August 2, 2019

All eras have their hierarchies, just as all eras have their intellectual games. Often the two coincide, so that the people who play the game with skill emerge at the top of the hierarchy, while those who do not find themselves at the bottom. Among the prevailing intellectual games of our own time is the issue of bias, both conscious and unconscious.

This week the game got an unwitting boost thanks to news that Meghan Markle, otherwise known as the Duchess of Sussex, has guest-edited the September edition of Vogue. The contents of the issue are perhaps unsurprising. As well as inevitably celebrating prominent women, such as the teenaged school truant Greta Thunberg, the Duchess has also set out to prove that women don’t need men to give them status. Something she has done by including an interview with her husband, Prince Harry.

This in itself has drawn a certain amount of comment, and will not have calmed fears some people had that a highly political figure marrying into the nation’s most necessarily non-politically opinionated family might cause problems down the line. The fact that Meghan Markle’s pre-Harry politics might be best described as ‘woke’ is in some ways unimportant – a prominent Donald Trump-supporting Republican marrying into the Royal Family would raise similar concerns, to say the least.

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The worry was that Prince Harry’s marriage to Ms Markle would end up tipping him towards her political path, fears that will not have been calmed by his appearance in the high-end fashion magazine. In the royally-guest-edited issue, Prince Harry talks about a number of things, the headline-grabber being his claim that he and his wife would not have more than two children because of its impact on the environment and climate change.

It isn’t at all clear how many people in developing countries with a population boom look to the House of Windsor for guidance on child-production, but in a way this is at least familiar, soft, Royal-environmental boilerplate. The sort of thing which is allowed to be voiced by non-monarch members of the Royal Family because it is hard to object too strenuously and it causes no serious harm.

It is the Prince’s follow-up comments, however, that dish up the problem, less for his audience than for the Prince himself. Watching Prince Harry beginning to play the game of identifying ‘unconscious bias’ is like gazing at a hapless amateur juggling with loaded pistols; it is enough to make any well-disposed person want to scream “Stop” and seize the guns from his unsuspecting hands.

The comments appear in a conversation between the Prince and primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, on the subject of what humans can learn from chimpanzees. At one point Dr Goodall says that children do not notice skin colour, to which Harry adds: “But again, just as stigma is handed down from generation to generation, your perspective on the world and on life and on people is something that is taught to you. It’s learned from your family, learned from the older generation, or from advertising, from your environment.” Well perhaps.

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And then Prince Harry goes further: “It’s the same as an unconscious bias. Something which so many people don’t understand. If you go up to someone and say ‘what you’ve just said, or the way that you’ve behaved, is racist’ – they’ll turn around and say, ‘I’m not a racist’. I’m not saying that you’re a racist. I’m just saying that your unconscious bias is proving that, because of the way that you’ve been brought up, the environment you’ve been brought up in, suggests that you have this point of view – unconscious point of view – where naturally you will look at someone in a different way.”

Of course, in some ways this is no more than a statement of the obvious. People acquire things from life as they go through it. We pick up ideas from our families, friends and the world around us (although we also shed as we pick up).

Perhaps we all have some ‘unconscious biases’: the interesting thing is which ones become acceptable to recognise (and to politically weaponise) and which do not. It may be, for instance, that Prince Harry suffers from a number of unconscious biases of his own, as may his wife, but then there are some biases that people are happy to highlight and politicise, and others thought best to skip over.

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One of the most extreme forms of – generally unconscious – bias that people demonstrate throughout their lives is towards attractive people, and not only in the selection of partners. Study after study shows that good-looking men and women stand a better chance of promotion in their chosen field of work than people who are average-looking or actively unattractive.

For instance, it may be carefully suggested that the editor of September’s issue of Vogue would not be editing September’s edition of Vogue if, rather than the acclaimed beauty she is, she looked rather more like a member of the Addams family. Or indeed an average-looking member of the general public. There may be many reasons why Prince Harry requested Meghan Markle’s hand in marriage, but her looks must have – consciously or otherwise – at least counted in her favour on the way to the altar.

Another form of bias that people express throughout their lives – again, consciously or otherwise – might be an inclination towards someone who is financially or socially secure. I should never want to accuse a Duchess – or any other member of the Royal Family – of any variety of bias. And yet it seems possible that in her search for a husband Ms Markle may have demonstrated some form of bias (unconscious or otherwise) towards thrones and their heirs. I will put the point no stronger. But in her search for love, Ms Markle must have met many people. Perhaps she met many princes and mingled with many a duke. But it is striking, at the very least, that of all the people who appeared across her path, the one she ended up marrying in a low-key ceremony at Windsor Castle happened to be the second son of the Prince of Wales.

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Did either of these (potential) expressions of unconscious bias affect anyone else? Perhaps not as badly as some expressions of bias towards people because of their race. And yet a large number of perfectly charming women never made it to the Duke’s side, at the altar or anywhere else. And a large number of slightly plain women have still not been invited to edit major fashion magazines, even fashion magazines which have become rather boringly preachy.

But this is simply an inconsistency, and we all live with inconsistencies. The problem with the Prince’s comments is more that they are part of a particular political and intellectual conveyor belt, and that belt goes only in one direction. After ‘unconscious bias’, in this pseudo-intellectual game of our time, comes the whole concept of ‘privilege’ and the earning or un-earning thereof. The privilege discussion decides – once the bias has been worked out – who has the right to speak, where, when and how often. It works out who might have benefited from ‘privilege’ and who might not. It then dictates the hierarchical order in which people may or may not speak and listen. It demotes people with privilege while aspiring to elevate those without.

People may play whatever games they think they need to play in order to achieve or retain the position they desire. I simply say – by way of warning – that though the Sussexs may think that they are playing this one with deftness and aplomb, come the next round – the discussion about unearned privilege – it is possible that Harry of Wales, and his Duchess, may find a snake where they had imagined only to find a ladder.