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Ethics and the Neutral Position

Last fall, when I taught Introduction to Literature for the first time, I was a little nervous. I themed my course around ethnicity (in part because that’s my research interest, and in part because the course is supposed to fulfill a diversity requirement for the campus) and as such, spent a great deal of time discussing racism, discrimination, and political oppression. It just came with the territory.

We read James Joyce’s “The Dead” from Dubliners. I asked my students to think about the various discourse communities in the text, and they focused in (naturally) on the political divide between Gabriel and Ms. Ivors. My students, at first, couldn’t understand why she was so upset with him for being a “West Briton” and didn’t think it was fair that she called him that just because he wrote for a British paper. Gabriel himself believes that he is neutral. We discussed that, as well. What it means to be neutral, and if it’s actually possible to be neutral in situations where people are dehumanized, where lives are at risk. Through the discussion, we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that, in unjust situations, not taking the side of the oppressed produces the same affect as taking the side of the oppressors. Neutrality is not, in reality, neutrality. It is not innocent.

I’ve been reflecting on this lately, and, as I’m wont to do, reflecting on my life and my own experiences in light of this revelation. It made my students uncomfortable, to realize that inaction is not actually inaction, that passivity can actually cause damage. It makes me uncomfortable, too. How many times has my inaction allowed injustices to continue?

This brings me to another question, as I reflect on my teaching philosophy and on the experiences I have had in graduate and undergraduate courses throughout my college career. I’ve had wonderful professors that all take varying levels of participation in class discussion. Some deliver lectures, some just say “So, what do we think?” and let the grad students take off with whatever thoughts occurred to them while reading, and most are somewhere in between those points on the spectrum.  I’ve appreciated professors that allow the graduate students to puzzle out the issues and problems in the texts we have, but I’ve also been discouraged and sometimes disappointed to have less guidance on issues that have life outside of the texts we read. I’ve been disappointed and sometimes angered to walk out of class knowing that my classmates, because of the neutrality of the professor, will go forward with ignorant thought processes reinforced instead of challenged. The discordant voices of peers is not enough to shake dominant and harmful ideologies, because those peers can be too easily dismissed. The voice of a professor, however, while it can still be dismissed, is less easily so.

My question, then: at what point does the neutral position become unethical?

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