are poor, disenfranchised, and struggling to make ends meet.  Given this bias, the focus of the argument has been either to defend this group against attacks or accuse this group of being dependent by choice.

This bias prevents us from objectively analyzing the statement and asking two critical questions:

  • What does being dependent upon government really mean?

  • Who is not dependent upon government?

Doesn’t being “dependent upon government” mean relying on the FDA to ensure the safety of the food and medicines we ingest?  Doesn’t being “dependent upon government” include the ability to use interstate highways or the expectation that the products we use will comply with government regulated safety standards?  Doesn’t being “dependent upon government” mean that the hospitals in which our loved ones receive medical care are held accountable for being clean, safe and following proper procedures?

Now, maybe I am making erroneous assumptions about Mr. Romney’s life, but I don’t believe that Mr. Romney has an independent resource that tests his family’s food and medicine.  I don’t believe that Mr. Romney travels the country in his campaign bus using only private roads.  I am pretty sure that Mr. Romney’s private plane doesn’t utilize private air space or an independent air traffic control system that ensures his flight path doesn’t cause him to crash into any of the people who are “dependent upon government.”

If we look past the implicit bias in “dependent upon government” to examine the phrase from a more objective angle, the evidence is pretty clear that Mr. Romney and the 53% counterforce to the 47% are significantly and undeniably dependent upon government.  Using his own words, I would say that he believes the government has the responsibility to care for him and his loved ones.

Implicit bias has led to an attack on Mr. Romney’s values, but an explicit analysis would lead us to question his logic, his reasoning, and his understanding of what the government is set-up to provide for all of its citizens.  If we allow the bias to go unexamined, the dialogue centers on differences in opinions but if we challenge the bias, the dialogue focuses on the lack of intelligence in the comment.  To paraphrase the writer Harlan Ellison – Mr. Romney is entitled to his opinion, but he is not entitled to be ignorant.