124 Turning a Blind Eye: Confirmation Bias in Benito Cereno
Jessica Caputo; Lily Cloutier; and Isabella McDonald
Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855) is a novella which centers around a tale of a slave revolt, which goes largely unidentified by Delano until the end portion of the story. In dealing with a topic such as slavery, issues of morality, race, and justice are made apparent through the gaze of Captain Delano. Much like the condition of the gray sky which obscure the San Dominick, his own viewpoint and narration acts as a looming gray cloud that eclipses the truths he seeks to uncover while on board the ship. The ideals through which he views the crew and ship ultimately act to conceal the truth from the reader and even Delano himself. In effect Benito Cereno highlights the ways in which confirmation bias¹ prevents Delano from seeing his own moral misconceptions.
To start, Captain Delano is an American man from Massachusetts. The narrative, told exclusively following his third person perspective, takes on certain attitudes towards the power dynamics on the ship, the seeming “lack of order,” the state of utter disrepair the San Dominick is in, and the “sicknesses” its inhabitants are quite literally plagued with. Between Delano’s interactions with Cereno, Babo, and Atufal, we learn that he holds a very clear position as outsider on this ship, yet he still works to uncover the truth behind why the San Dominick is failing at an infrastructural level. In addition to trying to uncover this “truth”, he uses his preconceived notions of how order functions on his own ship to place himself in a position where he should be an interrogative, captain-like figure. The belief that how he ran his ship was the best or only way to properly run a ship allows him to make the decision to bark his own orders.
In the scene after lunch, Delano and Cereno walk the ship, and Delano decides to take charge when he feels a gust of wind that would be particularly useful in getting them moving. He puts the crew members nearby to work, remarking in a derogatory manner: “Good fellows… a little training would make fine sailors of them”. This demeaning tone is immediately carried on when he goes to meet the man at the helm of the ship: “Ah,- it is you, my man, … well, no more sheep’s eyes now;- look straight forward and keep the ship so. Good hand, I trust? And want to get into the harbour, don’t you?” His sense of superiority comes through as he seems to speak down to the helmsman. It is in this particular interaction that Delano’s own notion of “order” serves to prevent him from uncovering what’s actually happening on the San Dominick.
This scene serves two purposes. From Delano’s perspective, and in his own words, he has effectively placed himself in a position of authority over the inhabitants of the San Dominick. His notions of what order should look like on all ships (according to his own standards) have been reinforced by his display of power and competence. Since Cereno, the captain, is “pale,” put off by “previous misfortune,” and in a “weak condition,” Delano is in a position where he can and should “take upon himself the responsibility of making the best use of the wind.” He belittles the crew members on board the San Dominick through the use of his own biases, selectively choosing to notice when the crew is behaving ‘up to standard’, which happens to be when Delano is imposing his own rule. However, as Delano himself reinforces a strict sense of hierarchical order, this scene also serves to self consciously rip to shreds this feeble attempt at imposed power. This becomes most apparent not in Delano’s own dialogue but in the third-person narration style, which exposes Delano as being far less observant and influential than he may believe:
“Si Senor, assented the man with an inward chuckle, grasping the tiller-head firmly. Upon this, unperceived by the American, the two blacks eyed the sailor askance.”
By selectively choosing which mannerisms and acts of the crewmates he wants to take note of, Delano falls into the trap of confirmation bias. His own preconceived notions of how power, order, and justice look on an American ship prevent him from uncovering the reality of the situation on the San Dominick. That is, until a full blown mutiny is staged right in front of him and he’s forced to reconcile the bits of information that he had been ignoring up to this point. The effect of Delano’s selective perception ultimately serves to warp the events of narrative, painting Spanish captain Cereno as reliant, and the crew members as incompetent and hardly capable of following orders. However, where Delano’s perception warps, the third person description subverts his imposed beliefs, exposing his biases for the reader.
¹ Confirmation bias is when someone tends to seek out or favor information that supports previously held ideas/beliefs/biases. It could even go as far as disregarding information that opposes these previously held ideas/beliefs/biases.