The Perils of Neutrality

 Published in: The Daily Star on September 5, 2018
The Perils of Neutrality

Very often, we cherry pick what we call discrimination or bias and launch movements. Very often, we voice our views and receive backlashes. Thus, many of us stay on the fence, not choose sides and maintain our general acceptable levels of civic sanity. That is what we do. We stop ourselves from saying what we would ideally like to say and instead end up in a dungeon of compromises, lest we are penalised by the authorities in our own spaces of work and leisure. As much as one gain safety through sounding neutral, one also ends up losing out on the opportunity of upholding a moral choice. So, in most cases, we are subjective when it comes to affairs of our own interest and seemingly objective when it comes to others. How do we define Self and the Other? As a practice, do we only confine ourselves to be vocal about our personal spheres and remain indifferent to the world that constantly happens around us? Probably not.

How neutral can one be? After all, we are born with a few natural inclinations and then as years go by, we are pushed to pick a few. Eventually we become who we are and learn to define ourselves with conviction. We weave our own labels and wear them on our bodies. Sometimes we are brave enough to risk being shunned and uphold what we believe in; sometimes we are applauded as we speak the others’ tongue and sometimes we even change our course and adjust our notions in fear of being hounded by those who wield power over us. Thus, though neutrality is a natural preference and while objectivity is the most useful tool, we end our lives being shaped by our fears of consequences and at the end, what we subscribe to are often marks of involuntary submission to the world around us.

Needless to say, at a general level, maintaining neutrality is challenging, even for algorithms. Trump has just accused Google of bias. Most tech companies are facing discomfort trying to balance abuse and free speech in their platforms. According to Trump, Google is rigging its search engines and making space for more negative and left-leaning news about him. Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney once found that advertisements containing the word “arrest” were shown next to more than 80 percent of “black” name searches. This proves a point of unrecognised bias turning any search into an unhealthy discriminator

Neutrality of educational institutions has often been questioned. Very recently, there has been a lawsuit against Harvard University which accuses Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American students during the admissions process. Justice department finds the process stained by unlawful racial balancing. However, many involved in the institution strongly believe that race is not a determining factor there and that having close to 23 percent Asian Americans in class of 2022 is a huge number considering that the national population of Asian-Americans is six percent. Now who do we side with?

In the world of fashion, the Italian fashion house Etro, a family-owned brand, was just sued by a former employee for having known for having discriminated against employees on the basis of race, gender and age for more than two decades. Kim Weiner, who spent about 25 years at Etro was fired in late June after she was found protesting against company’s biased practices. Ms Weiner said the company’s founder, Gerolamo Etro, known as Gimmo often requested HR to fire employees based on their race, age or appearance. Etro had even once called an employee “fat and ugly” before demanding that she be let go.

At state level, the latest bill on restoring net neutrality was passed in California. By passing this bill, major internet providers will no more be able to block, slow down or give preferential access to online content. Democrat Scott Wiener, the author of the bill has a point: the internet is “at the heart of 21st century life” and thus internet will have to overcome business-as-usual mode and bring in victories for the users who would be able to use net with more democracy than ever before.

However, in the international context, since the end of the Cold War, the policy and practice of neutrality have not been very popular. While small states like Switzerland and Ireland have practised non-partisanship, and while many have opted for non-involvement in a conflict or war, neutrality has not been well received by the mainstream realists who assume that international politics must balance the importance of power to cater to state survival.

At a personal level, McCains are hard to come by. Senator John McCain was a torchbearer of neutrality and bi-partisanship. While Trump played golf and remained uninvited at McCain’s funeral, McCain, when he was alive had chosen Bush and Obama to pay tributes at his funeral, in spite of those two being essentially the people who killed McCain’s dreams of being commander-in-chief.

As individuals, we face tougher choices on a daily basis. Op-eds swing our opinion, Facebook plays its part, unsubstantiated news in the form of propaganda floods our inboxes popping up as recommended readings. Thus, while States act as per state policies, the individual must not lose focus and we must watch national, international worlds of politics, commerce, education and technology hurl promotional fireballs towards our direction. We must be responsible and use objective lenses to form our own opinions. In all fairness, neutrality is a blessing to people who do not seek approval or validation from others and a curse to those who live to gain favours. Eventually the neutral person is the most powerful one, emerging as the winner and at the end, it’s objectivity that shapes the spaces that we live in. Being neutral is not lame; choosing objectively with responsibility is far from doing injustice to the soul. But once we champion a cause or a choice, there’s no going back. Choices are critically irreversible.