Neutrality, Omni-Partiality, and the Evolution of Political Conflict

When we wrote Ken, asking him to participate in our discussion, he sent us a copy of his latest book, Mediation in a Time of Crisis: Pandemic, Prejudice, Police, and Political Polarization  and said we could republish as much as we wanted to. Here we are reprinting Chapter 7, which goes directly to the discussion Guy and Heidi Burgess have been having with Jackie Font-Guzman and Bernie Mayer (and now a number of others as well) on oppression, neutrality, and related concepts. If you find this chapter insightful and useful (as we do), we urge you to consider buying the whole book.  You can see the table of contents in the first post we did from it for a sense of what is there.  The book is amazingly affordable at $10.00 on Amazon's Kindle, and $25.00 in paperback from Amazon or the publisher.  


By Ken Cloke

Posted on BI on Sept 23, 2022


The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality. — DANTE ALIGHIERI

>Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. — PAULO FREIRE

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. — DESMOND TUTU


Every conflict asks us to take sides, to add our weight and energy, our hearts and minds, bodies and brains, in support of one side over and against another. However we respond, we help carve the riverbeds and shape the unseen channels through which our futures, and those of succeeding generations, will flow. We create ourselves, and the cultures, contexts, systems, and environments we will live in. We offer hope or withhold it. We open and shut our hearts.

Nowhere is this truer than in political conflicts, where our lives depend on the outcome of polarized contests that determine not only winners and losers, victors and vanquished, but the sort of world we will live in, the quality of life we will enjoy, and the possibility of success and happiness.

In response, mediators have refused to take sides, but this refusal can take two forms: first, neutrality, in which we distance ourselves from both sides and reject the zero-sum factual truths they espouse and advocate; or second, “omni-partiality,” in which we place ourselves on both sides at the same time, and affirm the underlying emotional and “heart” truths they represent.

In 2001, in Mediating Dangerously,

I suggested we shift our thinking from being neutral to being omni-partial, first, because there is no such thing as genuine neutrality when it comes to conflict; second, because the language of neutrality creates an expectation that fairness means suppressing our past experiences and insights:

But real fairness comes from using the past to gain an open, honest, humble perspective on the present. Worse, neutral language is bland, consistent, predictable, and homogenous, and used to control what cannot be controlled…. Yet because neutrality implies objectivity and distance from the source of the conflict, it cannot countenance empathy, or give the mediator room to acknowledge or experience grief, compassion, love, anger, fear, or hope. Neutrality can paralyze emotional honesty, intimate communication, vulnerability, and self-criticism. It can undermine shared responsibility, prevention, creative problem solving, and organizational learning. It can ignore the larger systems in which conflict occurs. It can fail to comprehend spirit, forgiveness, transformation, or healing, which are essential in mediation. As a result, it can become a straitjacket, a check on our ability to unlock the sources of conflict.

What is the meaning, for example, of neutrality, or compromise, in contests between dictatorship and democracy, war and peace, slavery and freedom, hate and love, cruelty and kindness?

Yet mediation teaches us that all conflicts contain multiple truths. These are not the simple, superficial, one-sided factual truths parties often argue over, but the deeper, more complex, multi-faceted emotional and heartfelt truths that synthesize their diverse perspectives, creating wholes that are greater than the sums of their parts.

Omni-partiality does not require us to agree or disagree about facts, but asks us to encourage empathy and dialogue over meanings; and to reject adversarial, competitive judgments grounded on distinctions between “us” and “them.” It “separates the person from the problem,” allowing us to be “soft on the person and hard on the problem,” and inclusive of everyone, without collapsing multiple truths into some simplistic, superficial, one-sided façade of Truth. At the same time, it is grounded in core values, such as inclusion, diversity, respect, honesty, collaboration, and caring.

Isaiah Berlin believed that all politics, and by extension, all political conflicts, are inherently unscientific, because they are open, fluid, unpredictable, pluralistic, and changing; and therefore, according to Karl Popper’s definition of science, they are un-falsifiable, as they concern a future that is undetermined and has yet to happen.

This suggests that scientific truths, like Covid-19 and global warming, are not themselves political, although our attitudes and responses to them may be. Neither neutrality nor omni-partiality make any sense in response to mathematical or scientific inquiries. On the other hand, what democracy, collaboration, and mediation all uniquely require, as interest-based processes, is inclusion, diversity, and a complex, omni-partial search for the deeper, multifaceted, complementary truths that unite us.

As an illustration, we can ask three categories of question in any group:

  1. Who is the oldest or youngest, tallest or shortest person in the group? The outcome will be a single correct answer for everyone.
  2. How old or tall are you? The outcome will be a single correct answer for each person.
  3. What issues are you facing at your age? What does your height mean to you? The outcome will be multiple correct answers for each person.

Through these questions we can recognize an evolution in our approach to differences, applicable in political conflicts, that moves from power-, to rights-, to interest-based approaches, with higher orders of complexity, collaboration, and skill in language, process, and relationship required of each. Here, for example, are the same three orders with regard to the language of politics, its’ sources and consequences:

  1. The Language of Power: The language favored by power-based organizations such as the military, police, autocracies, and monarchical states requires clarity, simplicity, and uniform interpretation in order to encourage unthinking obedience. The communications that emanate from these institutions therefore take the form of declarations, pronouncements, and orders, which reinforce hierarchy and command, and imply punishment and contempt for those who disobey.
  2. The Language of Rights: The language favored by rights-based organizations such as legal institutions, bureaucracies, and procedurally democratic states, requires narrow distinctions, exceptions, and adjudicated interpretations in order to maintain control by permitting some behaviors and forbidding others. The communications that emanate from these institutions take the form of rules and regulations, policies and procedures, legislative definitions, and legal interpretations, which reinforce bureaucracy and control and imply coercion and censure for those who do not fit in.
  1. The Language of Interests: The language favored by interest-based organizations such as teams, civil society, and substantively democratic states, requires affirmation of diversity, dissent, and dialogue in order to encourage collaboration and participation. The communications that emanate from these institutions take the form of open-ended questions, public dialogues, value-driven rules, and consensus decision making, which reinforce social equality, economic equity, and political democracy.

We can, on this basis, easily identify three alternative interest-based definitions of politics, each of which incorporates and encourages omni-partiality, (drawn from my book, Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy):

  1. Politics is a social problem-solving process. As a result, a diversity of views about the nature of the problem and alternative ways of solving it will predictably result in better, more sustainable solutions.
  2. Politics is a large group decision-making process. As a result, the greater the consensus, the stronger the democracy, and the more people agree with a decision, the more likely it is to be effective.
  3. Politics is a conflict resolution process. As a result, the amount of chronic, on-going, systemic conflict can be dramatically reduced by assuming there is more than one correct answer, and a complex, egalitarian, interest-based approach can result in no one having to lose so that that others are able to win.

Yet it sometimes happens in history, as William Butler Yeats wrote, that “the centre cannot hold,” and adversarial politics “slouches” toward hatred, war, and authoritarianism. Why? One reason, I believe, is that history is asking us to choose between competing, increasingly divergent paths, as occurred in the U.S. over slavery as we approached the Civil War.

Another is that the conflicts we are facing can no longer be successfully resolved using lower order skills, and we need to invent or discover a higher order of attitudes and approaches, skills and techniques, that allow us to pool our resources and adopt methods of problem solving that are at least as rich, complex, and diverse as the problems they are intended to solve.

The social, economic, and political conflicts we face today, in my view, represent both. On the one hand, we are encountering a set of global problems that cannot be solved by individual nation-states using outmoded destructive, adversarial, and competitive methods that undermine international cooperation.

On the other hand, we increasingly need to evolve and develop higher order skills in the ways we respond — even locally — to Covid-19, racism, policing, global warming, and similar pressing issues, by optimizing our skills and capacity for inclusion, respect for diversity, collaboration, dialogue, democracy, non-violent communication, mediation, restorative justice, and similar interest based processes.

Each of these crises asks us to overcome the hostile, adversarial, authoritarian forces that separate “us” from “them;” to realize that there is no “them,” there is only us. And as we do, it becomes easy to be omni-partial, and on everyone’s side at the same time, allowing us to face our conflicts and crises together, as a diverse and cohesive community of problem solvers.