Unconscious Bias? Just Ask Marcus Aurelius

My spouse, Lee, has been studying Stoicism for the past year or two. He really enjoys The Daily Stoic podcast, by Ryan Holiday, who happens to be my boss’s best friend. Small world! Who knew? Holiday has a new book of meditations out, with new translations of the Stoics into modern English by Stephen Hanselman. Of course, Lee’s enjoying it greatly. He even got a special journal to record his own thoughts. That man LOVES to journal almost as much as I love to blog!

So, the passage for yesterday was:

Do away with the opinion I am harmed, and the harm is cast away, too. Do away with being harmed, and harm disappears.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.7, as quoted in The Daily Stoic, p. 119.

This is one of those topics we linguists love, especially those of us, like me, who are enamored of pragmatics. Not only do words have different meanings in different contexts, but tone of voice and intention can also change meanings. PLUS, the person hearing the words will interpret what is said through their filters. The same sentence with the same intonation can engender a hearty laugh or a world of hurt, depending on how it’s taken.

You have to like a guy who was a good horseman. From Britannica.

Assuming good intent is what it boils down to, right? It’s just like with the Little Free Library story yesterday! Susan could have interpreted the stolen books as an act of aggression or malice, but she instead chose to interpret it as a cry for help. I often find myself interpreting comments that could be taken as mean or passive aggressive as being the result of some issue I have no clue about. Thus, I do away with the harm, and it’s gone. Easier said than done sometimes, I must admit.

Holiday points this out in his reading of the Emperor:

This is why it is so important to control the biases and lenses we bring to our interactions. When you see or hear something, which interpretation to you jump to? What is your default interpretation of someone else’s intentions?

Holiday, op. cit.

Yeah, when it comes down to it, those Romans were thinking about unconscious bias and how it affects our interactions with others way back then. Here they are talking about biases toward individuals, but it works with groups as well.

This hits quite close to home with me in the struggles I’m going through right now. There are at least two people in my life right now to whom I’m having a hard time reacting reasonably. I’ve known them both a long time, so there’s a history of patterns and behaviors that have biased me in how I interpret pretty much everything they say. They could say, “The weather’s nice today,” and I’d find some way to react with, “Why are they being so negative again?”

Carlton points out that he doesn’t have any negative patterns, as Lee and Harvey contemplate the next lesson from Marcus Aurelius in Holiday’s new book.

Yes, it’s true that I’ve had years to observe their patterns, I’ve been repeatedly exposed to negative consequences of their speech patterns, intonations, or insinuations that maybe I’m the only one who’d see, and I’ve lost my ability to do as Marcus Aurelius advised above.

As you may have guessed already, I know perfectly well that I’m not going to be able to change their communication patterns, proclivities to passive aggressiveness, self centeredness, or whatever the deal is. I may know perfectly well “where they’re coming from,” that sometimes it actually is NOT from a place of kindness or good will, but do I have to take it to heart?

Can I get a lesson from the Stoics and CHOOSE to find another way to interpret words, actions, implications, and tones of voice? Maybe I can do what my therapist recommended once, and just say to myself, “Oh, that’s just Person X being Person X,” and let it slide, rather than feeling like there’s a knife being poked into my psyche. Or as Marcus Aurelius said:

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

Wikipedia article

Like all my unconscious bias reading lately has been telling me, a bias that you’ve identified isn’t as unconscious as it once was. You may not be able to completely eliminate it, but you can mitigate your own actions when you can feel it being triggered and make the choice to take words at face value, interpret tones of voice as coming from pain or other problems, and just accept Person X as they are.

I’m grateful that Lee shared yesterday’s passage with me. It’s comforting to know that great minds have been pondering these issues for a very long time. And it’s helpful to get the Stoic viewpoint a little more ingrained in my behaviors, so that I can concentrate on what I can do something about, and let the things I can’t do a darned thing about fall to the wayside. That will give me a lot more time for productive thought!

Does any of this resonate with a situation in your life? Feel free to share!

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

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