When to Stop Being Neutral and Take a Stand
story | Terence Anthony Wang, Arts Editor
image | Serena Quay
“Taking sides” has always been a dirty phrase. Alongside its siblings of “bias”, “favoritism” and “injustice”, it has the dubious honor of being among the most pointed words one can use to question another person’s integrity. It is thus no coincidence that neutrality, in particular that of remaining impartial in a conflict, is usually the default choice for anyone not directly involved in it. And most of the time, this should be the case; taking sides would likely escalate any tension into a direct standoff or confrontation, making the conflict all the more intractable. Well, I’m going to throw all rationality aside and take a stand in this matter: I disagree with neutrality. To show you why, I’m going to start with the media’s favourite character: Mr. Donald Trump.
In an excellent op-ed in the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof noted that the media allowed the rise of Trump without “adequately fact-checking him or rigorously examining his background”. While this spotlight on Trump was undoubtedly profit-motivated—CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves commented that “the money’s rolling in” thanks to Mr. Trump—I suspect what allowed them to cover him to such an extent in the first place is the notion that the media should “play fair” to all candidates. That is to say, it didn’t really matter how wrong Mr. Trump was, be it in his speeches or rallies or public statements; as long as he provided the “news”, it was perfectly fine for the media to provide him with coverage in return. Essentially, the media have used the guise of neutrality to pursue their own cause, at the expense of truth and integrity.
The problem with such self-centred neutrality extends far beyond Mr. Trump. We see it in the climate change debate, where climate change deniers frequently brand themselves as “skeptics”. This difference, while subtle on the surface, manipulates public perception to boost the validity of their views, as it frames the debate as a battle of subjective opinions as opposed to one of scientific validity. And since it’s proper etiquette to give space to all points of view, we have allowed the media to once again happily take the position of neutrality and give equal coverage to both the scientific community backed by an overwhelming amount of supporting data, and a loud minority relying on the shield of personal opinion. As a result, at least 30% of Americans do not believe in climate change. Out of the ones who do, only 25% believe that most of the blame lies on human activity. Brilliant.
It is easy to see why so many subscribe to neutrality. After all, it ties into our desire for justice and fairness. The rise of democratic societies and socialistic views reflects how we want everyone to have some say in society, as well as receive an equitable share from it. As such, it would hardly seem fair if we chose to shut down some people’s views just because they sound offensive or wrong—some may even call that censorship. Better, perhaps, to give all views equal treatment, and then decide for ourselves.
However, notions like these do not sit well with me, for it is precisely through neutrality that such conflicts are allowed to arise. It was because of neutrality that no one wanted to call out Mr. Trump on his lies and erratic behaviour, allowing him to continue attacking groups and individuals without abandon. The protection of neutrality also continues to allow climate change deniers to voice their scientifically-unsupported views. Most importantly, it is because of neutrality that everyone constantly ignores the fact that these examples aren’t fair fights at all. In these and many other cases, there are clear rights and wrongs, but we shy away from taking a stand.
Neutrality makes for such a tempting argument to ourselves, too. A major part of why people prefer remaining neutral in conflict is self-preservation. The fear of potential harm, whether by the perpetrators directly or by virtue of being seen as partisan by others, is a big obstacle to anyone feeling the impetus to act on their conscience. That would be selfish, and no one wants to be seen like that. Thankfully, associating oneself with neutrality also means being associated with many other desirable “-ity” qualities such as “objectivity”, “rationality” and “impartiality”, which help tremendously in reconciling with one’s conscience. Ironically, when someone tries so hard to be neutral, they in fact lose these qualities.
On the contrary, taking sides means standing up for your values. A truly objective person wouldn’t hide under neutrality in a debate; if one party was outright wrong, he or she would immediately call it out as such. If someone was bullying a friend of yours, you wouldn’t be folding your arms and stepping aside, muttering something about neutrality. You would call a spade a spade, and a bully a bully. That wouldn’t be biased or unjust—it would simply be correct.
Italian poet Dante Alighieri once said that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality”. Be it because of hell or safety in numbers, I would like for us to do the difficult thing when necessary and renounce neutrality. Be moderate, yes, and don’t blindly adopt a one-sided view based on first instincts. At the same time, remember that while there are usually two sides to an issue, it hardly means both are necessarily equal. If they aren’t, please remember what you believe in, and take a stand.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org