10/24/2010 02:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Juan Williams' Teachable Moment: He Simply Didn't Accept That He Is Prejudiced

In the aftermath of Juan Williams' firing from his NPR contract, many public commentators have taken sides on whether he should have been allowed to express his personal sentiments about Muslims, or been fired.

Speaking to Fox News' Bill O'Reily, Williams said the following, "Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. ...You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. ... But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Here's a well known secret: we are all much more prejudiced than we think, we just don't know it ... or maybe we just don't want to admit it. Ask yourself a few questions: Is it possible to have Muslim friends and still be prejudiced toward Muslims? Is it possible to dislike the person you are married to, or dating, but still stick around? Is it possible to hate your job, but continue to do it for 20 years? Is it possible to dislike a political candidate, but still vote for them? Here's an easy one, do you think it's possible for an American icon like Thomas Jefferson to be sexually intimate with a slave, but still be racist? Despite whatever common beliefs you hold, the answer to all of these questions is yes.

Actually, it's pretty common for individuals to dislike things they continue to associate themselves with; however, it doesn't mean they have sinister motives. It simply shows how we have learned to balance our need to express our feelings with our need to conform to social rules. Psychologists are very familiar with this process of handling dissonant (i.e., conflicting) feelings and beliefs, especially as it pertains to intergroup relations.

While we may feel uncomfortable around certain types of people, we also know it's not always proper to express the discomfort. So, in order to balance things, we find reasons to justify our socially undesirable behaviors. These justifications are typically framed as "rights" or "reactions" in the wake of some real or perceived threat.

It's ironic that much of what has been reported in the news actually supports Williams NOT being fired. The common rationale is that we should appreciate free speech and open dialog, or that Williams is right because of the events of 9/11. But what if we were all Muslims, would we feel the same? Is it possible that simply because most Americans are NOT Muslim that we neglect the effects of Williams' comments on how Muslims feel? Worse, does our identification as non-Muslim lead us to actually tolerate prejudice?

Williams felt quite comfortable commenting in front of O'Reilly, and in front of the Fox News audience; but, would he have said the same thing in front of a group of Muslims? Probably not, and the important question is why?

The answer is, "bias." Now, before anyone raises a stink about the "big 3"--racism, prejudice, and discrimination--let's clarify a few terms.

Yes, Juan Williams expressed a bias, but he is not necessarily a bigot (he got that part right); the former suggests a lack of impartiality and the latter suggests inflexible intolerance. Juan Williams also expressed a "prejudice," but he did not express racism; the former is an attitudinal evaluation connected to feelings, and the latter is a belief in the inherent inferiority of a group. Finally, Juan Williams did not actually discriminate against Muslims, but he did discriminate in terms of what belief(s) he presented to O'Reily, Fox News' audience, and millions of others who have seen his words. In essence, he only mentioned the times he is uncomfortable with Muslims, not the times when he is comfortable.

For instance, if a Muslim person is NOT wearing "Muslim garb" is that okay? Or, if a person dressed like Timothy McVeigh, does that also make him nervous when he's in a federal building? If the McVeigh analogy does not raise the heart of the issue, then it's likely that another bias might be kicking in to your own mind as you read this.

Social psychologists have studied societal biases for years and there's a growing consensus that implicit beliefs and feelings--those that you are unaware of--are just as (if not more) powerful as explicit beliefs and feelings--the ones you intentionally activate and express. So, even if Williams says he's got plenty of Muslim friends, it doesn't mean that he is free of prejudice toward Muslims.

Indeed, Williams may not even know the extent of his prejudice toward Muslims, and we (non-Muslims) may not know how much our own prejudices are influencing where we stand on NPR's decision to fire him. Yet, it's clear that if you are thinking more about the unfairness applied to Williams, and less about how Muslim's feel as a results of his widely public comments and the amount of agreement with the comments, then you should take a moment to understand the subtle bias that plays a role in your own evaluations.

One could also argue the same is true if you feel overly sympathetic to Muslims, after all bias is bias. The key is to give equal weight to the competing sides when both are adhering to the rules. In the Williams case, he essentially walked too close to the lines of his NPR contract with his repeated commentary on Fox.

I tend to think there is not enough policing of bias in reporting and from reporters, given that there are some clear standards. But, one thing is certain, Juan Williams is free to say whatever he wants, just not as a representative of NPR. There's no doubt that we should protect and encourage free speech, but we shouldn't always applaud it, right?

If you do not applaud free speech like flag burning, Koran burning, and protesting at the funerals of those killed in defense of their country, it's probably because you sympathize with the victims targeted with the forms of expression. Conversely, if you applaud the free speech related to Juan Williams' comments, then you likely DO NOT sympathize with Muslims. Regardless of your justification, it simply is what it is, bias.