No One is Neutral

The idea for this post emerged out of researching how universities have been transformed into businesses, but I wanted to focus on other areas for this post. No one is neutral is about understanding that neutrality itself is a political statement. To be neutral is to be political often with repercussions that mean supporting the status quo. As someone who opposes the current status quo that is filled with injustice (through, for instance, manifestations of racism, sexism, homophobia etc.), I want to call out the neutral position. To be “balanced” on an issue is to take a side, and the commitment of institutions like the BBC to “balance” and “neutrality” has meant that they implicitly legitimize the perpetuation of injustice. In war, too, Switzerland taking a neutral position in WW2 meant that they implicitly legitimized the Nazi regime by treating them as they would any other country. I now want to move onto a discussion of three topics to demonstrate why neutrality is a dangerous position and why we as leftists need to call it out. These topics are “neutral” teaching in classrooms, the Florida don’t say gay bill, and media neutrality.

Teachers must be “neutral” to not indoctrinate their students

Within the UK, there has recently been new guidance issued to teachers that they should not promote Black Lives Matter (BLM) within schools because teachers must not divulge ‘partisan political views’. It is quite a statement from the government to claim that advocating for equality and better treatment of people of color is a partisan statement. However, the reason that the government can get away with their implicitly racist rhetoric is because of this claim to neutrality. The government can claim that they are merely trying to keep politics out of the classroom and do not want students to be indoctrinated by BLM. Of course, students will see news about BLM and will come to their own conclusions, but the government does not want teachers to teach students to critically think. If students do critically think, even at a younger age, they can see how society treats people of color differently and conclude that BLM is a worthy cause. In this light, they can see that teachers promoting BLM is about trying to fight injustice within society. When the UK government says that they do not want BLM promoted in schools, beyond the racism, they do not want students exposed to how society is extremely unequal and unjust. They seek to legitimize the status quo through keeping students ignorant in a claim to “neutrality”.

Alongside this “neutral” and racist take on BLM, the UK government has promoted a “balanced view” of the British empire saying that teachers should teach the good along with the bad. This “neutral” history of the British empire will, in effect, exonerate the British of their brutal and exploitative colonial practices. It is increasingly clear from the Royals Kate and William’s trip to woo states in the Caribbean to remain in the monarchy (an example of British neo-colonialism) that there is the view among a sizeable member of the British elite that the British empire was a good thing. This “neutral” position on the British empire forced into schools is a clear attempt to argue that the British empire was, in fact, great for the British. The ultra-nationalism exacerbated by Brexit has certainly contributed to this idea among the British elite. It is important to resist this imposition of racist and colonial narratives under the guise of neutrality. Students and the public have a right to know how horrible the British empire was and the scars and suffering that it left in so many communities.

Florida’s don’t say gay bill

The wave of homophobia and transphobia in the US recently has been horrible in its scope but not terribly surprising. The Right in the US has long seized upon social groups to discriminate against, although recent progress on gay marriage had perhaps convinced some that the Right would not systematically attempt to dismantle rights for LGBTQ+ people and particularly trans people. However, the recent anti-LGBTQ+ bill in Florida dubbed the don’t say gay bill has done exactly that. The way that neutrality has come into this bill is through the banning of discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity instead of outright using words like non-binary or trans or gay in the bill. In this way, the Right uses “neutral” language while at the same time proclaiming how non-binary, trans and LGBTQ+ people in general are child groomers and talking about these issues will convince all kids to become trans. Such claims are clearly preposterous, but they play on long-held biases and stereotypes of gay people as child molesters or groomers. This hateful legislation is clearly dangerous and very much a political issue. This “neutral” bill could very well incite violence against the trans community specifically and the LGBTQ+ community more broadly. It is also evident of how the Right uses “neutrality” as a shield to hide behind to spew hateful rhetoric that could lead to violence particularly in the US where there is such high gun ownership. This discriminatory rhetoric and others like it are largely legitimized through media to which I will now turn.

Media neutrality in politics

In the BBC’s editorial guidelines, section 4.1 states: The BBC is committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output. This commitment is fundamental to our reputation, our values and the trust of our audiences. What the BBC fundamentally fails to understand is that impartiality is a political stance. When they put on a moderately left-wing analyst and then decide that they need a far-right analyst to “balance” things out, they are legitimizing the hateful rhetoric from the far-right analyst. Another instance where impartiality has had negative effects is when the BBC decided in 2021 to quit membership in Stonewall’s (the biggest LGBTQ+ charity in the UK) diversity scheme because of the fear of perceptions this would make the BBC seem biased. Ditching this scheme is an implicit legitimation of the kind of rhetoric in Florida’s don’t say gay bill. To appear unbiased, the BBC has at least implicitly declared itself as not being in support of LGBTQ+ rights. This is thus a prime example of how a commitment to “neutrality” or “impartiality” has meant that an institution has committed itself to supporting the status quo and injustice.

Conclusion

In a sense, then, neutrality appears to be a tool of legitimation for the Right, and while media institutions like the BBC may commit to neutrality out of a desire to commit to no political position, by doing this they do support the status quo and the Right. I think there are good things about the BBC, but the commitment to neutrality needs to be problematized because it is dangerous. From racist opposition to promoting BLM in UK schools to homophobic and transphobic attacks in Florida, neutrality is a dangerous political tool and position.

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Andrew Barnett

Andrew Barnett

MSc Environment and Development Student at LSE. I write about political issues and personal things from a left-wing perspective.