The Joys of Neutrality

Hey look, its Lane! He’s posting again!

For about six months, I was dating a guy with very strong opinions. I also have very strong opinions, but through my relationship with him I discovered something else; my opinions are often strongly neutral. Those aren’t two words that often go together, but nonetheless they are an accurate description of my views, at least some of the time. He often seemed frustrated, possibly reading neutral stances as me failing to be involved or to care, which was not generally case. There are many types of neutrality, some of which are very involved in their own way.

True Ambivalence

As the word lovers out there know, ambivalence correctly used is not synonymous with indifference. Ambivalence suggests two views, both strongly held, which contradict each other. Its a common human experience; wanting something while being afraid of the consequences, agreeing with a political stance while being morally appalled by the actions of extremists, being angry with someone while loving them deeply. Ambivalence is complicated, scary and frustrating. It exists because the world is complicated, because things can’t be neatly divided into good and bad, pleasurable and painful, and those complications are part of what makes living interesting. In the end, you typically have to make some kind of choice; to go for what you want rather than be held back by fear, to hold to your beliefs despite how others might sully the image, to leave the person because its healthier for you in the long run. Still, even after making a decision, ignoring the other side of how you feel is unhealthy repression. It takes a lot of strength to accept both parts of a contradictory feeling, and in my view its worth it.

Waiting to See

When I watch a preview, sometimes I can see ways the premise could be handled well, or badly. When somebody proposes a course of action, I can think of ways it could succeed or fail. When I meet someone, I have an impression of them, but it will take time before I know whether that first impression is correct or not. In all of those cases, I can lean one way or another, but its too early for me to really know whether I’m right or not. There is an advantage to taking a guardedly neutral stance. Any scientist is aware of the tendency for an initial hypothesis to bias later observations and conclusions, and in real life you typically don’t have the advantage of setting up blinds studies, taking data, having peers review your results and so on. The conscious choice to take a neutral stance until you have solid information can prevent erroneous ideas from taking root too early.

Seeing Both Sides

This is similar to ambivalence, but I see it as being more purely intellectual, whereas ambivalence is often emotional or rises from conflict between reasons and feelings. Sometimes two political stances both have good points and bad. Sometimes both friends in a conflict were wronged. Sometimes neither solution is completely satisfactory. Being willing to take the neutral stance can earn a lot of ire from both sides, but at the same time it allows for compromise, for alternatives to be considered, and for new ideas to be generated.

That is not to say that neutrality is automatically the best choice. That’s the Golden Mean fallacy. What’s more, neutrality is often taken as an assumed stance, to avoid excessive conflict, to allow someone to suck up to both sides without being willing to challenge either. I have no love for neutrality that exists simply as a get-out-of-conflict free card. That said, there is an authentic kind of neutrality which I find very admirable. When neutrality is part of an attempt to consider a question fully before coming to a conclusion, or an effort to be honest about the ambiguities within one’s own thoughts and feelings, it is something to be encouraged, not dismissed. When that kind of neutrality happens in resistance to others’ attempts to push someone into a clear stance they are not ready to take, or incapable of fully embracing, it can be as strong and controversial as any other stance.

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