Form your political opinion with less bias

Form your political opinion with less bias

Lessons From a Humanities Teacher

by Dawn Fung

I teach the humanities. More importantly, I teach the thinking behind the humanities – investigating what makes us human.

Religion, history, ethics, linguistics and the arts are some of the tools to explore the questions we have about ourselves. One question that I often work through with my students is, “How did you form that opinion?”

Opinions are views, not facts. As expressions of human beings, these views are a mix of judgments, past experiences, social interactions, feelings and inconclusive quests. An opinion, uttered at any moment in time, is like a single snapshot of a documented life. Within the frame are many details.

Why does knowing how opinions form matter so much? They are powerful. Policies and national directives that have influenced our lives for a long time to come are characterised by mass sentiment.

Mass sentiment is understood through publicly gathered opinions from individuals, groups and organisations. These opinions were certainly first conceived in private, therefore, how we shape our thinking should be a matter of public education.

Cognitive Bias

What the public needs to learn is that people (me included, of course) often form opinions that are poorly informed. It is called cognitive bias and it affects all of us, rich and poor, old and young.

The umbrella term contains a list of biases. Groupthink is one of them. So is the tendency to read patterns out of random events, and to share the pattern confidently with others as truth.

In confirmation bias, you tend to search for selective information to confirm your own preconceptions. In in-group bias, you tend to give special treatment to those you perceive as members of your own group. So it is not just conspiracy theorists who are guilty. It is all of us. How do we protect our opinions from being hijacked by biases?

In matters of political significance, especially voting, parliamentary debates and policies that affect me, I choose a non-partisan position. It does not mean that I cannot agree with political parties. I just will not do so easily. I am careful about the ways my opinions will be influenced.

I know once my opinions are formed, they will influence my actions and my words. The consequences will be difficult to reverse. As much as possible, I do not want to lie to myself through my biases.

1) I try not to read too much between the lines. 

I want to reduce the bias of illusory correlation, where I am prone to identifying a correlation between a type of effect and action when, in fact, they are unproven.

This means I resist saying things like “Ho Ching is behind all of Temasek failures” when I see a piece of news decrying another huge loss. What I see in the news, mainstream and alternative, follow up anecdotes and comments, are parts of a big jigsaw puzzle.

Because I don’t follow the topic assiduously, it is more likely that I understand only a tenth of the entire matter. I can take my time to reconsider the statements in my head. I do not consider my opinions truthful until proven with evidence. Is it only Ho Ching that should be named for the FTX debacle? I don’t know. (Wasn’t Dhanabalan – the upright ex-Cabinet minister who chose to resign over Lee Kuan Yew’s 1987 Marxist Conspiracy accusation – also the one who worked to bring her into Temasek?)

In examining history, we cannot agree with statements where a person single-handedly is responsible for major events. There are many factors involved. The less fantastical we make our opinions, the more grounded we will be.

2) I focus on the issue, not the person.

I don’t want to fall prey to the reverse halo effect where one disliked trait of a person means I disagree or dislike the person’s work immediately.

For example, some commenters dislike the way Progress Singapore Party (PSP)’s Non-constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai pronounces his words in public. But that should not mean dismissing his arguments or the PSP entirely.

At the recent public housing debate, I wondered if his suggestion to take out the land cost was sound, although I think public housing prices (especially the resale flats) are unaffordable. I keep an open mind to pursue, paraphrasing Mr Leong, the public domain for good ideas.

Lo and behold, I found a 2019 proposal by property expert Ku Swee Yong, architect Tay Kheng Soon and former GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong. They proposed only reasonable construction costs for BTO.

If respected experts came to that conclusion, then Mr Leong’s argument was sound, not unsound. Closing doors on arguments because one simply doesn’t like that fellow or that party limits critical thinking. When you chose to follow the rabbit trail for the issue at hand, you might be, like me, glad that you did.

Partisanship is not for everyone

Keeping a non-partisan position means I don’t easily fall into the trap of partisan bias. It is the tendency for partisan members to “defend a cherished group identity: It is distressing to disagree with a group to which one feels emotionally attached and this cognitive dissonance creates motivation for toeing the party line” (Source).

Partisan bias can be troubling. The investment in the journey is so emotional that losing and winning can divide neighbours, friends, and families. For the party, the goal is to win power. People are dispensable.

After the fall-out of the Lees via Oxleygate, we’ve been entertained by the drama on their ongoing conflict even though it is not ethical. We fall prey to the mere exposure effect, where constantly consuming Lee Hsien Yang’s feed (or your favourite politician’s well curated social media) helps us like the person because we get familiar with him.

But liking a person’s public image is not an indicator that we know the person. We have never worked with him in real life nor spoken to him. What do we really know? What is the foundation of our opinion based on?

“Ownself check ownself” is an overconfidence bias where people overestimate their own abilities. Even if Mr Ong Ye Kung meant to emphasise how virtuous the People’s Action Party (PAP) is in governing Singapore, nobody should buy it. (Mr Ong is a smart man but English wordplay is not his strength.) The truth is, in a first world bubble, PAP especially needs the opposition. How else will the Ministers and MPs get training in confronting their biases?

Partisanship claims the moral language of politicians and followers. In order to win as a team, you must think as a team.

This means changing yourself in the process to suit what the team needs. The change is more than skin deep.

PAP politicians who spoke nervously in their first year now sneer comfortably at their opponents like their seniors do. The behaviour reminds me of unthinking, mean children. It is the same meanness I see in many of their followers’ engagement online.

I wonder if they do so to prove loyalty to their team or if they are doing it for fun. But nothing is funny when your party members are not allowed to vote according to conscience, when conscience was everything as to why they signed up in the first place.

The moral dilemma of partisanship is always the distance between your conscience and your party’s actions, isn’t it?

Opine responsibly

I see now human beings are blessed with cognitive bias because they are not meant to solve problems alone. We need one another. But as the initial group grows tight, the group members develop biases that work against them, in which case, only outsiders and brave truth-tellers will dare to show them their bias blindspots.

Cognitive bias can help us make decisions in uncertainty. They encourage us to be kinder to be another because, hey, it is ok to be wrong. Let me help you see better. Let’s work together.

For the PAP supporters who refuse to believe that the party is less than pure, embracing accountability from the Opposition should be easy. And if you venture further to speak to opposition politicians in their wards instead of leaving snide comments online, you will find that they are not stupid, vengeful people. They don’t share the same values as the PAP but their reasons for serving the public are recognisable in the party you support.

For opposition supporters who refuse to believe anything good can come out of PAP, try connecting the dots more. How do Ministers and MPs have so much time to “go after you”? Surely their greedy pockets make going after luxurious holidays more enticing.

The pain point to confront, especially for political opponents and their family members who have been harmed, is that not all actors are bad in the PAP. Target your communication on the specific players in the issues involved in your cause for justice.

This way, you shine the light for the public in the proper direction. Make an action plan. Lobby in an organised manner. The right people will join you.

All political communities are moral communities. Our sense of right and wrong are powerfully shaped by public discourse, action and judgment (see death penalty, 377A). That my opinions have been, and will be, subject to political players, compels me to lean into independent inquiry more.

I treasure critical thinking too much to yield to any party’s value system. The more I think critically about the opinions that shaped my life growing up in Singapore, the more I think about how my opinions today can influence someone else’s life.

This means action. I firmly believe that good (kind, sincere, intelligent and visionary) people across all parties deserve our contributions. I associate with whoever wants to work with me on my life’s mission to better children’s rights through education reform. I look out for representatives whose efforts in education should be noticed (see PSP’s Hazel Poa and PAP’s Denise Phua).

Such thinking enables me to want to come in contact with other people in real life, rather than be a keyboard warrior. The outcomes are less abstract and less conflict laden. In short, I know who I want to be.

Then I know how to use social media. I use it to help me track my opinions. Sometimes I look at my old posts to help me make sense of how I used to think, and how much I have changed. I like it that my opinions are visible. I have evidence that I crafted and owned my process. I have allowed others to weigh in on my biases too.

Freedom is an education of the mind. How we treat one another online and offline is an expression of our opinions of our fellow countrymen. The freedom to shape and to communicate our opinion should not be abused.

Dawn Fung is the author of Homeschooling in Singapore: An Education. You can read more about her on her website and engage with her on her Facebook account.

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