Neutrality: the problem of moral equivalence

Whether generally or in the context of Ethiopian society, many – Westerners and Ethiopians alike, including journalists or ‘activists’, self-styled or otherwise, who consider themselves ‘intellectuals’, expect ‘neutrality’, taking for granted that this must be the responsible position. But they often fail to grasp the practical, and very real, implications.

In practice, ‘neutrality – all sides have suffered’ – simply tends to be synonymous with postulating moral equivalence, whether it actually exists or not.

Given this rather dangerous aspect, it is, thus, surely incumbent upon us to examine what this concept of ‘neutrality’ actually amounts to, and the societal damage it can do. 

The fact that, alas, for Western organisations – or the ‘Western-minded’ – ‘neutrality’ is, all too often, tantamount to ‘seeking to create equivalence – whether or not it exists’, rather than ‘seeking to report or analyse truthfully’, in and of itself, can be highly problematic. For certainly, the – doubtlessly honourable – idea of unbiasedness, taking into account all sides, must, under no circumstances, come at the expense of a fair, just, truthful portrayal.

After all, in a conflict, all sides are rarely equal.

To give an extreme example from history: During the Second World War, all sides did horrible things, all sides suffered. But only the Nazis committed genocide, and Europe’s Jews suffered the most. And the Allies who fought and defeated the Nazis would be considered to have been on the right side of history nonetheless.

Examples from contemporary society, too, are plentiful:

Shortly after the start of the Tigray war in November 2020, for instance, government media reported that a ‘top TPLF official, Sekuture Getachew’, had admitted on camera that the TPLF had attacked the Ethiopian military preemptively.

Subsequently, this obviously supposedly ‘neutral’ – AFP article repeated this and other government claims, and echoed the regime’s narrative.

But while this was reported, Western media outlets, including the BBC, completely failed to examine and clarify to their international audiences whether such a video actually existed, and if so, what was said, whether the supposed English translations of the quotes could be considered correct, or even just basic information such as when it was recorded – before or after the start of the war.

Or, to take an example from Ethiopian society before the outbreak of war: 

Commentators often referred to dangerous individuals who, from a sociopolitical point of view, clearly had to be considered inciters – like Jawar Mohamed – as ‘activists’, believing that to be ‘a neutral position’. In fact, what this characterisation achieved was rather dubious, to say the least: it created a false equivalence, lending these individuals an air of legitimacy they, most certainly, have not deserved. 

The result was that these commentators or journalists, often with an international reach – whether intentionally or unintentionally – ended up misleading those they attempted to serve by ‘reporting neutrally’.

Having thus pondered, we, surely, must conclude that, from a societal standpoint, whatever content we may be producing, whether we work in the field of journalism, or any other field that involves reporting or commenting, we must never lose sight of our responsibility – to society, and, ultimately, to the world. That responsibility is, put simply, to report, explain, analyse, truthfully, ever cognisant of the – actual or potential – impact of our work on society.

Furthermore, we would do well to remember that, whether we like it or not, we all, to a lesser or greater degree, have our biases, consciously or unconsciously. In reality,, there can be no such thing as ‘neutrality’.

If too many – be they journalists, commentators, or well-meaning ‘activists’ – for whatever reasons – are not aware of this reality, and therefore do not face up to their responsibility, there is typically little hope for truthful reporting, fact-seeking, and, indeed, for society itself.