There are different kinds of neutrality.

Content note: this post uses examples involving people doing awful things to explain why neutrality can be bad

One kind of neutrality is fake. It pretends to be a matter of principle. People who do this aggressively object to taking sides, and push you to see all sides as equally valid. That’s a bad attitude to take because sometimes the sides to a conflict aren’t equally valid.

For instance, when someone asks a guy to stop hitting on her and he gets offended, there are not two valid sides. When a parent deprives a child of food, there are not two valid sides. When people claim that vaccines cause autism, refuse to vaccinate, and cause outbreaks of preventable diseases, there are not two valid sides. Pretending that there are two valid sides ends up making you complicit in harm done to people who are being hurt.

But that is not the only kind of neutrality. Not all kinds of neutrality are objectionable. It is often ok to stay out of things. Sometimes you’re in them and there’s no way to be neutral that isn’t effectively taking a side by default. But sometimes you can actually stay out of them.

Sometimes neutrality means recognizing that you don’t understand an issue, and choosing to stay out of it, at least for now. A lot of stuff is really complicated to understand. No one can understand every issue where there are sides.

For example:

  • If you’re not in a position to be making military decisions or foreign policy, it’s ok to decide you don’t understand a certain conflict and be neutral about it (so long as you’re not pressuring other people to think it’s wrong to take sides)
  • If you don’t understand a piece of legislation, it’s often ok to not have an opinion on it, even if it’s related to an issue that’s important to your community (unless it’s in some way your job to understand it, eg: if you run an advocacy organization.)

It’s ok to stay out of many things, if you’re not in a position in which you have a heightened obligation to take a side because you have specific responsibility for what happens. Nobody understands everything important; nobody *can* understand everything important. You don’t have to drop everything until you feel up to taking a position on every issue that someone in your life cares about.

Another kind of neutrality is offering certain kinds of help to people who meet certain criteria, or even anyone who asks, without regard to who they are, what they’ve done, and without taking a position on whether they deserve it. That can be a good thing, or a bad thing, in ways that I’m not sure how to explain.

For example:

  • Operating a food bank and giving food to anyone who needs it
  • Advocating for better conditions in prisons for all prisoners, even those convicted of awful things, without investigating to see how strong the evidence is that the people you’re protecting did awful things

tl;dr Neutrality means a lot of different things. Some are good, some are bad. Sometimes it’s ok to stay out of things. It’s not ok to aggressively insist that there are always two sides to everything or to refuse to ever take sides on anything as a matter of principle.

The Myth of Neutrality

It is not possible to be truly balanced in one’s views of an abuser and an abused woman. As Dr. Judith Herman explains eloquently in her masterwork Trauma and Recover, “neutrality” actually serves the interests of the perpetrator much more than those of the victim and so is not neutral. Although an abuser prefers to have you wholeheartedly on his side, he will settle contentedly for your decision to take a middle stance. To him, that means you see the couple’s problems as partly her fault and partly his fault, which means it isn’t abuse.

I was speaking with a person one day who was describing the abusive relationship of a man and woman, both of whom were friends of hers. “They each want me to side with them,” she explained to me, “but I refuse to take sides. They have to work out their own dynamics. I have let both of them know that I’m there for them. If I openly supported her, he would just dig his heels in harder.” She added, “People need to avoid the temptation to choose up teams” in a tone that indicated that she considered herself to be of superior maturity because of her neutrality.

In reality, to remain neutral is to collude with the abusive man, whether or not that is your goal. If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least as forgiveness. To abused women, meanwhile, the silence means that no one will help - just what her partner wants her to believe. Anyone who chooses to quietly look the other way therefore unwittingly becomes the abuser’s ally.

—  Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

Executive Order No. 2017, 8/8/1914
Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service
National Archives Identifier: 11036311

With this order, Woodrow Wilson gave the Treasury Department full authority of Customs Offices to help enforce neutrality laws dues to the conflict in Europe during World War I.  It comes from a file about European war, German refugees, deportation of Italians, and alien deportations from 1914–1915.  (via DocsTeach)

This document was recently digitized by teachers in our Primarily Teaching 2014 Summer Workshop in Washington, DC. The teachers found and described over 50 documents relating to operations at Ellis Island, public opinion about immigration, and immigration policy reforms.

Read more about their efforts at Education Updates » Teachers Digitize Immigration Documents in Washington, DC

“I don’t believe in neutrality because the world is already moving in certain directions and wars are going on and children are going hungry. Terrible things are happening. And so to be neutral in a situation like this when things are already moving is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I don’t want to collaborate with the world as it is. I want to intrude myself. I want to participate in changing the direction of things.”

Happy 90th birthday, Howard Zinn.

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