Everything we read and take in has been shaped by a writers own bias.
This is true regardless of whether or not we are reading fiction, an article in a popular magazine or scholarly academic research.
As readers it’s up to us to spot the techniques of bias being applied and to recognize that our views are at times being carefully shaped by the language choices of authors.
For instance, if I were to present an academic article under the guise of being an “objective researcher”, I would still be choosing the language I use to frame certain elements within my article to either reflect, designate, or support both my research hypothesis and quite possibly subconsciously, my own unspoken opinion.
But….. research is meant to be objective…. Isn’t it?
These word tricks are not supposed to be part of the deal in academic papers, are they?
Well the simple truth is, regardless of whether or its intentional not, writers of academic papers can be just as guilty of employing the power of language in order to sway their audiences toward their own perspectives, as any other writers are.
This became apparent to me two years ago when, whilst researching my thesis, I came across a book filled with academic studies on the state of disability rights within Australia.
For the most part this book held many outstanding and thought-provoking arguments.
However there was one chapter that stopped me dead in my tracks.
A chapter concerning the bodily human rights of those with severe disabilities as presented through the linguistic lens of the authors.
Sounds pretty straight forward right????
Most of us agree that disability or not, there are certain human rights that are, or at the very least should be, considered mandatory.
However this chapter championed the rights of those outside of the families of young adults with severe disabilities, ( basically strangers), to decide what’s best for the young adults concerned.
This point of view means essentially that the families who are providing their young adults day-to-day care, will in certain instances literallybe having the conditions under which they live and care for their teenagers, effectively dictated to them by those who hold potentially little to no general awareness of the realities of their day-to-day life.
One of the issues being “studied” surrounded the practice of sterilizing teenage girls with severe disabilities without their express consent.
When phrased liked that, many of us would declare that no one should have the right to have these young women sterilized against their will.
Let alone their families.
But lets take a look at the language being used here.
Firstly, no where within the research was there any evidence provided that the young women discussed were either cognitively able to give their consent or had indeed refused to do so.
Secondly, they failed to disclose that some of the severe cognitive disabilities experienced by the young women they were championing involved being not only entirely non-verbal but also entirely unaware or scared of their own bodily functions.
Thirdly, the term used by the authors, that of sterilisation not only provided their readers with a clinical, cold, medical and detached description of an operation that is, under any other circumstances, and in any other section of the community, considered a valid personal right for a female to have her internal reproductive organs altered or removed for either health reasons or in extreme cases for reasons of convenience to prevent conception and menstruation.
Normally we’d call such an operation a hysterectomy.
I’m not sure about you but I can’t recall the last time a friend said to me that she was going in to hospital to be sterilized rather than saying she was going in “to have hysterectomy”.
So as you can see, the difference between the imagery that the two words conjure up are quiet significantly distinct.
Sterilization = bad, enforced, a violation of human rights.
Hysterectomy= good, personal health choice, a validation of human rights.
As you can see, the chapter concerned stated quiet plainly that the authors were against sterilization, but not because it may not be the right decision for the person concerned, but rather solely because they felt that parent’s should not have the right to choose sterilization on behalf of their severely disabled daughters.
Now if I had read this study without applying an analytical eye, if I’d have taken it purely on word value alone, I would have whole heartedly agreed with the authors, if not on their initial premise that at least on their argument.
But….. then they went one step further and used a very particular case study to hammer their message home.
Nothing wrong with that in and of itself as it is often a tactic academic writers apply. It’s done so often that it’s almost formulaic in many academic circles.
It’s pretty simple really, pick one specific case study that expediently allows you to apply all of your theories in one nice neat little package in order to demonstrate the correctness of you conclusions (AKA- showing how right you are).
And if I didn’t know better, I probably would have bought the whole hypothesis, lock stock and barrel.
Except I did know better.
At least in this case.
It turned out that I personally knew the family being held up and crucified as the epitome of why parents should not be able to decide on a hysterectomy for their daughters.
Only in this instance, I knew that all of the researchers suppositions were wrong and that the idea of sterilization for sterilization’s sake was the last thing that this family wished to engage in.
Instead, they wanted nothing but the best quality of life for their severely autistic, 6 foot tall and incredibly physically mobile 16-year-old daughter whose level of cognitive acuity hovered somewhere around that of a 2-year-old that they could possibly attain for her.
They had told me that she became so highly distressed by her periods that she regularly engaged in acts of self harm whenever she menstruated.
These acts included throwing herself at walls, bashing her head repeatedly against the toilet bowl at the sight of her own menstural blood, and becoming so hysterical that medication was required to calm her down.
Her family, though absolutely exhausted were also completely dedicated to ensuring that all those around their daughter upheld her human rights to be treated with care and dignity at all times.
For them, this included doing their best to alleviate what they considered to be a great source of both physical and psychological suffering which their daughter did not medically need to continue to be endure.
They were not asking for a hysterectomy for their daughter for their own convenience or because they believed she didn’t have the right to have children.
They were asking for a hysterectomy for their daughter based purely on her own destructive and distressed state when ever menstruation occurred.
And they had tried other avenues but their daughter had experienced significantly life threatening reactions to some of the previous medications they had tried to prevent her menstruation.
These parents were stuck between a rock and a hard place and were fighting against the idea of having a stranger, with possibly no prior knowledge and very little understanding of either their daughters condition or her reaction to her own menstruation, dictate to them what they could and could not do to alleviate their daughters suffering and discomfort.
Not such a straight forward proposition is it anymore? This idea that parents shouldn’t have the right to choose what’s best for their disabled daughters medically.
This case study, as abhorant as I found it to be, allowed me to fully perceive the disparity that had occurred between that which had been academically studied and written about, and that which I knew to be the true lived reality for the family.
As a result of this I began to more fully understand just how carefully my opinions on the entire issue had been shaped by the unique mix of language and specific logic applied by the authors.
The other very clear point this laid out for me was that these authors had an audience who would undoubtedly follow in their potentially logical, though ignorantly biased, understandings of the complexities involved for such families.
It also struck me as significant that the family concerned in this instance, had no one to speak for them within the academic field.
They were given no voice and no right of reply within the context of either the study or the assertions made about them by its authors.
They weren’t even aware that their personal struggle to choose the best outcome for their daughter had been used in such a publicly disparaging way against them.
I view this situation as not just biased and unfair, but also as being in itself, a violation of the families basic human rights to be treated with honesty, integrity and dignity.
I feel that the researcher’s involved fell down horribly in their responsibility to treat both the issues at hand and the family discussed with the honesty and respect they deserved.
What’s your view on this topic?