When Neutrality Is Really Just The Status Quo

[Content note: sexual assault]

Someone who declares neutrality on a particular question, issue, or debate seems to automatically gain an intellectual (and, sometimes, moral) upper hand.

While there are often social consequences for picking one side or another, declaring neutrality has a very low barrier to entry. Outside of radical circles, nobody will criticize you for not taking sides. In fact, they may admire you because, after all, “the truth lies between two extremes.”

I saw this happen recently after Dylan Farrow published her piece in the New York Times about being abused by Woody Allen as a little girl. Almost immediately there was a collective chorus of dudes being like “Well we don’t really know what happened here I mean innocent until proven guilty right I mean that’s awful if he really did do that but I’m just not gonna take sides on this one and I mean like his films are just so brilliant.”

And this was, of course, presented as the righteous and proper response.

(Ashley Miller wrote an excellent post about why taking a neutral stance on the Woody Allen allegations doesn’t make sense, and Lisa Bloom, who has represented victims of child sexual abuse in court, offers a defense of Dylan Farrow’s credibility here. So, that’s not what I’ll be addressing in this post. Please don’t argue about it in the comments either.)

Another example that may at first seem unrelated: Jessica Valenti found out that TEDWOMEN, a series of TED Talks featuring women and promoting women’s issues, specifically avoided covering abortion in any of its talks. She writes:

When I asked around, the consensus was that the omission was simply an oversight. But it turns out TED is deliberately keeping abortion off the agenda. When asked for comment, TED content director and TEDWomen co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.” “Abortion is more of a topical issue we wouldn’t take a position on, any more than we’d take a position on a state tax bill,” Stoetzel explained. She pointed me to a few talks on women’s health and birth control, but this made the refusal to discuss abortion only more glaring. In the last three years, the United States has seen more abortion restrictions enacted than in the entire previous decade; the United Nations has classified the lack of access to abortion as torture; and Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because a Catholic hospital refused to end her doomed pregnancy. Just how is abortion not an issue of “justice, inequality and human rights”?

The comparison of abortion access to state tax issues is glaring, as is the presumption that refusing to “take a position” on this issue is in any way superior to taking a position on it. As this piece at ThinkProgress points out, there are plenty of reasons TEDWOMEN might make this choice besides a desire to appear neutral on the topic; however, I see this as part of a larger trend in which “hot-button” issues are seen as somehow beneath an esteemed organization or individual, and taking a position on such issues is seen as being petty or pedestrian.

And so TEDWOMEN carefully avoids taking a stance on a major women’s rights issue, and prefers instead to discuss how rich white women may better distinguish themselves in the corporate world, or whatever.

(Apparently the conference itself claims that Valenti took their words “out of context” and that they “welcome” talks on abortion. However, Valenti provided the full text of the email she received, and the fact remains that TEDWOMEN has never hosted a talk on abortion, which is one of the most well-known issues affecting women in the United States right now. If this controversy makes them host a talk on abortion, though, that’ll be great.)

In many cases, neutrality is extremely sensible. That is obvious. I would never deny that.

For example, if a well-designed, peer-reviewed study supports a conclusion you agree with but another well-designed, peer-reviewed study fails to replicate those results or suggests the opposite conclusion, you should probably try to remain neutral until more data is available rather than cherry-picking the results you agree with. If a couple you’re friends with breaks up and Alex blames Sam for cheating and Sam blames Alex for never wanting to have sex anymore, it’s fair to say that you’re not sure whose fault it was and to remain neutral by not taking sides.

But if 98% of the published research supports the conclusion you agree with and only 2% does not, it’s no longer very reasonable to declare neutrality as though both sides have the same amount of evidence backing them. And if Alex and Sam break up because Alex claims that Sam raped them and Sam says that Alex was “totally into it,” remaining neutral makes little sense. Alex doesn’t have much of a motive for lying, and, statistically, false rape accusations that name an attacker are very rare. Saying, “Well, I don’t know what really happened, I’ll remain neutral” means saying, “Well, I don’t know, Alex might be lying about getting raped.”

There is nothing courageous, original, or unpopular about being neutral. While that doesn’t mean being neutral is wrong, obviously, it does mean that you should be wary of people who paint themselves and their neutrality as morally heroic. It’s a cheap tactic, a way to puff up your credibility without having to actually demonstrate any knowledge or understanding of the situation. In that way, it has a lot in common with the related tactic of declaring oneself the True Skeptic/Rationalist, unlike one’s opponent, who is clearly incapable of rational thought, bless their heart.

Neutrality becomes a problem when it becomes an excuse for doing nothing–as it often does. We are neutral on the subject of climate change; therefore, we will not commit to researching ways to slow, stop, or cope with it. We are neutral on the subject of abortion; therefore, we will not invite speakers who advocate for reproductive rights. We are neutral on the subject of whether or not our friend raped you as you say they did; therefore, we will not stop inviting our friend to parties, because that would be rude. In fact, we’ll stop inviting you, because your outlandish claims are making us uncomfortable.

When someone claims neutrality, assess the situation. Whose interests are being served by refusing to take a stance? Is the evidence disproportionately on one side of the debate rather than another? What’s the worst that would happen if you took a side? What’s the worst that would happen if you did not take any sides?

(“Innocent until proven guilty!” is a lovely battle cry until you’re far from a court room and the question is whether or not to believe a woman who says very convincingly that your hero sexually abused her.)

Sometimes neutrality is a reasonable response to a situation with lots of conflicting bits of evidence, none of which is significantly more compelling than any other.

Other times, neutrality is a lazy excuse to avoid engaging with a difficult subject and to do nothing.


P.S. My favorite commentary on the Woody Allen situation is a comment from this post by Amanda Marcotte:

Occam’s Razor:

Thesis 1: A mother who otherwise loves and cares for her children chooses to deliberately implant a memory of painful molestation to get back at her partner, and was so good at memory implantation, better even than Korean War interrogators, that the memory persisted into adulthood and was powerful enough that the daughter felt the need to be dragged through the mud and called a liar just for expressing it.

Thesis 2: A guy who has admitted to having sex with another minor, and who makes movies about how fun it is to fuck minors, actually abused a minor.

Wow. Such leap of logic. Much unlikely. So irrationality.

When Neutrality Is Really Just The Status Quo

36 thoughts on “When Neutrality Is Really Just The Status Quo

  1. 1

    You should not make judgement until you know all the facts…if you make judgement before you know the facts then you are just speculating. Probability and statistics is irrelevant.

    1. 1.1

      We have to make judgments all the time, and we often cannot wait until we have all the facts and information because that day will never come. At best, you make a conclusion based no whatever evidence is out there. In most cases, NOBODY will EVER know ‘all the facts’ so you’re creating an impossible prerequisite to having an opinion.

      I’ll provide a mundane example. If I need to buy a few things at the store, I have to decide where to shop. I don’t know *for certain* where the best place to buy is, or where will have all the items in stock, or where the lines will be the shortest.

      I might also want to make a decision based on the ethics of the company. I can’t have total or perfect knowledge in this area, but I have to make a call on what I do know.

  2. 2

    I’m not even going to wade into the Allen thing, not that I value neutrality on the subject or am biased one way or another, but because I’m ignorant of all the facts and it seems like the opposite of a simple case. I think this demonstrates a “third way” in many instances, it’s the “no comment” response, which I think is valid, and for many people who are uninformed, unmotivated and uninterested, it’s probably the best thing to do. It still fully endorses anyone’s right to hold a strong opinion. Now, I realize this is untenable in cases that morally require you to make an effort to form an opinion, like for instance, whether or not to invite an unsafe person to a gathering. What I find–somewhat—baffling is the compulsion I find in many people to hold strong opinions that will really make no earthly difference in their lives. For instance, what practical service is provided to me by deciding stronging the guilt or innocence of Woody Allen?

      1. I get the point, but yeah, perhaps I’m going off on a tangent. So neutrality is not superior to strong opinion, but when and why is there utility to strong opinion, other than that it’s another means to waste the moments of your life?

    1. 2.2

      Here’s the thing: if you genuinely have “no comment,” then the thing to do is, well.. not comment. Hope that isn’t too complicated a concept for you.

      Commenting to announce that you have no comment, in the absence of a throng of reporters demanding a comment from you, is simply an ostentatiously pretentious way to announce that you are too lazy to engage thoughtfully with the issue at hand.

      1. I was tempted to say “no comment,” but more substantively, how is voicing a strong opinion about the Allen case any less pretentious or ostentatious? I mean, your opinion has no relevance to anything other than that it’s your opinion. This is why this kind of thing has always baffled me, though I admit to engaging in it from time to time myself. The only thing I can think is that when people do it, they’re trying to form a public consensus. But the thing is, if Allen is guilty, then the public would already be resolved to condemn him for it. The public’s opinion on child molestation is (I think) already formed. So I don’t see the point.

        1. The public superficially condemns child molestation, but when it comes to cases of “Person X is actually accused of molesting kids” the public often goes the direction of having a hard time imagining that a person who seems normal, shows talent or such is actually conceivably guilty of such things. The public is still stuck with the image of ‘child molester’ as ‘creepy strange man in dark alley offering kids candy to get into his van’ which isn’t really what tends to really go on, so it’s a misdirected and uninformed outrage.

  3. 3

    I don’t know if people who portray their neutrality as morally heroic or admirable are so omnipresent outside the microcosm of media pundits. Their voice may be disproportionately heard, but that’s another matter. When it comes to people one knows in real life, what often happens is that one group of family and/or friends don’t speak to each other for months or years. I’ve experienced this first hand, in a situation where both sides were near and dear to me and both had very plausible narratives about the abuse (verbal and psychological, not sexual, but disturbing enough) they had received from the other side. I certainly didn’t feel heroic about the whole thing, far from it! More torn and guilty of not being able to believe that any side could be relied on 100%, even though there was clear signs that both narratives were sincerely felt but flawed. I had no reason to believe either one lied about what happened in fact, it was the interpretation of said facts that varied widely. And in any case, by this time, facts were less relevant than feelings. All that in a context more urgent than “who will we invite at a party”, more along the lines of “will this clash between parents and kids end up with a young adult dropping out, maybe harming themselves”. (As for parties, I have to laugh, or at least grimace: that family had already taken to doing separate parties at Christmas, birthdays, etc. It’s probably not that rare, at least I’ve encountered other examples in my somewhat limited experience.)

    Sorry for the long digression. What bugs me is the tendency to stop at simple, clear cut narratives of the kind “either what person X said really happened in the way they say it happened, or we have to believe they lie”. Uh, no other possibility? My mother was always complaining about doctors who didn’t listen to her. Problem is, she tended to not listen to people herself, so how could I trust what she said the doc had said? Or sometimes it’s more subtle, like conflating two real events together, except one happened to you and one to another person close to you. (Anecdata again, for what it’s worth: until a few years ago, I had a distinct memory of being badly burned as a child while trying to help my grandmother cooking. There were details like boiling oil splashing on me as I dropped a piece of fish in a skillet, the panic of adults around, the resulting scar, etc. It was part of my childhood memories and I didn’t question it. Then something clicked, maybe during a conversation with a friend about the fragility of memory, and I checked to see if I really had a scar where I remembered it: it wasn’t there. I talked about it with older family members, and realized that all this did happen, but to one of my aunts when she was a young child. It had become part of family lore, and I must have heard it told during the summer holidays at my grandmother’s house, where it blended with real memories of trying to help in the kitchen and being afraid of the gas burner and the hot oil. If however my mother had heard me talk as a child of, say, “getting burned last summer at grandma’s”, what would she have thought? Maybe it would have been the start of a family feud.)

    Anyway. Maybe I’m being unduly cautious due to my experience of a dysfunctional family, but in high profile cases like Dylan Farrow’s, I tend to be wary of the additional filters from editorials and blog posts, especially if they comment not on other blog posts to rebut them, recapping each time the story as they perceive it. I’d rather go to the sources: Dylan Farrow’s words, those of other family members and the long and detailed court document from the 1993 custody case that recap the story at a time close to the facts.

  4. 4

    @ Hunt: Having a strong opinion on Allen’s culpability is important if you have to directly interact with him, or if a legal decision is needed (in case of an adoption, a custody decision, etc.) Otherwise, it’s more I think a case people want to use to highlight the very real issues of rape and child abuse, and society’s reaction to it. Which is tricky: nothing’s more easy than to sound like a good person online by agreeing to the right things, and to be abusive in one-on-one interactions. Think about someone like @BoraZ, who seemed pro-feminist and someone to be trusted. He nevertheless had to admit committing sexual harassment of several women.

  5. 5

    Wow. This article is perfect.

    It contains every example of what is wrong with SJWs – whining about other people having a perspective of their own, blatant misuse of science lingo, and of course the delusional claim to inhabitate the highest moral spheres due to irrefutable moral and logical reasoning.

    If I could clap anymore slowly, I’d probably travel backwards in time.

  6. 6

    Neutrality is often the coward’s way out, a way of avoiding taking sides to one can pretend to be equally friendly to all parties involved. Worse, it can actually show *indifference* to the issue at hand rather than some high-minded moderation. Not taking sides can just be complacent, lazy the-issue-doesn’t-directly-affect-me-so-I-don’t-care.

    On Woody Allen in particular, it isn’t like I’m going to personally meet the guy and he’s unlikely to be around any minors I might know or be responsible for. However, the guy IS a commercial entity, and giving money to a commercial entity with bad ethics is something I’d prefer to avoid. I make the decision “I will not patronize X” all the time from imperfect information.

  7. 7

    Maybe there’s some sort of hypothetical “neutrality” that exists in a thought experiment in a philosophy class somewhere. In real life, in the real world in real situations involving real people, there’s no such thing. We have to make easily hundreds of judgments every week without complete information or knowledge. And even when we say we’re not going to step in and make a call, that’s totally a call. It is just saying “I’m happier with whatever happens without my interference than with taking a risk on making the wrong call, or risking alienating someone by taking an ethical stand one way or the other.”

    In the cases where people are being harmed, being “neutral” is saying “I’m happier with people potentially being seriously harmed than to take any action that could mitigate that possible harm.” The motives and reasoning don’t matter: that bogus neutrality is a tacit endorsement of harm being a more positive outcome than the alternatives.

  8. 8

    I haven’t read the post, hopefully relevance is earmarked to give a time ref. I thought you (author of the blog) had unsubscribed me for ‘abuse’ [quite possibly only alternative to give someone what they’d asked for]. I’m no longer uncondensing/making readable; here but I apologize and will leave when possible. Spammed on Gmail but more would have possible repercussions and as sometimes didn’t work. Again apologies and wishes for nice life.

  9. 10

    What the hell does “neutral” even mean in this context? “Innocent until proven guilty” isn’t neutral; it sides explicitly with the accused. “I don’t know what happened, so let’s go ahead as if nothing happened” isn’t neutral; it sides, for all intents and purposes, with the accused. So what do people mean by “neutral”?

    1. 11.1

      In our society, the likelihood that victims who report are telling the truth is so much higher than the likelihood that they’re lying that it simply makes more sense to believe them.

      Do you recall the “Duke Lacrosse Case”? In short, a stripper made allegations that she was molested at a party by several male athletes. The Durham, NC District Attorney and prosecuter Mike Nifong publicly condemned the athletes and garnered local and national outrage against those men. My original impression, at the time, was that the woman was telling the truth and I felt almost certain the crimes happened. But then . . . the “victim” changed her story several times over, Nifong was accussed of mishandling the case (how exactly, I’m not sure–but he got disbarred and lost his job), and it began to seem to me very unlikely that any sexual offense occurred.

      I’m not disagreeing with you entirely–I agree the victims PROBABLY ARE telling the truth in most cases and their accusations should be taken seriously. But experience does not allow me to simply believe the victim.

      1. So you have one anecdote. Congrats.

        Did I say… anywhere… that there are never false accusations?

        No, I didn’t.

        But they are rare. Statistically, they make up at MOST 5% of all such accusations, but that percentage may be inflated, dependent entirely upon how common cases such as (MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING) this one (MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING) are.

        I still contend that the statistics alone make it eminently more realistic and even utilitarian to believe the victim than not.

        1. Considering that 1 in 3 women suffer some form of sexual assault in the US each year, I realize that not even 10 or 100 anecdotes wouldn’t suffice.

          You never said there weren’t cases of false accusations, nor did I interpret as such. On that point, I pretty much agreed with you that they are rare.

          If I were, say, lingering outside of a convenient store and a distressed woman came up to me saying, “Help! I’ve been raped!” I’m not going to doubt for a minute. I’m going to make a call, carry her to the police or hospital, or whatever seems the appropriate form of action in that time. I’ll also cooperate however I can in the investigation and remain interested in the outcome. So on a practical level, I guess you and I DO agree that its safer to believe the victim (initially, at least).

          The reason I replied to you is that one of my personal concerns is that we, as a society, should be careful about trying people in the court of public opinion. I wanted to offer a degree of “balance” to your comment. However, I’m going to guess that you share similar concerns that I do.

          So . . . are we ok?

          Scott Morgan

          1. The Court of Public Opinion is impossible to avoid.

            I think you and I are indeed on the same page (but instead of being quick to take her to the cops, whom frankly have failed to show that they can be trusted in sexual assault and rape cases, I would simply do everything the victim asks me to do; even if that means not saying anything to anyone ever and keeping the whole thing between the victim who trusted me enough to tell me and myself… the number one most important thing you can do in these situations is ask the victim what (s)he wants you to do… and don’t do anything else, because it’s about them, not you).

            The reason I responded the way I did is because things like “balance” and “neutrality” and “innocent until proven guilty” and even “court of public opinion” have become dog-whistles for, essentially, victim-blaming, misogyny, and rape-apology. I apologize for immediately assuming that of you.

          2. I never understood why people would actually think that women especially (but men as well) would want to falsely accuse someone, especially someone popular/famous, of rape. If you’re hesitant about the Court of Public Opinion, rapiddominance, then considering the fact that the person judged most harshly by the Court of Public Opinion is not the rapist, but the victim, wouldn’t your hesitation make you even more willing to believe the victim, simply based on that practicality alone?

            Consider Dylan Farrow, or Steubenville, or Maryville, or EEB’s case (which I linked to above), or the plethora of other cases, so many of which in fact are proven and the rapist is indeed “punished”… in all of these cases and more, the victims are metaphorically (and perhaps literally) dragged through the mud. Their mental sanity is questioned, their houses are burnt down, they are blamed publically not just by the general public, but by the news media, by politicians, by other celebrities, by the judges presiding over their trials…

            Based on this alone, I even believe Julian Assange’s victims.


            Because the toll for actual victims of actual rape/assault is already disgustingly horrible enough, and I simply don’t see how someone would be willing to face what would undoubtedly be an even worse backlash with a false accusation.

            Again, I’m not saying they don’t happen. They obviously do; and the people who make such accusations leave me in a state of shock because in our society, it will always end up so much worse for them that whatever they may think they stand to gain out of it ultimately disappears anyway, so I legitimately don’t understand why they’d be willing to take such a risk.

            However, what I’m saying is that the culture we live in simply doesn’t allow for false accusations, especially considering the fact that our culture seems invested on making sure that even true accusations are counted as false. So for me, believing the victim is literally my default state. I can’t even imagine starting out by questioning the victim.

            Perhaps in a more egalitarian society that treated rape as gravely as it deserves to be treated, where the overwhelmingly vast majority of rapists do end up serving the maximum possible sentences for their horrendous crimes, and victims are largely given space to heel and are believed, and are not dragged through the ropes and the mud and the barbed wire, I could see questioning the impulse many of us have to immediately believe the victim. Perhaps in such a culture, I could entirely accept the argument for agnosticism in such cases.

            But in the society we currently live in, I don’t see how a neutral/agnostic point of view in any such case is even legitimate.

          3. You’re right that victims are also heavily judged in the “Court of Public Opinion”–and that goes well with your theme that the Court of Public Opinion is unavoidable.

            Also, that was good of you to remind me to respect what the VICTIM wants in the case of such an emergency . I’ve never had such an incident occur before, and I was in “action-mentality ” mode. I think I should respect the victim and do what was asked of me . . . but I have to admit it would be hard on my mind if I thought the victim’s choices would endanger her/him further. But no, I wouldn’t get anybody else involved (like cops, etc) if told not to.

            Good talking to you. You owe me no apology. I understand that these discussions have a broad, historical context and that people have a way of “making things about themselves”..


      2. I DO remember that case. And one thing I recall reading was how the changes in the victim’s story were A ) minor, and B ) entirely explainable by trauma and shock. The thing which did not change was the physical evidence, which showed unambiguously that she was subjected to sexual assault.

        The fact that Nifong, who was highly regarded at the time, felt her case was strong enough to be willing to pursue it in the face of public pressure (the accused were, after all, wealthy and well-connected, with families among the privileged elite of the state), and that he was suddenly disbarred for vague and unspecified “misconduct”, after which the state attorney general came out with a statement declaring the lacrosse players innocent, something an attorney general does not have the authority to do…well, combine that with the media’s suddenly clamming up on the incriminating details and pushing a narrative in which these “poor boys” had been slandered, and portraying a prosecutor who was by all accounts a by-the-book sort as “gung-ho” and “a loose cannon”…you ask me, the whole thing stinks of money changing hands and favors being called in to make the problem go away.

        No, I can’t prove it. I don’t have hard evidence of such corruption. But given the dynamics of the situation, it makes more sense than “a black woman who works as a stripper decides on a lark to accuse wealthy white athletes of rape IN NORTH CAROLINA and somehow gets a prosecutor to risk his career for her when she’s making it all up”.

      3. Duke Lacrosse
        Fucking Duke Lacrosse
        Every single time we’Re discussion sexual assault and rape it’s Duke Lacrosse.
        You know, the fact that for the last three years, in dozens of conversations about allegations of sexual assault and rape and how the victims were called liars and were being mistreated it’s always and only Duke Lacrosse should tell you and me and everybody else something about how prevalent false accusations are.
        It is like we were discussing the safety of transport via air and people would argue that it’s fundamentally unsafe relying on the Hindenburg crash.

        1. It is like we were discussing the safety of transport via air and people would argue that it’s fundamentally unsafe relying on the Hindenburg crash.

          I’ve got to give you points for a good analogy.

          I wanted to provide a case vignette on how my initial sentiments were eventually betrayed. I felt certain that the woman in the case was telling the truth at first. I’m in general agreement that the victim is usually not lying.

          I didn’t realize that Duke Lacrosse scandal was being used so redundantly concerning the general issue of sexual assault. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. Its a mistake I can be sure not to make again in this venue.


          1. Actually, you really should read Flewellyn’s post to you about the Duke Lacrosse case. I did a little more research on that case and it honestly seems pretty clear to me that it’s actually yet another case where the victim was indeed telling the truth, but the case was dismissed and it was ultimately counted as a false accusation when it was indeed a legitimate accusation.

            So actually, having time to reflect on it and research it… I believe the victim of the Duke Lacrosse players, as well. I believe the stripper.

          2. Yes, and it’s important to note that sexual assault cases are often dismissed for various reasons, such as there being insufficient evidence or the victim asking for the investigation to be dropped. None of this means the accusation was false, although people often assume that’s what it means. People not being convicted due to insufficient evidence is actually how the criminal justice system is supposed to work, and it means that sometimes guilty people go free.

          3. Actually, Nate, the complaint against Nifong is available online. You can get it on findlaw. It seems pretty specific to me.

            Now, if you want to put that tinfoil hat on anyway, you go right ahead. But don’t talk about how the accusations are “unspecified”. That’s bullshit.

  10. 12

    Great post. I think the worship of neutrality is the other side of the respectability politics coin, connected to concepts like “we’ll agree to disagree”, “don’t talk about politics/religion”, “can’t we all just get along?” and so on. In all these cases just like in neutrality-worship, the status quo is taken as legitimate and something you can only disagree with abstractly, not something that might be worth fighting — even if the status quo is really really bad for a particular situation.

    Also, telling that the comments that have missed the point entirely had to resort to Hyperskepticism Bingo.

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