The Case for Principled Impartiality in a Hyper-Partisan World

Back to Winter 2022: Volume 110, Number 4

By Martín Carcasson

As our country continues to polarize and the hyper-partisanship of our national system filters down more and more to our local communities, practitioners in a number of fields that have some sort of inherent tie to concepts like impartiality, neutrality, objectivity, and nonpartisanship—such as journalists, librarians, city/county public managers, teachers, scholars at public institutions, community mediators, and deliberation and public engagement practitioners—are struggling as never before to navigate the natural tensions inherent to the work. Organizations such as the American Library Association have started to explicitly question the notion of neutrality as at best a naïve concept in the face of political realities to at worst a strategic façade that actively supports white supremacy and injustice.

In this essay, I lay out the case for a particular conception of impartiality I have developed over the last 15 years of running, the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation (CPD), an impartial organization dedicated to helping the community address difficult shared problems productively. My goal in exploring this concept of principled impartiality is to help practitioners and communities better engage the inherent tensions to democratic life in hyper-polarized political environments, particularly at the local level, where partisan interests, bad faith actors, and “conflict entrepreneurs” tend to have less power and influence than they do at the state and national levels, and thus the possibility of quality democratic engagement persists. My argument is based on the belief that hyper-polarization and our inability to engage across perspectives represent the most significant public issue currently. If we do not transform how we engage each other, we will not be able to take on any of the societal challenges we face, because the polarization has undermined the systems we rely on for democratic decision-making to function well. The good news is as we make progress in addressing that issue, we will inherently build community capacity to address all the other challenges more productively. Such progress, however, will clearly require the revitalization and expansion of impartial institutions to pave the way.

The Slow Development of Principled Impartiality

As a graduate student, I was trained to be an argumentation scholar, which is a subfield of Communication Studies that focuses on how people make arguments, how they defend their positions, and ultimately how we can best make tough distinctions between strong arguments and weak arguments. The latter skill I argue is critical to a functioning democracy—we desperately need institutions that help us make those distinctions—but unfortunately the systems we have traditionally relied on to do that work (particularly journalism, professional expertise, and academia) are struggling in the face of the negative impacts of political polarization and social media.

Argumentation scholars traditionally consider subjects such as the inherent logic to arguments, the quality of evidence individuals provide to support their claims, the credibility of the sources they use, and the degree to which they rely on or avoid fallacies. In my own work, I have particularly focused on the power of value arguments to mobilize, divide, manipulate, and, when used well, help us address our most difficult issues productively by engaging the inherent tensions between the values we hold. These concepts significantly inform my work on wicked problems – problems that inherently involve multiple competing underlying values that make them difficult to address and rather susceptible to devious tactics.

As I worked to connect the academic scholarship on argumentation to “real world” political discussions, I also incorporated research on the power of narratives and emotions to influence others. After all, data clearly shows they are often much more powerful than quality evidence from credible sources due to the proclivities of human nature. Humans are primarily narrative creatures rather than logical ones. Indeed, one of the main reasons why democracy can be such a challenge is that logically strong arguments do not necessarily have an inherent advantage over weak ones. This is particularly true when the weak arguments fit simple narratives about “us” and “them” and heroes and villains that audiences are prewired to believe. This reality is an important one because it sets up the critical role of impartial practitioners focused on addressing this situation and helping people avoid or overcome these natural impulses. The marketplace of ideas does not work as we might hope. Weak arguments and bad ideas are often best sellers and stronger ones can struggle to compete. We need systems and processes that counteract these natural tendencies and help people engage more productively. Impartial practitioners thus play a critical role of intervening in the marketplace of ideas in ways that helps improve its functionality.

An example may help clarify. My research early in my career focused on how American presidents talked about welfare and poverty issues. I focused on their arguments, particularly looking at when they utilized quality research regarding those issues and when they primarily told their supporters what they wanted to hear (in other words, did they listen more to subject matter experts or their political advisors and pollsters?). My overall goal was to better understand how we as a country could work together to address that difficult shared problem. The research was, frankly, depressing. The more I learned about our national political system, the more I realized it seemed to focus much more on winning elections and raising money by mobilizing/outraging specific audiences rather than addressing difficult issues. The presidents relied on quality information when it happened to fit those goals but ignored it otherwise. From my argumentation perspective, it seemed clear that the two-party system with winner-take-all elections generally worked to reward weak arguments and punish strong ones. The wicked problems we face are difficult enough on their own, but when we add this additional layer of dysfunction and disincentives, it exponentially decreased the likelihood of addressing our shared problems well.

Upon completing my Ph.D. and joining Colorado State University’s faculty, I decided to shift the focus of my work from national to local, and, rather than serving as an analyst or critic of the arguments made by powerful people, I decided to focus more on changing how we talk about difficult issues by intervening in the system. Connecting with the scholars and practitioners of dialogue, deliberation, collaboration, conflict management, and process design—all fields with inherent commitments to neutrality and impartiality—I set about trying to find ways to reimagine public engagement to flip the script I had encountered in national politics. Could we create processes that incentivized and rewarded strong arguments and exposed and resisted weak ones? Processes that helped people resist simple narratives, engage the tensions inherent to difficult problems, and ultimately worked to tap into human creativity? The long-term hope was that we could learn how to elevate local conversations and then transfer those insights to other communities and transform public engagement from the ground up.

I developed the Center for Public Deliberation in 2006 as the practical arm of this work. It serves as an impartial resource for the northern Colorado community and an ongoing experiment in reimagining public engagement. The choice of the word “impartial” to describe the center was purposeful. I considered many others (neutral, nonpartisan, bipartisan, trans-partisan, objective, etc.). All flawed, but impartial seemed to work the best for what we were trying to do. I first noticed the complexity of the term as I tried to recruit high quality students to the program to be trained as facilitators through specialized coursework. I quickly learned that it was quite difficult to attract top students with the opportunity to become “neutral facilitators.” I knew that impartiality, while a vital aspect of our work, did not quite spark excitement and inspire strong commitment and identity. Students want to make an impact, to change the world. On the other hand, we knew earning and maintaining a reputation for impartiality was necessary for us to transform how our community engaged our shared problems. We knew that due to human nature and our hyper-polarized political and media systems, our community was not going to be able to have the conversations it needed to have without help. Becoming known as a trusted convener and honest broker of information was central to that transformative work.

Yet the word impartial did not quite capture our efforts. It was too dry. Detached. Dispassionate. Anytime I explained our mission, it was clear we were quite passionate about many things. We were passionate about our community, about democracy, about working against manipulation and misinformation, and, in the end, we were passionate about bringing people together across perspectives to address our shared problems more productively. Underlying our appeal to students was a clear pragmatic argument about the importance of impartiality. Our work was ultimately about making an impact on the issues we care about, but we believed – rightly, I would argue after 15 years of the work – that we could make more of an impact long term by playing an impartial role dedicated to sparking and supporting high quality engagement. We believed that when conversations are elevated, strong arguments are more likely to be rewarded and weak ones exposed, leading to better decisions. Most importantly, we understood that conversations do not elevate on their own. The market needed help.

As we began to do the work, we also started to see legitimate pushback on impartiality, complicating things further. As Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” We recognized that challenge, along with other criticisms of “civil” or deliberative processes that highlight concerns about overemphasizing the status quo, facilitating false equivalence or “bothsidesism,” and shutting out marginalized voices in the community. We wanted to clearly recognize that our broader commitment to democratic values revealed an inherent tension with a strict focus on impartiality. Similarly, as we gained experience running projects in the community, a firm commitment to impartiality was again challenged when an activist group brought talking points that were full of exaggerations and false information. Adapting Tutu’s insight, we recognized that if we were neutral in the face of clear and purposeful misinformation, we have chosen the side of the bad faith manipulator.

To capture these two tensions, we developed what was initially called passionate impartiality. The purposeful oxymoron was chosen to highlight the inherent tensions we recognized in our work. I recently shifted to calling it principled impartiality because the initial term was at times misinterpreted as a passion for impartiality, rather than highlighting the deliberate tensions between a strict impartiality and our other commitments. Figure 1 captures these tensions graphically. Along with our commitment to impartiality, it indicates our commitment to democracy (and thus to key– and often competing – values such as inclusion, equality, free speech, pluralism, and human rights, as well as our aversion to corruption and injustice) and our commitment to quality information and argument (and thus to concepts like accuracy, clarity, reasonableness, and, perhaps more easily operationalized, our aversion to misinformation, manipulation, and logical fallacies).

We recognize our work is an ongoing process of negotiating these tensions. The work is difficult and situational. Any of the three can dominate too much or be dismissed too much to undermine the work. Precisely because all three concepts – impartiality, democracy, and quality information and argument—are complex and multifaceted, there is no clear technical way to resolve these tensions. They require ongoing negotiation, recalibration, and quality judgment. Following Barry Johnson’s work on polarity management, we believe that working to identify these tensions, put them on the table, and do the hard work to manage them works to elevate conversations. Too often the loudest voices avoid such tensions – either subconsciously or purposefully – and frame issues in simple ways, which works to fuel polarization, misunderstanding, and distrust. Said differently, the concept of principled impartiality is not designed to end discussion, but to spark deeper discussions that must be engaged. I argue that is the heart of the work of the deliberative practitioner, as well as other impartial practitioners like journalists, librarians, teachers, city/county managers, etc.

As the CPD continued to grow and refine its work, our national politics polarized even more, a misinformation crisis exploded, and scholars in multiple fields learned more and more about how and why our brains (mis) function and the corresponding dangers of motivated reasoning. Concepts like echo chambers, confirmation bias, and backfire effect vaulted into the mainstream. Our trust in each other and our institutions plummeted. In this environment, conflict entrepreneurs—a term coined by Amanda Ripley in High Conflict—gain fame and riches as they take advantage of human nature by peddling simple narratives, disinformation, and conspiracy theories which only divide us more.

Even a global pandemic unfortunately succumbed to the dysfunction. Perhaps most disturbing is that a “big lie” about a stolen election was advanced by a sitting president and generally supported by a major party despite the clear lack of evidence. By all accounts, the importance of good process has exponentially increased at the same time that trying to negotiate the tensions inherent to principled impartiality has become almost hopelessly complex and fraught with peril. Unfortunately, one primary reaction to the hyper-polarization and proliferation of bad faith actors and tactics was increased pushback on and dismissal of the role of impartiality and neutrality.

Exploring Varied Conceptions of Neutrality and Impartiality

As I write this in the fall of 2021, concepts like neutrality and impartiality are under attack, inherently connected to the growing threats to democracy. The question, however, is what conception of neutrality is being targeted? I would contend that a frequent target is a simplistic, straw person version of neutrality. The most common attacks on neutrality or impartiality are: (a) it is impossible, (b) it’s a myth, (c) it has never been achieved. All three of these arguments stem from the same basic point. The idea is that we all have biases, many of them subconscious, so to assume a pure sense of having no bias is an unreachable ideal. I would assume most professionals tied to neutrality and impartiality would readily admit this. Most neutral practitioners do not argue they are neutral as humans, but rather that their professional role is to support neutral processes. Clearly all people have particular values and preferences, and with those natural biases. Impartial professionals seek to avoid having their personal preferences unduly impact their professional actions precisely because of their belief in the pragmatic value of their work. The point is not to be purely neutral, but rather to see impartiality as a particular commitment among others that is critical for supporting their particular role. For example, facilitators are committed to impartiality, but realize whenever they intervene to ask a question or offer a paraphrase, they are inherently violating the pure sense of impartiality. They do so because they believe the intervention will improve the conversation and lead to better results. No question or comment can be completely impartial; the only way to reach that level is to never intervene, which obviously undermines the point. In the end, impartiality is a key aspect of the work, not a simple deductive rule to apply to all situations.

The more substantive criticisms of neutrality are focused on cases where impartiality is overemphasized and works to unfairly support the status quo, encourage false equivalence/bothsidesism, maintain injustice, or allow manipulative tactics. This brings us back to the concept of principled impartiality. Critics of impartiality often focus on attacking impartial actors for failing to fulfill the false ideal of pure impartiality, rather than making the more nuanced argument that in a particular case they overemphasized impartiality to the point of detriment. If the primary argument for principled impartiality is a pragmatic one – that it supports processes that elevate strong arguments and expose weak ones, for example – then certainly criticisms that impartial processes fail to achieve those results have some validity. Principled impartiality, in other words, allows for and, frankly, encourages the consideration of such criticism. There certainly are examples of professionals overly committed to impartiality that have undermined processes and done harm. Jay Rosen, for example, is a particularly strong voice pushing back on political journalism that has overemphasized impartiality and underemphasized what he calls the “citizen’s agenda.” We need such voices as we undergo the constant process of negotiating the tensions depicted in Figure 1, working to honor each value while not letting any dominate too much.

In the end, democratic decision-making in the face of wicked problems, hyperpolarization, and the proliferation of conflict entrepreneurs is exceedingly difficult. In this environment, those attempting to serve as principled impartial resources for our communities face immense challenges and vocal opposition (often from multiple sides). Nonetheless, I would still argue we have no other choice than to soldier on. To abandon impartiality completely and simply join the fray as partisans will likely only further erode our political culture and exacerbate the problems of polarization, distrust, and misinformation. Fighting fire with fire is likely to simply burn the whole democracy down.

The arguments of partisans are often at best irrelevant and at worst backfire to the opposition, regardless of their quality. I recognize the likely objection of the perceived weakness of impartiality in the face of powerful bad faith actors—my work was once described to me as “speaking nice to power”—but I would argue they revel in a hyper-polarized environment where opposing arguments can be dismissed as “fake news,” and no one trusts any source of information. For our communities to get back on track and improve their ability to address their shared problems, institutions committed to defending democracy and helping us distinguish between strong and weak arguments must be developed or reinvigorated.

Groups such as the National Civic League, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the Village Square, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, Braver Angels, Listen First Project, and many of the organizations that make up the Bridge Alliance serve in this capacity at the national level. They deserve our support. Unfortunately, at that level the incentives are heavily stacked against them, and they often lack the resources to compete with partisan politics and opportunistic media. At the local level, however, productive examples persist, and hope remains. Impartial professionals are often connected to local governments, where the council-manager form of government, in particular, can naturally connect to principled impartiality.

Numerous colleges and universities host organizations like the CPD that are committed to this work and serving their local community. Innovative journalism projects are occurring at the local level across the country that reimagine the democratic role of journalism in ways that connect to principled impartiality. Public libraries and museums, two rare institutions that still enjoy significant levels of trust in their communities, have developed innovative programs like the American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Institute for Science and Policy that are engaging in principled impartial ways. Community foundations and organizations such as United Way have reconsidered their traditional roles and began to explore the need to become key conveners and backbone organizations for their communities, focusing on bringing people together across difference in productive ways. In the end, democracy desperately needs impartial bridging organizations, honest brokers of information, trusted neutral conveners, and nonpartisan civic spaces to function. It is high time to defend and invest in them.

Martín Carcasson is a professor in the Communication Studies department of Colorado State University, and the founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation.

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