Distinguishing Biased and Impartial Perspectives
It is often suggested that everyone has a particular perspective, and that this implies everyone must necessarily be biased in their opinions. This impression is popular among people who think that “perspective” and “bias” are synonyms — that the two words have identical meaning. We believe there is an important difference between these terms.
What is the difference between a biased and an impartial perspective?
A perspective is a viewpoint from which a person sees an event. For example, I might look at an event from a teacher’s or from a student’s point of view, or I might look at an event from high above or from ground level. Clearly, the perspective will influence what a person sees. However, this is not the same as saying one’s perspective is necessarily biased. A biased perspective implies that it unfairly prejudices the result in favour of one person or group. For example, if I looked at an event solely from a teacher’s point of view, I might be biased against the students — I might neglect their side of the story. But what if the perspective I took was to look from both points of view? Instead of favouritism towards one group, I sought to make sure both sides were fully represented and respected. In other words, what if I tried to look at it from an impartial perspective?
Is it possible to offer an impartial perspective?
Can anyone put aside their personal feelings completely and look at an event fairly? You may have a favourite sport team, and naturally you would like them to win the championship. Just because you are a fan of the team, does it mean you are incapable of making an impartial assessment of which team is most likely to win the championship? Surely, if you fairly considered all the evidence and put aside temporarily your personal hopes for the team, you could reach a warranted conclusion. Certainly, the Canadian legal system expects judges to bring an impartial perspective to the cases they hear — they are not to allow their personal wishes to distract them from reaching an informed conclusion based on a fair hearing on all sides in the case. Even if people are not always completely successful in their attempts, it does not mean that they should not try to achieve this goal. This would be like a runner who cannot always beat his personal record, so he decides that he should not make any effort to do so. Because impartiality is an ideal to strive for, it may be more appropriate to talk about the degree to which a person’s perspective is impartial, rather than seeing perspectives as either completely biased or completely impartial.
How do we determine if someone is impartial?
We can best determine the degree to which a person’s perspective is biased or impartial by knowing how they arrived at their conclusions. Unfortunately, historians rarely have the luxury of interviewing people to determine the thinking behind their conclusions. Instead, historians must look for evidence in the writing that people have left behind that might suggest bias or impartiality in their perspectives. The following factors are helpful in determining the degree to which an account is biased or impartial.