Genuine engagement most often builds on a foundation of disruption and at the same time requires an openness to identifying areas of agreement. On the other hand, for disruption to be effective it must also open the door to engagement and resolution.
Occupying a position of neutrality in conflicts, whether personal, professional or of geopolitical importance, has received little attention in the popular imagination in recent years. There are a few areas where we expect or demand neutrality to be present in public officials and decision makers, such as our legal systems and some commercial processes, but much of our expectations and demands here are often not well-considered or debated at any real depth. As we will see, this outdated, often lazily or hastily assumed positions on neutrality can often lead to further conflict complications, unnecessary conflict cycles and patterns, and poor conflict outcomes. With that in mind, the article sets out to highlight these risks, and to suggest a few clear options and a renewed place for neutrality in our conflicts.
The problem with neutrality
Beyond the quotes, clichés and received conventional wisdoms so beloved of social media participants we find an increasing problem with the seemingly uncontroversial topic of neutrality. To fully understand the challenge ahead we need to be aware of the intensity and reach of the polarization that our societies (including, and especially our online communities) have been subjected to in the last decade.
Various inter-related academic and practical studies and disciplines, including psychology, neuro-science, the social sciences and conflict management, have shown us where the piano wires of our identity conflicts run, and how we are increasingly thinking and operating in silos and cycles of self-enforcing groupthink. The values and operational mechanics of in-group versus out-group behaviour and expectations affect us all at various levels and degrees, and true independent and unique thoughts and expression have become both more difficult to generate and to express.
With this as a ubiquitous and inescapable background, the very concept of neutrality has undergone subtle, hardly noticed and yet seismic changes in this last decade. Before these changes Western individualistic societies expected a very limited number of issues that one “should have an opinion on one way or the other” and where expressed neutrality may have been frowned upon, but with a wide acceptance of expressed or lived neutrality on most other issues of the day, even contentious ones, being completely normal. Recent global developments and conflicts, most of them still playing out against their various backdrops and environments, have however brought about a refreshing pressure on and rethinking of our understanding of neutrality. It is high time, in my view, to let in some fresh air and sunlight into this important conflict concept.
As important work in, for instance, diversity conflicts and intercultural mediation show convincingly, neutrality in the older, traditional sense of the word, can become a negative conflict dynamic and actually cause or prolong conflict. Generational conflicts, shifts in values and identity concerns, the influence of backlashes to societal inefficiencies and poor conflict resolution, pervasive inequalities, “woke” cultural conflicts and a long list of other conflict causes have brought about a societal pressure and demand in many instances of conformity, of subscribing to a specific view on a topic, of being politically correct, with consequences of social rejection and charges of immorality and unethical behaviour following such pressures, such as we see with cancel culture, de-platforming and so on.
Being neutral is no longer accepted by the group, in so many instances, and conformity to the party line, such as it may read at the time, is demanded under penalty of ostracism and group rejection. Leaders through the ages, from Joshua to Lenin, from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton and others have used the false dichotomy, in one form or another, of “You are either for us or you are against us”. Neutrality, understood and experienced as indifference, often comes at a high price, as we can see. To add to these complexities, these neutrality bans are openly abused by group leaders and influencers in a variety of conflicts, as a few minutes on social media would attest to.
Coerced conformity and group sanctioned reprisals on non-conforming members is a modern conflict driver on its own, and is discussed elsewhere. True neutrality, and its place in our modern conflicts, is however being re-examined and reconfigured across various conflict areas, and given the content and results of some of these efforts I for one value this re-examination.
What is this “neutrality” in any event? Given our current knowledge of how our identities are formed and maintained, is true neutrality possible? Can a modern person, with her culture(s), upbringing, preferences, likes and dislikes, views and worldviews ever really be neutral insofar as any conflict is concerned? Or is this “neutrality” really just a fiction we convince ourselves of in order to feel better about some of our processes deemed necessary for societal stability and peace?
Does this understanding of neutrality somehow remove experiences, preferences, biases and predilections, some of which we are not even fully aware of? In addition to the abovementioned demands of an absence of neutrality from in-group dynamics, there is also an older, more emotional and human face to the problems with neutrality as a concept and applied point of view. People care about their problems, they have emotional wellbeing, commercial interests, family concerns and even existential realities tied up in their conflicts, and it is here where modern instances of neutrality run into perception and practical problems.
It is here, in the everyday realities of people’s lives and their conflicts, where neutrality is often perceived and experienced as indifference. The ice-cold mediator, claiming neutrality, is perceived as less caring, less involved in the problem than for example the openly biased attorney or politician. Whether a conflict actually benefits from a clinical and detached intervention, and is exacerbated and prolonged by open bias and the picking of sides become lost in that perception of warm, emotional commitment, as false or manufactured as it may be. In the marketplace of ideas the detached processes of mediation and other conflict resolution answers, so often so superior to political or litigious alternatives, often seem less attractive because of this real or perceived lack of connection and involvement. And the reality is unfortunately that neutrality in conflict is often just that: thinly disguised indifference.
Where does this leave neutrality in modern conflicts? Should it be revised somehow, or even discarded? Before we look at the various options available to modern conflict participants, a better way to look at neutrality and one or two alternatives, we need to clarify a few concepts prevalent in modern popular discourse around the topic that tend to derail meaningful discussions.
A few concepts that cause confusion
In seeking a better understanding of the concept of neutrality, and a better application thereof in practice, we are not, or at least should not, confuse this idea of neutrality with the outdated concepts and understanding of compromise and appeasement.
Case studies and practical application, from political and other arenas across the African and European continents, to mention a few modern examples, show us the harm and poor conflict outcomes wreaked by the unskilful application of compromise and appeasement as conflict strategies. The neutral person is not the one cutting the apple in half in the overused cliché associated with neutrality. Questions of neutrality also do not deal with advanced conflict situational challenges such as dealing with intransigent opponents, the efficient involvement or exclusion of third-party conflict actors, or participant alignment strategies.
Those strategies are to be designed and applied as separate conflict considerations, depending on the specifics of each conflict. How to effectively deal with pre-assumed positions, the influence of external constituents and other modern conflict dynamics are sometimes grouped under the neutrality banner, but this is incorrect and causes practical dysfunction and poor strategy development or execution.
The options and solutions
What does modern neutrality then look like, and where does it fit in, if at all, in modern conflicts? As conflict participants, in any capacity, how should we view these important and dynamic considerations?
We can, first of all, of course simply take a stand on a particular issue and conflict. We can openly take sides in the Israel / Palestine conflict, we can choose sides between Ukraine and Russia, Trump and Biden, the ANC or the DA, our brother or our sister. This is our right, and most people prefer this option in their conflicts, with or without group and identity pressures.
A next option would be neutrality, but an expanded, upgraded understanding of this concept. What we can bring to this option is of course the benefits (even to ourselves) of allowing others to disagree with us, and to again enjoy the real and measurable benefits of mature discussion and debate. Neutrality in this sense then should make itself clearly understood as to whether it is neutrality in a healthy sense, or whether it is indifference. This understanding of neutrality can, as in the instance of judges and other decision makers, be a simple recognition of our own biases and a committed and often renewed undertaking to be cognisant of those biases and to neutralize or limit them in our approaches and decision-making processes. This, I believe, is as close as we can get to any meaningful understanding and application of the original sense of the term “neutrality”.
But there is a further refinement of this latter and improved understanding of the concept, one that I find of great practical benefit in my work, and that is a term coined by conflict expert Kenneth Cloke. Cloke, an accomplished mediator and conflict resolution expert, uses the rather clunky but wonderfully descriptive term “omni-partiality”.
This is a complex conflict tool, that he has designed and applies, that very efficiently gets around the neutrality vs bias dichotomy. It allows the mediator or other conflict participant to not be biased about facts (who is causing the war, the breakdown of the marriage, is this salary offer reasonable etc.), but to use and encourage empathy and dialogue over meaning, and to reject or limit harmful adversarial us-versus-them strategies. It allows the mediator to be “soft on the person and hard on the problem”, and it allows nuanced truths to be explored and uncovered, without oversimplifications and hurried polarized opposites. It retains, uses and enhances core values such as honesty, integrity, inclusion, respect, dignity, diversity and collaboration.
This also enables the mediator to become fully alert to and even involved in the causes and emotions involved in a dispute, without being biased, without appearing to be aloof and distant, not taking one side, but taking and caring about all sides. This stands to be conveyed effectively to parties and the South African public as widely as possible, as an effective aid in their conflicts, as a solution with a heart, mind and soul. This, when properly and transparently applied, removes both the problems of bias and partisanship, but also the real and perceived problems associated with a lack of engagement or of indifference.
Practice shows how often persisting with this admittedly difficult strategy often eventually opens creative conflict solutions that may not have been apparent in the beginning. What the neutral party, in this sense of the word, is saying to the other parties in the conflict is not “I do not care”, but “I care that you each do well here, I care that you each reach the best resolution available to you in this conflict. So yes, I am indeed biased, but biased towards your best interest, I am biased in that I want you to have a good result and that the conflict should end”.
This understanding then of “neutrality” fits in with modern understandings of engagement and involvement, and group pressures towards conformity can be easier withstood, and for those of us who work in the trenches with these conflicts can remove that perception of cold indifference. It allows the mediator or “neutral party” to get visibly and openly involved in co-creating solutions, exploring alternatives and helping the parties through their difficult areas and problems.
A firm and clear taking of sides will always be the human default in conflicts, especially those that affect our individual or group identities. Neutrality should however remain a valuable option to those of us who have to, or choose to, remain neutral in certain conflicts. These considerations that we have looked at should clear our modern lenses when dealing with the concept, and restore it to a more nuanced, better understood and higher valued concept in our conflicts. Neutrality, understood and applied in this sense, again becomes a valuable conflict transformation tool and option.
Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading
1. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022), especially Chapter 7 on mediation and neutrality.
2. The Routledge Handbook of Peacebuilding, the second edition of which is due for publication later this year, and which will include my essay on mediation, the problem of neutrality and other challenges.
3. Beyond Neutrality by Bernard Mayer, Jossey-Bass (2004)
4. The Neutrality Trap by Bernard Mayer, John Wiley and Sons (2022)
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for any further information)
(c) Andre Vlok October 2023