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The Right to Feel Comfortable: Implicit Bias and the Moral Potential of Discomfort

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An increasingly popular view in scholarly literature and public debate on implicit biases holds that there is progressive moral potential in the discomfort that liberals and egalitarians feel when they realize they harbor implicit biases. The strong voices among such discomfort advocates believe we have a moral and political duty to confront people with their biases even though we risk making them uncomfortable. Only a few voices have called attention to the aversive effects of discomfort. Such discomfort skeptics warn that, because people often react negatively to feeling blamed or called-out, the result of confrontational approaches is often counterproductive. To deepen this critique, I distinguish between awareness discomfort and interaction discomfort, developing a contextual approach that draws on recent research on negative affect and emotions to chart a more complete picture of the moral limits of discomfort. I argue that discomfort advocates risk overrating the moral potential of discomfort if they underestimate the extent to which context shapes the interpretation of affect and simple, raw feelings.

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  1. This way of framing the debate is inspired by Daniel Kelly’s useful conceptualization of disgust advocates and skeptics (Kelly 2011).

  2. In a forthcoming paper (“Against Comfort: Political and Social Consequences of Evading Discomfort”) I defend a version of the advocate position.

  3. Some domains of the research on implicit biases are currently under scrutiny as part of the replication crisis in the social sciences. It has, for example, been questioned whether the Implicit Association Test can accurately track implicit biases on an individual level (See Kurdi and Banaji 2017 for a reply to the criticism) and to what extent implicit biases can predict discriminatory behavior (consult Brownstein et al. 2019, for a critical discussion). The foundation of the research on implicit biases, however, includes many other measures which remain robust, consult for example Jost et al. 2009 or Holroyd et al. 2017a.

  4. One notable exception is “Project Perfect”, led by Lisa Bortolotti at Birmingham University, which aims to identify when imperfect cognitions are good for us: Accessed 5 June, 2019.

  5. Implicit biases are heterogeneous (Holroyd and Sweetman 2016) and researchers continue to study to what extent agents can access (Cooley et al. 2018; Hahn and Gawronski 2019) and control (Conrey et al. 2005) their implicit biases and to what degree implicit biases differ in these respects from explicit biases. It would therefore be a mischaracterization to label implicit biases as entirely unconscious in a Freudian sense (Machery 2016). A promising alternative is to understand implicit biases as spontaneous affective states (Hahn and Gawronski 2019).

  6. In the study, a person with a distinct white or black dialect called a wrong telephone number for help. The caller explained that their car was disabled and that they needed someone to call up the nearest garage, because they had no more coins to make the call themselves. Many similar studies followed (see Dovidio and Gaertner 2004, 9–11). Other contemporary studies document how helping behavior furthers subtle forms of discrimination: “Discrimination of even the most apparently well-intentioned kind—helping members of in-group—has significant impact on those who are not part of the in-group and those who are” (Summary of this research in Banaji and Greenwald 2013, 140–143, 160–163).

  7. Other more recent studies also document how implicit biased persons display increased discomfort (anxiety, nervousness, awkwardness) when interacting with black patients (Hagiwara et al. 2017) and when instructing black learners (Jacoby-Senghor et al. 2016). In another study, subjects with white preference on the IAT showed less comfort and less friendliness when talking to a black interviewer than a white counterpart. Discomfort indicators included speech errors, speech hesitations, positioning of the rolling chair to the interviewer (McConnell and Leibold 2001). Consult summary in Dovidio and Gaertner 2010.

  8. For a pointed discussion of the relationship between testimonies and so-called scientific evidence of racial bias, see Schroer 2015.

  9. For a comprehensive literature review, consult Hahn and Gawronski 2019.

  10. It is important to note that killjoy is not only something performed intentionally. Individuals can be killjoys by merely entering a room, or more directly, by being seen as different and norm-divergent, a being whose presence disrupts the status quo (Wandel Petersen and Mølgaard Tams 2016).

  11. Both Bailey and Applebaum adhere to the “pedagogies of discomfort” (Boler 2009; Kumashiro 2002). As Shoshana Felman, one prominent representative of this tradition, argues: “[i]f teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis…it has perhaps not been truly taught” (Felman and Laub 1991, p. 53).

  12. Zheng cites empirical studies that have identified how “high-threat” accusations of, for example, being called a racist can lead to aversive behavior like denial and resistance, negative affect, and negative evaluations (Czopp et al. 2006). Other studies confirm the same tendency, namely that pushing for an acknowledgement of guilt/blameworthiness may create a backlash (see summary in Bartlett 2009). The take-away message from these and other empirical studies on the moral potential of confrontation is, however, not straightforward (see literature review in Czopp 2019). In Czopp 2006, for example, participants who experienced discomfort also displayed a reduction in stereotypic inference and reported less prejudiced attitudes in a follow-up study. Similarly, a recent study confirms that participants who had been confronted with their biases reported that they had been reflecting more on the episode, made more attempts to suppress biased behavior, and were more motivated to be egalitarian compared to participants who were not confronted (Chaney and Sanchez 2018). These experiments support the middle position of so-called moderate discomfort advocates that I’ll discuss in the next section.

  13. There is no scholarly consensus on what qualifies as racism. For an overview of the discussions, consult Appiah 1992; Blum 2007; Levy 2017.

  14. Several philosophers have launched similar arguments against associating implicit bias with the moral character of the agent and questioned the appropriateness of blaming the agent for his or her biases (Saul 2014; Levy 2017). See also Alex Madva’s discussion of a similar group of theorists he calls “exonerators” (Madva 2018). Others argue that we cannot rely on traditional definitions of moral responsibility when it comes to implicit biases and that this calls for a revision of our traditional ideas about what moral responsibility entails (Faucher 2016; Glasgow 2016). Other discussions have focused on individual versus societal accountability (Haslanger 2015 and discussions of Haslanger’s position by Jennifer Saul and Rachel Sterken forthcoming in Disputatio 2019). For an overview of these debates, see Holroyd et al. 2017b.

  15. For example, epistemology (Diaz-Leon 2016; Rysiew 2016) and political theory (Lægaard 2016). For other insightful contextual approaches to emotions, see Eickers et al. 2017; Betz et al. 2019.

  16. A broad range of psychologists and philosophers have advocated for this thesis of “the primacy of affect”, from Antonio Damasio to the contemporary influential voice of the constructivist theory of emotion, neuropsychologist Lisa Barrett. Other pioneering researchers include Wilhelm Wundt, James A. Russel and Gerald Clore. This body of research primarily originates from cognitive and affective sciences with a focus on affect as an inner state. Another approach from cultural studies also stresses on the relational dynamics of affect. There are many differences between these two traditions but the primary point of agreement is that affect has a significant influence on human judgment and perception. For an overview of these discussions, see for example Leys 2011.

  17. Our experience of affect is part of the larger phenomenon of interoception, basically a form of inner perception. In Barrett’s words, it is the “brain’s representation of all sensations from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system” (Barrett 2017, p. 56).

  18. Alex Madva makes a similar point concerning the indeterminate nature of the gut feelings underlying racial biases (Madva 2019).

  19. Other moderate discomfort advocates argue that such internal motivations are not necessary for discomfort to be morally productive. Studies show that even less egalitarian individuals respond to uncomfortable confrontations with less prejudice simply to avoid being called out (Monteith et al. 2019). See also philosopher José Medina’s useful discussion of beneficial and detrimental epistemic friction (Medina 2013, chap. 1).

  20. For an overview, consult Clore and Schiller 2016.


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This research was made possible by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Carlsberg Foundation (Grant no. CF16-0580).

Many thanks for comments and suggestions for earlier versions of this paper to the reviewers at ETMP, Alex Madva, Jules Holroyd, Jennifer Saul, Sally Haslanger, Laurencia Sainz, Robin Zheng, Charlie Kurth, Thomas Brudholm and Birgitte S. Johansen, Milicent Churcher, Christopher Bennett, Rikke Andreassen, Heidi Maibom, Pedja Jurisic, and the audiences at the Work-in-progress-seminar, University of Sheffield (May 2018), the Greyzone summer school, University of Edinburgh (June 2018), the Annual Conference for the European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions (Pisa 2019) and the members in my research group for Criminal Justice Ethics at Roskilde University: Jesper Ryberg, Thomas Søbirk Petersen, Sebastian Holmen, Søren Sophus Wichmann, Rune Klingenberg, Frej Klem Thomsen, Kristian Kragh.

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Correspondence to Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic.

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Munch-Jurisic, D.M. The Right to Feel Comfortable: Implicit Bias and the Moral Potential of Discomfort. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 23, 237–250 (2020).

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