Volume 17, Issue 2, Fall 2017
Stephen Kekoa Miller
Contesting Harmful Representations
Recent events around the world point to the dire need to counter harmful unconscious bias. Reams of evidence now exists that literal pre-judgement in regards to race, sex, ethnicity, age and religion among other categories strongly affects our behaviour in ways that when we consciously contemplate it, we would condemn. Using Community of Inquiry methods in developing critical reasoning and empathy offer some possible remedies but also hold pitfalls. The dilemma concerns the fact that if harmful unconscious connotative representations are unconscious, then it’s terribly hard to spot and correct them. We need a better way of exploring our own poorly-arrived at beliefs: we need other people. Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogic understanding allows meaning to be created through the process of discussion. It gets particularly interesting when this idea combines with the notion of a “floating signifier.” This suggests that a discussion could then also alter the connotative value of words, signs and concepts through making what had been hidden overt. This paper explores the ways that the dilemma of damaging discourse could be altered and strategies for interrupting this, including the format of a Community of Inquiry. The promise offered by a Community of Inquiry is that connotative meanings can be made explicit. It also points to the challenge: unveiling hidden bias only becomes possible in a setting of great diversity. In the end, while a Community of Inquiry may not be able to solve the problem of unconscious bias, it may help combat the consequences.