What is neutral?
It’s a state of your car’s motor system in which the gears are disengaged from the engine, moving the vehicle neither forward nor backward. It’s the pH level in your shampoo, neither acid nor base. It’s that green third wire in your electrical system, carrying neither positive nor negative charge. It’s the colors black, white and gray that don’t usually appear on color wheels because everyone knows they are there by default, without a need to see them to mark their places. Neutral colors neither clash with nor complement other colors…but they work well with all other colors.
And it’s the position you and everyone else in your family took when your brother and your beloved sister-in-law got into that argument at Thanksgiving dinner, each of you prudently taking neither his side nor hers.
From mechanical systems to family systems to color systems, neutral is a ubiquitous but often silent third-side partner. In each of those systems, “neutral” characterizes the absence of conflict with other parts of the system. In a vehicular mechanical system, neutral means no gear pushes against any other component, but on an icy road that can allow for increased control and effectiveness in managing environmental challenges. Neutral colors work with any and all others by not working against them. A neutral path for electrical current is a well-known safety measure, much like that neutral albeit uncomfortable position in the family argument that might otherwise throw the entire family system into chaos.
Let’s look at the definition of neutral at its simplest levels.
adjective – not helping or supporting either side in
a conflict, disagreement, etc.; impartial
noun – an impartial or unbiased country or person.
Another dictionary deals with a specific and widely known context of neutrality (noun), “The condition of a nation that in time of war takes no part in the dispute but continues peaceful dealings with the belligerents.”
In “International Law, A Treatise. Volume II (of 2) War and Neutrality” it is described succinctly, “Neutrality may be defined as an attitude of impartiality…”
The term “attitude” reveals two primary facets of impartiality, one relating to thinking/feeling, the other related to physical positioning. Relevant definitions of “attitude” are:
1. a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something.
2. a position of the body proper to or implying an action or mental state, a position assumed for a specific purpose.
Neutrality, therefore, is not limited to a mental/emotional state of impartiality, but like any other attitude, it affects behavior. It has a behavioral aspect of demonstrative impartiality, a recognized positioning or stance.
Another source offers a robust consideration of meaning: “Neutrality is the tendency not to side in a conflict (physical or ideological), which may not suggest neutral parties do not have a side or are not a side themselves. In colloquial use “neutral” can be synonymous with “unbiased.” However, bias is a favoritism for some side, distinct of the tendency to act on that favoritism.”
Why is this an important distinction?
“To be perfectly honest, humans can’t do anything perfectly.” Thus, we can aspire to perfect impartiality when caught between friends at odds, to hope for perfect symmetry of our sympathies and empathy. The fact may though be that our inward emotional leaning is asymmetric, particularly if we believe one party may be in the wrong. This is the reality of an aspirational quality of neutrality.
However, the crucial aspect of our physical positioning, our bearing, is an attitudinal governor, keeping us from crossing the line from internal leanings to actions that create an advantage for one feuding friend over the other. This is the operational manifestation of neutrality. Our intellectual and/or emotional leaning may be asymmetric, but our behavior must be symmetric to execute neutrality. It means an internal state of equilibrium governing an external balance in action.
So, whether some family members declare themselves neutral at the outbreak of feuding at Thanksgiving Dinner, or whether a Sovereign State as an independent member of the Family of Nations issues a declaration of neutrality at the outbreak of World War, it means that regardless of any asymmetry of aspirational neutrality, it is the symmetry in execution of operational neutrality that will determine whether one is engaged in the conflict or remains neutral.
Does Neutrality Make Sense?
Does it even make sense to bring up neutrality as a potential solution for business related challenges? The better question is this: “Does it make sense not to?”
Contemporary formalized neutrality developed out of necessity in connection with the politics of interstate warfare, but out of no pacifist or otherwise moral aversion to war. Wrote one expositor, “The problem has always been the reconciliation of the incompatible interests of neutrals and belligerents, or, rather, a compromise between these irreconcilable interests. The neutral has sought to maintain his freedom of trade; the belligerent has sought to cut off all supplies from his enemy.” 
Importantly, though the setting of its origin was war, the heart of a structured system of neutrality was motivated by and developed in the interests of and under the framework of interstate commerce. Yes, from the fifteenth century at least, “neutral rights” was primarily about managing and navigating conflict for the safe conduct of business in an environment fractured by tensions, conflict or intense war.
Neutrality’s formalization and operationalization in commerce go back to Ancient Greece and Rome,  with seeds of it evidenced even in the pre-Christian era. Robert A. Bauslaugh, in “The Concept of Neutrality in Classical Greece” (1990) , even managed to extract a set of principles of neutrality that synopsized the core operationalization of neutrality and neutral rights as they were loosely adhered to then. We’ll review those in future posts and publications. 
Through a review of measured successes and failures of a millennium or more of neutrality, Jessup & Deák make a startling but telling comment within the scope of their focus on the economics of it:
”Neutrals have complained bitterly and loudly over individual cases of breaches of [neutral rights], but in the long run they have frequently netted material gains from neutrality far in excess of their total losses.”  (Italics ours)
Quite the assessment of the overall economic efficacy of neutrality. The reader will find no Excel spreadsheets or statistical support for that statement in their entire history of neutrality in commerce from its conception through to the beginnings of the post WWI period. Still, Jessup & Deák never lose the focus on commerce and economics, concluding their sweeping four-volume analysis with this single rather grim assessment of the bottom line efficacy of neutrality for U.S. policy in international matters: “In time of neutrality we must take the losses which can not be avoided, hoping thereby to escape the greater losses which follow in the wake of war.”
Despite its ups and downs, periods of popularity and times of infamy, as well as the dynamic flexibility of neutrality as conflict management policy, the need for neutrality at some level won’t likely vanish until either absolutely no one is engaged in intense conflict, or absolutely everyone is.
Our planet has long enjoyed rich international cultural and religious diversity. The last century’s dramatic increase of intra-national and intra-organizational diversity resulted from 1) the accelerative global economic interdependence and interaction that generated a need for more cosmopolitan management, and 2) the increase of local diversity available to be grudgingly admitted into local hiring pools. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. and others spotted the trend toward cultural diversity-based conflict (diversity tension), and a concept was born. In turn, today’s endemic cultural conflict was also born out of that global trend.
The encroachment of diversity into commerce met with the combative Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) approach, a focus on the psychologies of an endless cycle of emphasizing cultural differences and then perpetually managing both the intentional and unintentional clashing cultural norms, adversarial values, practices and what some referred to as “cultural responses.” They even went so far as to sensationalize an inferred equivalent of diversity-induced post-traumatic stress syndrome to sell the new construct. 
No one, it seems, gave serious consideration to the idea of adopting a contrasting commerce-based approach of neutrality in dealing with intercultural conflict. Instead, America’s businesses opted for and adopted a social-justice based extension of a civil rights belligerent model. It’s not as if America, the birthplace of the “Diversity Paradigm,” was completely ignorant about neutrality as an option in adversarial systems.
Even as the “Diversity Paradigm” was getting underway, Black’s Law Dictionary (4th Edition, 1968) described “Duty of the Lawyer to the Adversary System of Justice” this way: “(EC 7-19) Our legal system provides for the adjudication of disputes governed by the rules of substantive, evidentiary, and procedural law. An adversary presentation counters the natural human tendency to judge too swiftly in terms of the familiar that which is not yet fully known; [–] the advocate, by his zealous preparation and presentation of facts and law, enables the tribunal to come to the hearing with an open and neutral mind and to render impartial judgments.” 
Plain and simple, if neutrality can be taught and deployed in an “Adversary System,” as complex as the system of adjudication, such that its members can “with an open and neutral mind…render impartial judgments,” then, where else might it work? The answer is, plenty of other places, starting with the venue from which it originated, business and commerce in an environment of potentially commerce-crippling conflict.
There is no shortage of business problems and other matters to which neutrality is effectively and measurably being deployed right now, from arbitration and dispute resolution to risk neutral investing (mitigating decision bias) to today’s controversial “net neutrality” (ensuring nondiscrimination in content access).
If a construct of neutrality can enable an effective, globally accepted means of conducting commerce in physical war zones, is it reasonable to conclude there might be a way the same centuries old principles, strategies and techniques can be applied to help mitigate the effects of far milder intercultural conflict in a community, in business & industry, or in personal relationships?
An approach to teaching and deploying cultural neutrality as a means of mitigating the conflict inherent in today’s accelerating diversity shouldn’t seem an incomprehensible conceptual stretch, though to many it is at the very least unfamiliar. But not to all.
To some, the concept is well understood and easily applied.
Copyright © Robert D. Jones – 2013 All Rights Reserved
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