Clint Eastwood in the 2008 film Gran Torino.

I can relate to the character Walt Kowalski played by Clint Eastwood in the fine 2008 film Gran Torino. Like Walt, I’m fed up with foolishness.

Let me explain. I’ve noticed that many people attempt to appear neutral on certain moral issues, but actually aren’t. When I was young I used to think these folks seemed sophisticated and intelligent — so above the fray, so “with it”. I used to get fooled, but no more. Maybe I’ve turned into a cranky old fogey, but I’m pretty sure that at least some of these attempts at neutrality are epic fails.

Here is an example from a few years ago: “I’m neither for abortion nor against abortion.”

Sounds “neutral”, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. It actually assumes a particular view on the abortion issue. It takes the view that others can make the choice for an abortion if they want to. If you hold the view, it means that you don’t think the fetus is a human being with the right to life. That is a particular view — not neutral at all.

Think of it this way: If one says about slavery that one is neither for it nor against it, then one is assuming/taking the view that the slave isn’t a full human being with rights. And it means one will let people choose to have a slave if they wish. That ain’t neutral, folks.

Here is a more recent example. Hawk Newsome of Greater New York Black Lives Matter stated the following: “I don’t condone nor do I condemn rioting.” And: “I just want black liberation, and black sovereignty. By any means necessary.”

Newsome seems to be taking a neutral position on rioting. After all, he says he doesn’t condone it nor does he condemn it. Neutral, right?

Wrong. Newsome’s I-don’t-condone-nor-condemn-rioting claim is not a neutral position. Rioting hurts innocent people. It destroys their livelihoods, and it usually escalates to such an extent that innocent people get killed.

Again, think about slavery. Not condemning nor condoning slavery is not neutral. It’s to suggest that if you want a slave, then go ahead and have one. Or think of it this way: Not condemning nor condoning, say, killing Jews isn’t neutral, either.  It’s to suggest that if you want to kill a Jew, that’s your choice. Newsome’s I-don’t-condone-nor-condemn-rioting suggests/implies that you can go ahead and riot — it’s merely a matter of your choice. No big deal.

Yeah, right. Say that to the folks in Minneapolis who lost their livelihoods and to the families of those who lost their lives.

What is worse (for Newsome’s view) is that Newsome’s so-called neutral position — especially when it doesn’t condemn rioting — is legitimised as appropriate or right if it serves his ends (which are righteous in his eyes). Recall that he wants to get what he wants “by any means necessary”. But this anything-goes-if-it-supports-my-ideology is the reasoning of ruthless authoritarians, as history shows. (Think of the 1985 film The Killing Fields.) In other words, it’s anything but neutral. It’s like a bystander who shrugs his shoulders and walks away as somebody gets raped and murdered.

Here is another example. In Canada, a recently passed Calgary city bylaw concerning conversion therapy (helping a person resist his/her same-sex attractions if the person wishes to do so and asks for such help) requires that such therapy should be allowed only if it involves a “person’s non-judgemental exploration and acceptance of their identity or development.”

Jyoti Gondek, a Calgary city councillor, defended the bylaw as follows: “I think that the bylaw that’s before us has been written in such a manner that it is open to any conversations that people want to have as long as they’re non-judgemental. And for me it’s that phrase ‘non-judgemental’ that is key. The minute you pass a value judgement and call it a truth, you are going to hurt somebody. And that’s really all I want to say about this. We cannot say that just talking to somebody is not dangerous because it is. The words that you say will hurt that person.”

Sounds neutral and non-judgemental, doesn’t it?

Nope. It isn’t. First, Jyoti Gondek is talking to us and assuming that her view is true — so her assumption is a judgement that she’s already made and is passing off as “non-judgemental”. Her words aren’t hurting me, but her illogic is hurting my brain.

Second, for the law to claim under the banner of “non-judgemental” that it’s okay only to promote views that go one particular way (ie “acceptance” in terms of how the city councillors such as Gondek think it should go) is also to make a judgement. It is to be the opposite of “non-judgemental”. And it is to be deceptive, whether wittingly or unwittingly. The banner of “non-judgemental” may make it seem that the position is neutral, but in fact it isn’t neutral!

So, like Walt Kowalski, I’m fed up with foolishness. And maybe, like Walt, I’m even getting a bit cranky in my old age. It turns out that, nowadays, when I see people claim to be neutral on certain moral issues when in fact they’re not neutral, I just want to shout: “Get off my lawn!”

And maybe throw an empty beer can in their general direction.

Hendrik van der Breggen

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada. Hendrik is author of the book Untangling...