Sochi, Human Rights, and Cognitive Bias

August 12, 2013 Gay and Lesbian, In The News Comments (0) 73

I want to talk about the Sochi Olympics. But first I want to talk about status quo bias.

I have a theory. It says status quo bias is one of the most powerful influences on Americans’ decision making, if not the most powerful. Status quo bias, for the uninitiated, is the bias toward things as they are right now. I’m not alone in my suspicion about its power; there have been studies.

Status quo bias is powerful, and particularly in nationalist societies like ours, because people want to believe that all the stuff they’ve grown up loving is good. They want to believe that our heroic forbears built the best possible society, and assume the alternatives must have been explored and discarded for a good reason. Status quo bias is, I think, the reason many white Americans couldn’t understand the uproar around Trayvon Martin: They didn’t want to believe the United States has built a racially biased system of criminal justice, and unlike their dark-skinned neighbors, their privilege means they’re never confronted by the truth.

Status quo bias is the reason many Americans oppose Affirmative Action: “Everyone already HAS an equal opportunity!” It’s the reason we don’t have a massive public demand to rename the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, and Atlanta Braves: “Those names have been around for years. They’re historical, not discriminatory.” Status quo bias is the reason people get offended by so-called “political correctness.” The words they’re used to, in their minds, are more important than courtesy and consideration toward the people they hurt.

Status quo bias, I think, is the reason Conservativism and the Republican Party are even viable. Change is probably the most frightening thing to any human. The status quo is safe and familiar and, to many people, worth fighting to protect.

So why do I bring up status quo bias? Because I’m watching a lot of reasonable people, including personal friends, celebrities, and the President defend the continuation of the Sochi Olympics, and I’m reading their long list of bullshit rationalizations for their positions:

  • “A boycott hurts the athletes, not the nation.” Bullshit. The loss of billions in revenue sure hurts Russia more than it hurts athletes, not to mention the international embarrassment of losing an Olympiad.
  • “Russia has assured us the athletes aren’t in danger.” Bullshit. What about all the LGBT Russians? We don’t care about their lives or their human rights?
  • “The athletes have trained too hard to miss an Olympiad.” Bullshit. With all sympathy to the athletes, some things are more important than sports. I realize that’s an unpopular opinion in the United States, but it’s true. This also leaves aside the possibility of relocating the Olympics so that competition can proceed, outside of Russia.
  • “Sponsors have invested too much money to pull out now.” Bullshit. First of all, I can’t believe people actually make this argument, but then again there does seem to be a consensus these days that money is more important than people. Setting aside ethics, however, those sponsors better realize the message they are sending: “We support gay rights…sometimes. If there’s money in it, we support imprisoning and murdering gay people.” 
  • “The Olympics aren’t contingent on human rights.” Bullshit. Tell that to South Africa, who was banned for 50 years by the IOC because of apartheid. I’m not suggesting Russian athletes should be banned; just that the Olympics, and their revenues, should no longer be given to Russia as a nation.

There is no good argument in favor of holding the Olympics in Sochi, and the only motivating factor (besides money) is status quo bias. People have been fans of the Olympics for a long time, and they don’t want their fandom “tainted” by cynicism. They want to watch the competition with a guilt-free conscience, assuring themselves that if there really was anything wrong with this, it wouldn’t have been going on for so long.

[Nevermind, of course, that the Olympics as we know them have a whole lot more to do with Nazi propaganda than with any Greek tradition.]

It’s an understandable, natural, and human way to think. But it’s entirely wrong. I fully realize the IOC is being confronted here with a near-impossible problem. Sochi was awarded the Olympics years ago, and the anti-gay propaganda law and its associated war on queers is a recent development. The IOC and sponsors have invested millions, perhaps billions [I could look it up, I know, but I’m lazy] into these Olympics, and to cancel or relocate now would mean losing much of that investment, and would constitute an embarrassing international incident. By proceeding, however, the IOC and every member nation send a clear message to the world’s LGBT population: You are not a priority.

It’s time to set aside cognitive bias, consider the reality of what we are doing, and pull the Olympics out of Russia. While we’re at it, we might consider where else status quo bias is preventing us from improving our world and our society, and reconsider.

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