Factfulness, Neutrality, and the Participant Partisan

At any given moment wherein some conflict between two or more parties is ongoing, observers must choose a position. The positions may be as complicated as the conflicts themselves but are usually combinations of some basic options. Observers might:

  1. Completely avoid the conflict as much as possible so that no observation-borne judgment can be made as to which parties involved are “right” or “wrong.” This might be called the “Uninvolved and Uncurious” position. The observer doesn’t care that there is a conflict ongoing or how or why it started or what the stakes may be. Depending on one’s viewpoint, this position is morally implicated as being populated by those too lazy or self-centered to resist injustice or aggression when, perhaps, they could have stopped or countered it. Institutional neutrality is often lampooned as being “uninvolved and uncurious” by those who wish to show it in the worst light.

2. Observe the conflict from a distance, noting the tactics, arguments and propagandizing strategies of the combatant factions, but not take direct part in the conflict or make value judgments thereupon. This might be called the “Recording Historian” position. The adherent to this approach cares on some level about the conflict, but doesn’t want opinions or emotional bias to cloud the factuality or real-time analysis of recorded observation insofar as they can be avoided. Thus, this position may involve actively seeking and muffling the sorts of internal viewpoint biases that make for erroneous understanding of what is observed. This type may be morally implicated because they could be argued to regard human history and the pain and oppression humans inflict on one another as mere theater or entertainment to observe.

3. Observe from a distance, noting the tactics, arguments and propagandizing strategies of the combatant factions, but be willing to point out falsehoods, cheating or other ethical shortcomings in any and all sides as they become apparent. One taking this position is also willing to give credit for meritorious actions or solid arguments from any or all sides, as well. This might be called the “Observant Umpire” position. This is the position of the sort who wants to take part but may very well feel that the observed conflict(s) is/are necessary for some sort of evolution to happen or for a Greater Truth to emerge, provided that some ethical rules of engagement are maintained. Like the Recording Historian, this position necessarily involves “bias checks.” This type may be morally implicated for intellectualizing existential struggles among groups of human beings and/or giving what some faction or another considers “evil” too fair a shake or even lending the faction(s) on “the wrong side of history” an occasional helping hand. This is the stance I would argue an institutionally neutral public library would take in a world of contending ideas, ideologies and ideologues. This is also the position that journalists were once trained to favor.

4. Observe from a distance, noting the tactics, arguments and propagandizing strategies of the combatant factions and be willing to point out falsehoods, cheating or other ethical shortcomings, but only or mostly critiquing their disfavored side(s) AND/OR hailing/echoing the ethically correct arguments and actions of their favored side(s) as they become apparent. This might be called the “Half-Truth Correspondent” position. One taking this stance wants to be seen as fair, but has or represents an agenda that aligns with a faction involved in the conflict.  One taking this position feigns distance, but is, in fact, biased. This type may actually favor institutional neutrality so long as it benefits “their” side or when “their” side is ascendant, but abandon it when they detect that they are losing support of some sort. This type may be morally implicated for clouding issues or being the source of disinformation/gray propaganda, which leads the ignorant to make the worst decisions rather than the best. This is where I would posit modern corporate media and most government information agencies exists and how they do business.

5. Eschew mere “observation,” pick a side and be fully engaged based on moral convictions, apparent power dynamics, ideas of justice or rightness or, popular in the current era, perceived threat(s) to one’s self or self-identity. This position represents full entanglement in and dedication to the conflict, with all of the myopia that that implies. This might be called the “Participant Partisan” position. This observer cares deeply and wants to form strong opinions and have powerful emotions and join the fight, perhaps with ideas of heroism or based on prophecies of catastrophe (i.e., “If I don’t stop X now, X will annihilate humanity!”). Adherents of this position are most likely to denigrate neutrality as weakness or even to frame neutrality as a positive aid to the “bad guys”/disfavored faction. This type is morally implicated as being an active party to injustice, aggression, dishonesty and error and thus perhaps most historically guilty, provided the cause or cause(s) to which they are allegiant are revealed to be wrong or evil by later moral analyses or victor’s decree. However, this is the position that also perhaps promises the most moral and/or ego-affirming “upside,” if humankind’s hindsight later determines that the individual Participant Partisan was “right all along.”

One must be careful when assigning an “observantness value” to the Participant Partisan and not overestimate how much real and fair attention a convicted activist is paying to anything. Their strong emotional investment in the conflict and dedication to a particular “side” theoretically and probably necessarily lessens their ability to make objective observations or understand the data they are faced with. The entanglement in the conflict may also lead to confirmation bias, where only observed information that confirms pre-existing beliefs and opinions are noted, and information that contradicts them is ignored. This would further limit their ability to make accurate and objective observations, in a sort of fanatical downward spiral. Therefore, the level of accuracy of observation for the “Participant Partisan” would be negatively affected by their entanglement in the conflict, much like the “fog of war” negatively affects observations made by soldiers in the midst of battle.

Doctor and World Health Organization advisor Hans Rosling wrote in his 2018 book Factfulness (p. 188) about the level of understanding among many activists (emphasis mine):

“Many activists present themselves as experts. I have presented at all kinds of activist conferences because I believe educated activists can be absolutely crucial for improving the world. Recently I presented at a conference on women’s rights. I strongly support their cause. Two hundred ninety-two brave young feminists had traveled to Stockholm from across the world to coordinate the struggle to improve women’s access to education. But only 8 percent knew that 30-year-old women have spent on average only one year less in school than 30-year-old men….I could have picked other examples. This is not about activists for women’s rights, in particular. Almost every activist I have ever met, whether deliberately or, more likely, unknowingly, exaggerates the problem to which they have dedicated themselves.”

These five approaches might be conceived as existing on an X-Y axis of “emotional involvement” and “accuracy.” Of course, the “Uninvolved and Uncurious” position would occupy position 0,0 and thus is nowhere on either axis.

graph--emotional involvement vs. accurate understanding

It can be strongly argued that any agency, profession or, indeed, any group effort which has the aim of producing, collecting, transmitting or analyzing factual and accurate information needs to ensure that emotional involvement in the work among those doing it is mitigated appropriately. Those who “check out” too completely are not of much use, nor are those who cannot maintain a sufficient emotional distance to assess whether the information they are dealing with is of any use to themselves or others.

Librarians and libraries must figure out where they wish to exist.


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