The good, the bad, the neither and the every: meditations on neutrality

I’ve been thinking lately about neutrality. Neutral facilitation. “Fair and balanced” reporting. Whether and how to take sides in a “just war.” Gender-neutral pronouns. “Neutered” powerlessness, and the power of neutral love.

Years ago, when I received training in meeting facilitation and consensus process, I was taught that the facilitator for a meeting or on a given issue should be someone as neutral as possible – someone “without a dog in the fight.” Moreover, in addition to being neutral, they had to be perceived as neutral by the parties in conflict.

I took this to heart, and in some ways it was a good fit with my own version of conflict-avoidance. I’m better at helping others in conflict to hear each other and find common ground, than I am at engaging in conflict myself. In many cases, I’d rather not express my opinion, and often I’d rather not even form an opinion, than have that opinion cause direct conflict with someone else. Sometimes this is a “cop-out,” but it also is an understandable occupational hazard. Just as actors may not know their own personalities because they are so good at adopting and enacting theater roles, facilitators’ and mediators’ opining muscles may atrophy through disuse.

I was also taught, though, that total neutrality, like perfect scientific objectivity, is a myth. Rather than pretending to neutrality, the best practice is to know and state any biases or personal preferences openly, in order to deal with them transparently, rather than having them shade the proceedings in a covert way. This is a tall order and I don’t always live up to it. Attempting to facilitate from an “unbiased” perspective when you actually have a strong preference can end up feeling like an abuse of procedural power to those involved, even if you are doing it unintentionally.

A related issue with “neutral” facilitation is that, even when done well, it only really works if the people who need to be in the conversation are actually at the table, and if the power imbalances between them can be addressed sufficiently that they a) speak their true feelings and b) can reasonably expect each other to follow through on agreements. Without this, you can have apparently lovely consensus-building that doesn’t actually address the underlying conflicts.

In some ways, even the most “neutral” facilitators need to be biased to be effective. They need to be prejudiced towards intervening on behalf of the less powerful voices in order for them to be heard. This effort to equalize air time in a meeting can address underlying conflicts sufficiently at times – especially when the power differences are the kind that operate through mechanisms like some people dominating the discussion. But if the power differences go well beyond that into access to /control of significant other resources, more than a more-fair conversation is likely to be needed to address the issues. And, if those most impacted by a decision aren’t even in the room, what’s needed may be community organizing, not consensus-oriented meeting facilitation.

These days, when “fair and balanced” journalism is a form of Newspeak in our false-balance and “post-truth” world of politics, I am further tempted to give up on attempted neutrality. Like historian Howard Zinn says, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” In a 2005 interview on Democracy Now, Amy Goodman asked Zinn why he used this phrase as the name of his autobiography. He explained that as a professor he would routinely warn his students not to expect neutrality from him. “I don’t believe in neutrality. I believe neutrality is impossible, because the world is already moving in certain directions. Wars are going on. Children are starving. And to be neutral, to pretend to neutrality, to not take a stand in a situation like that is to collaborate with whatever is going on, to allow it to happen.”

Similarly, Elie Wiesel said “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy…. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

I think the current situation is a lot more complicated than just deciding to “take sides,” since I don’t believe all the people who voted for Donald Trump are really my enemies, or really opposed to all of the things I hold dear. I’m thinking maybe what I’m aiming for is something like the facilitator biased towards equalizing air time, or, as my consensus facilitation mentor Laird says, to be “agreement-prejudiced,” that is, biased towards seeking common ground.

The trick is going to be learning how to face into the conflicts enough, to listen deeply enough, while also trying to protect against harm…. To be too “neutral” would be to be “neutered” in the sense of the word that means powerless, “ineffective, deprived of vigor or force.” Though I don’t believe it’s possible to achieve absolute objectivity, I also feel that to give up on our collective ability to adjudicate what is true through rigorous application of scientific methods, or what is right through rigorous pursuit of justice, seems like giving in to powerlessness.

I’m hoping my meditation practice can help with the deep listening part of this. For the past 7 months I’ve been doing daily meditation practices following a curriculum called the Joy of Living, a secular path taught by Tibetan Buddhist monk Yongyey Mingyur Rinpoche. It prescribes very specific meditation practices that change each week. I recently completed “level 1,” which is focused on awareness practices, and began “level 2,” which is focused on lovingkindness and compassion practices. The sequence begins with loved ones, moves on to neutral people, then people we find difficult, then to all beings This week I’ve been practicing compassion for “neutral” people, and I’ve been learning a lot.

For one thing, I’ve found it hard to think of people to focus on. The whole point is to pick people you don’t normally think much about – the clerk at the check-out counter, the mail carrier, etc. But it’s hard for me to bring people like this to mind, which is itself telling – part of taking people for granted, discounting them, is this not thinking of them. It’s especially hard for me to picture their faces. And, when I can’t picture them and don’t know anything about them, it is hard to wish them good things.

For instance, our mail carrier. I am hard-pressed to even recall whether our postal mail is delivered these days by a man or a woman. I realize during meditation that I am pretty sure it’s a white person… but I know we’ve had both male and “femail” mail carriers… how did I fail to notice this person?! Sure, I’m often not home… but I often am!! As I feel into this confusion, and try not to berate myself too much for ignoring them, I also feel how it relates to my confusion in the face of the gender-bending use of “they” as a gender neutral pronoun.

Back when I was first learning about consensus facilitation, I lived at Sandhill Farm, which was part of the “intentional communities” movement. People in this network sometimes used “co” as a gender neutral pronoun. We would even use it to replace parts of proper nouns. For instance, when asking if anyone needed anything from Zimmerman’s, the wonderful general store in town run by the local Mennonites, Jules (short for Julia) would say “I’m going to Zimmerco’s”.

Alas, “co” did not make it through the natural selection process of cultural evolution, and we seem to be stuck with “they/them/theirs.” As a rule-follower, writer, and staunch adherent of proper grammar, I find this quite challenging. It’s not so much that I mind not knowing about a person’s genitalia and hormonal makeup from the pronouns used, (though of course my mind is constantly trying to figure that out), but I do mind not knowing whether the entity being referred to is singular or plural!!!

I’ve been trying to better understand the newer ways of looking at gender lately, especially because of my own cancer-treatment experience with bilateral mastectomy (a surgery that is an elective part of gender reassignment!). At the recommendation of a beloved young person in my life, I recently read the fabulous young-adult novel Symptoms of Being Human, where you never do find out the biological sex of the main character, who is “gender fluid.” This is thankfully managed without use of “they/them/theirs,” though it’s probably only possible because it’s written in the first person singular! I realized today that meditating on an unknown-gender letter carrier really pushed me to let go of additional assumptions about the person, and hone in more on our common humanity – the kinds of things we all suffer from. I suppose when I’m more fully enlightened, I won’t be so attached to any of the categories – male/female OR singular /plural! After all, we are all one, right?

I’m also noticing during meditation that it feels particularly hard to keep my mind focused on “neutral” people. Maybe this is part of why we have so many positive or negative emotions – because it helps focus the mind?! Sometimes I try to solve the problem of abstraction by bringing to mind people I know slightly better, like some of the neighbors on my street, or people who are members of groups I belong to. When I do this it is easier to think of specific kinds of happiness to wish for them. However, I find it is hard to think of people I really feel neutral about. Even people I barely know, it turns out, when I examine more closely, I have positive and negative judgments about! Perhaps this is part of the point of the practice of sending lovingkindness and compassion to “neutral” people – coming to understand how pervasive attachment and aversion are in the monkey mind.

In an effort to get help with the practice, I asked Don to find a video of the Rinpoche teaching about this part of the practice. We watched it the other night, and it did help. For one thing, Rinpoche suggested mouthing or speaking the compassion phrases aloud – “May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” I tried it, and I think it helps. This is partly because it gives the monkey mind a little more to do. Also, as I feel my way into it more, I realize that referring to the object of my meditation as “you” brings with it the possibility of relating to them in their full subjectivity, rather than as an object. The famous philosopher Martin Buber talked about this, saying “I-you” is a sacred relationship, in contrast with the more instrumental “I-it” way of relating.

A second thing the Rinpoche did was to use the simple example of the pain from an injection. He said, you don’t like having an injection in your left cheek, do you? Do you prefer to have an injection in your right cheek? No? No difference? Well, it’s the same with your own suffering and the suffering of another – your pain and their pain are as equivalent as a shot in your left cheek and one in your right cheek!

The meditation instructions say, begin by calling the person to mind, and remembering that they, like you, wish to be happy. This is an important step. As I’ve been practicing it, especially with the cheek-injection idea, I’ve noticed how my perspective sometimes shifts as I realize that this seemingly (to me) unimportant person’s life is, to them, every bit as important as mine is to me. It’s like I’ve just been plunged through some kind of empathy-magnifying scope, and can actually perceive their humanity, like Horton being able to hear the citizens of Whoville in the Dr. Suess classic.

And, I’ve had at least a few fleeting moments of feeling like my heart is expanding, and tears of joy at my own capacity to care for people with whom I have very little overt connection. This, I think, is the deepest purpose of the meditation; to more fully recognize – and through recognizing, expand – one’s capacity for love and compassion. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find paradox at the heart of a Buddhist-inspired practice: A less and less neutral stance towards the world, but one that is more and more neutral with respect to who the objects are of that love.



3 thoughts on “The good, the bad, the neither and the every: meditations on neutrality”

  1. This is absolutely one of your best, Becca, and so timely!

    Yesterday, in celebration of Dr
    King’s life, our minister gave a moving sermon on the need to get active, that now is not the time to sit back and reflect. Afterwards i asked her, “But i’m in this organization whete are mission is to facilitate dialogue about diversity. In our NE Wisconsin community where many people are very happy about how things are going with our next president How does that fit with what you are saying?”

    Her response was something like, “Oh yes, there’s that.”

    I think what you’ve written here helps answer that question. Clearly, people in our lival organization, Celebrate Diversity Fox Cities, do have an agenda to help people think more broadly. So, we may need to think of ways to say that up front, rather than saying we are “nental” facilitators.

  2. So much here! re: neutrality — I too have seen the norm go from an injunction to be neutral to an injunction to put our inevitable biases out there. In support of some of what you write, let me offer the term “poly-partial.” Dominic Barter, who facilitates Restorative Circles, uses this term to suggest that the facilitator of the circles be there FOR everyone. The facilitator is there to help make sure everyone is heard. And there is a whole process to make sure that everyone who needs to be there is included. We might talk about RC sometime if you are interested — let me know.

    I continually surprise myself by discovering how entrenched the pattern of judging good/bad is, despite years of training on another way. It’s an ongoing practice to shift from a moral judgment of good/bad to a discernment about how something serves life and if there is something that might serve life more effectively, at less cost.

    And yes to what Elie Wiesel and Howard Zinn say about neutrality. I think we can get past the divisions if we maintain a focus on the underlying values that we share, regardless of who we voted for. I could be overly optimistic, I recognize. My guess is that everyone, no matter how they voted, wants a country where people have the health care they need, have lives that are meaningful, and to be safe. The differences lie in the “how.” This is where I do think bringing in the people without structural power can lead to new ideas. It’s the people on the edge who take us to unexplored territory.

    Yes to what you are discovering about “neutral.” I love the conclusion you are coming to and celebrate the expansion of the heart. I was feeling that at my most recent retreat as well. A tender heart. My seminary recently sent out this quote, which may be relevant:

    Many native cultures believe that the heart is the bridge between Father Sky and Mother Earth. For these traditions, the “four-chambered heart,” the source for sustaining emotional and spiritual health, is described as being full, open, clear, and strong. These traditions feel that it is important to check on the condition of the four-chambered heart daily, asking: “Am I full-hearted, open-hearted, clear-hearted, and strong-hearted?”
    – Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way

    I like the question — checking if my heart is full, open, clear, and strong.

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