Sometimes Dialogue is Not the Answer and Neutrality is a Trap: An Interview with the Authors of ‘The Neutrality Trap’

A Fox News reporter interviews a protestor near the the 2012 Republican National Convention in Florida. Image: PBS NewsHour/(CC BY 2.0)

Regular readers of Religion Dispatches will likely be familiar with my fairly frequent forays into media criticism. In addition to unpacking the ways in which the legacy media and elite pundits reinforce Christian privilege and hegemony, I’ve discussed the ways in which right-wing authoritarians take advantage of journalistic “neutrality,” casting our national discourse into the kind of post-truth realm in which authoritarian actors prefer to operate.

The Neutrality Trap: Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change

Bernard S. Mayer & Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán
January, 2022

I was thus drawn to Bernard Mayer and Jacqueline N. Font-Guzman’s new book, The Neutrality Trap: Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change, which gave me much to think about. The book and this conversation with the authors reinforced my sense that framing and personal stories matter for effecting social change and drove home how knee-jerk neutrality that tends to uphold an unjust status quo is not only a problem in media, but also in the messy and intertwined realities of protest, disruption, and conflict mediation. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chrissy Stroop: To start things off, would you mind providing a brief definition of the term “neutrality trap” and explaining why you decided to write a book about it?

Bernie Mayer: The neutrality trap reflects our concern that, in the name of neutrality, impartiality, and objectivity, many of us, including professionals who aim to restore peace, resolve conflict, and provide thoughtful analyses of controversial issues, often end up supporting a status quo that needs to change. 

Neutrality in the face of significant power differentialssuch as we see when we encounter systematic racism, patriarchy, or homophobiasupports the existing power structure. Or as Bishop Desmond Tutu observed: 

“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.”

The trap is to hide behind neutrality when we ought to focus on empowering those who are struggling to have their voices heard. To have a meaningful dialogue about important issues, we have to avoid the neutrality trap.

A secondary concern, but an important one, is that being truly neutral is impossible, which is why people are so often suspicious of those who try to gain credibility as interveners by asserting their neutrality.

We’d been thinking about these issues for a long time, but what finally pushed us to undertake this project was the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. A movement was building to do something about the way communities of color are disproportionately targeted by the police. As with many movements for change, one motivation for action was anger. Sometimes this led to minor acts of violence which were then overblown by those opposed to looking at the fundamental problem with how policing is conducted towards communities of color. 

The reaction of many in the conflict-resolution field was to propose some form of mediated police/community dialogues. [Generally speaking] we not only support the use of dialogues—both of us have organized and conducted many such interactions. But this was the wrong time and the wrong emphasis. Systems needed to be disrupted, a movement needed to be built—without this, all the dialogues in the world wouldn’t lead to genuine change. 

Jackie: I have a concern that in the US, when discussing issues like racism and oppression, there’s an important piece that’s always missing in the conversation—the US imperialist mindset and the nation’s unwillingness to see itself as an empire and a colonizing power. I think that talking about racism and enslavement without understanding imperialism and colonialism presents an incomplete story. 

The US refusal to see itself as an empire prevents the nation from fully addressing the roots of inequities and oppression. This book was an opportunity to share at a deeper level our belief that an important first step toward racial justice in the US is for the nation to grapple with the reality of being an empire. We weave this theme throughout the book by sharing examples of Puerto Rico, my country of origin, and one of the five colonies currently inhabited by the US.

CS: One of the unusual aspects of The Neutrality Trap that made it an engaging read was the direct engagement with your own experiences as scholars and activists The anecdotes and reflections drawn from your experiences at the end of each chapter also really made the abstract problems the book deals with come alive. Could you say a little bit about why you structured the book the way you did?

Bernie: We believe that story-telling is an essential part of social change and that, without it, neither effective disruption nor meaningful connection can happen. We felt, therefore, that we shouldn’t hesitate to share some of our own stories. We certainly didn’t want to hide behind objectivity and distance from the material we were sharing. That would have gone against the basic message of the book. 

But beyond that, in all of our work, we believe that what makes a difference is connecting ideas to action, and we mean that in both directions. Our ideas, values and beliefs ought to guide our actions and our actions ought to help us understand, develop, challenge and often change our ways of thinking about things. The inclusion of actual stories—from our own lives, from those of people we’ve worked with, and from the public conflicts of our times—is an essential way of making that connection.

Jackie: Additionally, we both believe that self-reflection is crucial in advancing social and institutional change. Sharing our stories was a way of recounting our experiences and also learning from our past experiences and about how we’ve been transformed by them. Since we’re all part of a system, our individual transformation has the potential to significantly change structures so that they’re more equitable and just. This was our way of role-modeling: using stories to connect with each other while disrupting a status quo that’s oppressive to some.

CS: One thing that struck me about The Neutrality Trap is your commitment to the principle of optimism as a moral or ethical duty. I have to admit that this is challenging for me as a consummate pessimist, although I continue to engage as an advocate for social change. I know I’m not alone in finding it difficult to find much hope these days. 

While I agree that despair is not the answer, I’m also wary of toxic positivity, and I hesitate to place a moral judgment on those feeling hopeless in the wake of the ongoing overturning of civil rights by a Supreme Court that I consider illegitimate. How would you respond to these concerns? 

Jackie: It’s important for us to embrace a “special type of hope” that fosters spaces where everyone can thrive. Creating these spaces requires us to be optimistic about our capacity to make change happen. It requires that we have the conviction that the seeds we plant today will change the world for the better, even if we’re not here to see it happen. 

Susan B. Anthony and Frances E.W. Harper (both suffrage activists) died before women in the US had the right to vote, but they didn’t succumb to pessimism. Their activism in tandem with their optimism paved the way for the passage of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote. My advice to those who [feel pessimistic but] want to disrupt and connect for social change is to: 

  • Always remember that your work matters
  • Take a break when needed
  • Be actively patient—while you wait for the “big change,” work on “smaller” changes
  • Work with others—changing systems is not a one-person job
  • Make time to celebrate major and minor milestones  

Bernie: I’ve heard this from a few people. You should be wary of toxic positivity, and by no means are we saying that people are wrong to feel pessimistic and even despairing. We feel what we feel. But I would make two points about this. 

In a previous book (The Conflict Paradox) I devoted a chapter to the paradoxical relationship between optimism and realism. Without realism, optimism is meaningless and can easily throw a haze on the urgency of the problems we face. But realism without optimism isn’t realism either. We face enormous problems, but we’ve also made enormous strides. 

As we discuss in the book, systems of power and privilege will always push back when that privilege is confronted, and engendering despair about the potential for change is one of the tools used to discourage activism. We need to remember that the struggles we face aren’t short term ones. It’s no more realistic to think the future is determined and that doom is inevitable than it is to blithely assert that we can solve all our problems if we just put our differences aside.

Secondly, we’re not talking about optimism as an emotion but as a belief that what we do can make a difference. We have to hold onto this if we’re going to engage in a sustained struggle for a better world. Of course, there are times when we may feel despair—and we shouldn’t try to suppress this—but we should find within ourselves the capacity to hang in there by continuing to hold onto the belief in our own individual and collective agency. 

CS: Is there any specific advice you would give to activists and advocates for social justice now that we’re in post-Roe America? Or is there anything you might have written differently if the decline of American democracy had advanced to the point that it has now at the time that you wrote the book?

Bernie: The overturning of Roe, the continued toll that guns take on the most vulnerable in our society, the ever darkening cloud on our future that climate change presents—all seem to reinforce our central point, which is that without disruption, connection alone won’t deal with our problems. But without a strategic approach to disruption, which also requires connecting across our differences, we won’t achieve system change either. 

My basic advice to activists is to pay attention to how to build a movement that’s prepared to endure through the inevitable pushbacks it will face, but also to be prepared to adapt to unforeseen opportunities which sometimes present themselves in very chaotic and messy ways, and to look for opportunities to work on immediate and local issues that connect to the larger systemic problems from which they arise. 

Jackie: Change is like a pendulum, and for many of us the pendulum is steering in the wrong direction. The world looks pretty grim at the moment. There’s an erosion of rights that disproportionately impacts the poor, women, and minoritized groups. The recent overturn of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court is one example. 

And the Court is dangerously losing credibility by making decisions like this one, which contradicts the position that the majority of the US public supports. This is a time to disrupt and connect at the grassroots level. My advice is to start organizing in your communities, counties, municipalities, and school districts for the change you want to see. As we discuss in our book, social movements must be sensitive to chaotic disruption and strategic disruption. You need both for social change to happen and to be sustainable. 

CS: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers of RD

Jackie: I invite everyone who reads this to take a stance; don’t be neutral. Don’t shy away from the inequities we’re facing. Find a person, preferably someone you don’t know well, and have a one-on-one conversation with them about an issue that troubles you. See where the conversation takes you. Then, connect with others. 

This is how social movements begin, connecting with one person at a time, building a network, disrupting oppressive systems, and making a plan for the future. Each one of you reading this can start a movement to advance social justice. Who will you reach out to? What movement will you start? 


The authors invite you to engage with them further: 

You can learn more about Jacqueline N. Font-Guzman’s work and find her contact information here, and Bernard Mayer can be reached at [email protected].