The value of neutrality

The value of neutrality

I can be as sarcastic as the next person.

In fact, I can be devastating and clever (so I’m told). I had to realize that at one point…I was quite interested in a real group called “Sarcastics Anonymous”. I explained to our now adult kid that they (who can do what I can do) basically have a super power. We can reduce people to a blob of quivering protoplasm with a cutting comment…so you can only use the power for good.😉

I think it comes, in part, from being empathetic. If you don’t understand people, if you can’t get a sense of how they (and the other people around you) are feeling, you won’t come up with that exact point which cuts the deepest.

I can be sarcastic…but I’m not.

Not in public.

Not to that person.

Not to other people who know that person.

I will use self-effacing humor, but I won’t take someone else’s face.😉

The only time I tend to do it now is when my Significant Other and I are watching competition TV…and then it’s just for fun, and won’t go beyond that room.

That’s not to say that I don’t love a witty remark, even at the expense of someone else. It may combine snark and sarcasm…let’s call it “snarcasm”.

I was reading a summary of an inexpensive movie with dinosaurs a long time ago, and have always remembered their reference to the characters encountering “plasticasauruses”.

That said, I always especially love opinion-free reference works.

That doesn’t mean I always want it to be what is sometimes called a “seed catalog”: a database before databases were electronic. I like those,  too, but my perfect reference works objectively gives me context…relates what I’m reading to other things. For example, if I’m reading about an author who never had a successful book after the one being covered, that’s good context. That can be done without being judgmental. If we base it on sales, it’s objective.

This came up recently when I wrote about an amazing sale in the USA Kindle store:

McFarland books for $3.99 (at AmazonSmile*)

The sale, by the way, is not only ongoing, it has expanded…it’s now over 1400 titles, and I’m buying more.🙂

Some of my favorite p-books (paperbooks) in my library are reference works: Walt Lee’s Reference Guide to Fantastic Films; Vincent Terrace TV reference books (some are in this sale…others are not part of the sale); and some Jeff Rovin books (for example, on superheroes and supervillains).

Certainly, the first two are really objective…more the seed catalog type.

When I’m reading some of the ones I got on this sale, they are quite critical and opinionated.

Again, I can like that. Clever writing, labeled as opinion, is fine. I don’t extend that to when you criticize the fans of the material, but I’m more than happy to hear your opinion of something.

However, I just wanted to say that I like neutral references as well.

I’ve decided with

The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip 

not to put in my own opinions there. I will link to articles I write about the books/TV shows/movies and so on that you can get to through TMCGTT, but I wanted the timeline itself to not be about my opinions of the works. I’m hoping comments can eventually be made there by other people…but I want it to have a neutral stance.

Sure, there is unavoidable bias on display in what gets chosen for it, but that seems different.

I think, though, I’m seeing fewer neutral works…maybe the ability to do the research yourself instantly on the internet is making that sort of reference work seem to have less value.

Well, that’s just my opinion about writing without opinions! What do you think? Feel free to tell me and my readers by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

All aboard our new The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

12 Responses to “The value of neutrality”

  1. Phyllis Simpson Says:

    This is a suggestion for things that I hope the ECHO’s will soon be able to do. Maybe you can pass this through to Amazon, as they seem to listen to you. I think it would really be very valuable to have ECHO to be able to dial the phone in an emergency. I have two of them and think that could save someone’s life in an emergency. I have one in my living room and one in the bedroom. I think about that a lot since I had a stroke and don’t want to wear anything hanging around my neck. It would really be nice if it could dial 911 and call family or neighbors in an emergency. I hope I will never need that feature, but I can see how it would increase it’s market value to older and handicapped people. It could save someone’s life.

    Yours blog is always so helpful and I still subscribe to it. Thank you for you work. I do wish Amazon would make it more apparent which books are Text to Speech. Maybe larger type. I love to listen to my books while I do other things.

    Thank you,

    Phyllis Simpson

  2. Allie D. Says:

    Ha! I was voted “Most Sarcastic” senior in high school and it was (paradoxically) one of my proudest moments😉
    Sarcasm allowed me to avoid great boredom in school and I think that was justification enough!!

    More on topic – as you end your post asking others’ “opinion about writing without opinions”:

    Remaining neutral in speaking of books and movies is a choice that I don’t quite understand, but I’m not familiar with any of your blogs except for ilmk right here.

    That being said, I believe that expressing opinions – definitely opinions on artistic work – is something to be valued and an excellent way to understand others.

    I suppose you are referring to collections of data as opposed to creative work.

  3. John Aga Says:

    I wanted to thank you for the heads up regarding the sale of books from McFarland Publishing. As a result I have purchased a few of their e-books: “Television Horror Movie Hosts”, “Universal Horror, The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946”, “Keep Watching the Skies!, American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties”, “A History of the Doc Savage Adventures”, “Encyclopedia of Television Pilots, 1937 to 2012”, and “The Heritage of Heinlein, A Critical Reading of the Fiction”. Good reading ahead🙂

  4. Man in the Middle Says:

    One of the things I learned in counseling training is that when people say something sarcastically, as though they don’t really mean it, the truth is that they DO mean it.

    In the decades since, I’ve found my life improved by not choosing folks who are often sarcastic as friends.

  5. Edward Boyhan Says:

    This post brings three words to mind: neutrality, impartiality, and objectivity. Further it appears that you deal with them in interpersonal contexts, and in wider socio-political contexts as well.

    I’m often intrigued by words that appear to have similar meanings which upon reflection actually have subtly different connotations.

    One of my first encounters with this came by way of Rex Stout in a Nero Wolfe mystery where the difference between “infer” and “imply” was raised. At the time (and in the context of the story) I wasn’t sure I got it. I’m much older (wiser? :grin) now, and the differences appear to me quite clear.

    Anyhow, I want to talk here about the wider context — I tend to avoid interpersonal contexts where these words might apply — it’s too easy to drift into ad hominem interactions.

    Objective and impartial are hard to distinguish I think. For me impartial means trying to be balanced and present differing viewpoints in an even-handed way; whereas objective to me seems to be an attempt to present an issue against some backdrop of external “objective” criteria — balance be damned (:grin).

    I actually don’t think that it is possible for human beings to be “truly” objective or impartial. We all come to things with our differing educational backgrounds, and individual life experiences, and no matter how much we try these will always subtly distort things.

    Richard Posner, a justice on the federal appeals court for the 7th circuit (and perhaps one of the most influential judges not on the supreme court) wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he makes this very point in talking about our “politicized” supreme court. Finding impartial or objective judges in his view is a fools game (:grin).

    On to neutrality. I had the good fortune to live for 3 years in Switzerland — that bastion of neutrality. For them neutrality is not about being objective or impartial, but rather to quite forcefully have no opinion at all — they will not be drawn. They are also slow to join in popular changes adopted elsewhere. they are notorious non joiners.

    In 1950 they were invited to join the UN, in a national plebiscite it was roundly defeated (in a repeat referendum in 2002 they narrowly agreed to join). Two years later in 2004 the Swiss legislature, and the federal executive voted to join the EU. A quirk of the Swiss constitution allows any citizen to call such actions into question if they can get 100,000 petitioners to agree with them – so in 2006 the Swiss voted NOT to join the EU (similar plebiscites can be called at the cantonal level as well with only a few thousand signatures).

    Women didn’t get the right to vote in federal elections until 1971, and in cantonal elections much later (the last canton, Appenzell, only gave women the franchise in the late 90’s)

    The Swiss stayed out of both world wars even though because of their geographic position they were under tremendous pressure to join one side or the other. In such cases Switzerland is like a hedgehog: every male (these days and females) are in the army from the age of 16 to 60 (there are various exceptions), and everyone keeps their rifle at home. The alps are hollowed out such that the entire population (6-8 million) can be housed underground.

    Neutrality the Swiss way is decidedly not an easy stance.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Well, imply and infer aren’t actually similar…they are opposites.🙂 “Imply” is the sender…”infer” is the receiver. I learned it this way: “I imply, you infer”.

      To imply is to suggest that something unstated is true. To infer, is to make a conclusion about something unstated based presented information.

      If I say, “Dogs are nice…you have cats,” you might infer that I’m saying cats aren’t nice. That might not be my implication at all…it might just be your inference based on what I said.🙂

      I’ve been on three juries (I was an alternate on of those) in about the past ten years. They basically say, “You aren’t expected to be without bias…you are expected to act without bias.”

      That could be another similar word to your list…”unbiased”.

      In terms of my connotations for your list:

      * Objective is based on facts…it certainly might favor one side. Saying that a chimp is stronger than a chipmunk is objective…even saying that the chimp is “better” than the chipmunk in a feat of strength is still objective
      * Impartial is not like “partial”…you haven’t taken a side. You could still say the chimp is better…but you don’t care that it’s better😉
      * Neutral doesn’t favor either side in a two-sided issue. You are not going to say the chimp is better…but you could still say stronger

      I appreciate the insight into Switzerland!

      • Edward Boyhan Says:

        We have different views on things like facts, and adjectives like “stronger”. Different people can have very different views about “facts” — even science at its very basic levels is subject to many conflicting interpretations.

        I agree with you about infer vs imply, but in the context of a murder mystery where the PI and the police are trying to make sense of clues, they easily get confused, and in that context the differences were not that clear cut..

        As judge Posner said in his op-ed it is impossible to “act” in an unbiased fashion whether we (or others) find us to be biased or unbiased doesn’t matter, our life experiences, etc. make it impossible to act in a truly unbiased manner — much that is perceived as bias by one, may be totally unconscious on the part of the actor, and no amount of training will ever enable one to escape all the hidden biases that we carry around.

        It is this inability to act in an unbiased fashion (no matter how much we may wish to do so), that things like eye witness testimony have come into such disrepute lately. People honestly see different things. Even scientific “facts” are often subject to interpretation — as so much “objective” measurements are based on probabilities.

        As you can see, I mostly agree with judge Posner. The best we can do is to forcefully elucidate our positions/beliefs, and hope that others with different views will do the same. That is the basis of Anglo Saxon jurisprudence which involves an argumentative give & take between sides as contrasted with the Napoleonic processes used in most of Europe.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Edward!

        Well, yes…one can’t actually act without any bias, and shouldn’t. Normal people have a bias that voting in a jury the way they think is the right thing to do is, well, right…they wouldn’t capriciously vote the other way, because that would be “wrong”. That’s an expected bias.

        Much bias is, as you note, subconscious. What the expectation is, as I understand it, is that you will recognize your conscious biases and “set them aside” as you decide.

        I like that you put “facts” in quotations after “scientific”. In science, there are no facts…that’s one of the best things about it.🙂 There are operating theories, which can hypothetically be tested and overturned at any time by data. I find that people who are emotionally opposed to reports of, say, UFOs or Bigfoot, don’t always understand that. I have referred to them as “true disbelievers”…they can be acting on faith as much as Eric Hoffer’s “true believers”.

        We could use artificial intelligence to decide cases, but I find that very unlikely, at least for a long time. We, at least in lay conversation, talk about “reasonable doubt”…doubt is not a characteristic of AI, so we’d have to redefine that as well. “Preponderance of evidence” would be a possible standard, but defining evidence weight would be complex.

      • eboyhan Says:

        I remember reading a Sci-Fi story where the people did exactly that: they turned all police functions over to AI-infested robots & the judicial process to AI’s. It lasted about a month upon which the people viciously attacked the robots & disabled all the AI’s. It turns out the “people” weren’t all that enamored of “unbiased” jurisprudence (:grin).

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Edward!

        I recently read one sort of like that…The Arbiter by John Russell Fearn. I suspect that might be the one you read. It originally appeared in Startling Stories for May, 1947.

      • Edward Boyhan Says:

        Let me add a little more to imply vs infer that perhaps can highlight the subtlety. I’m the PI, and I’m having an argument with the police commissioner. In the heat of the moment I might say “you are implying [something]”; or I might say “You are inferring [something]”. Both are stating something about the state of things inside the mind of the police commisioner, but the states are different, but not necessarily wildly so.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Edward!

        The difference doesn’t seem so subtle to me…it’s like who is the pitcher and who is the catcher in a baseball game. There are similarities because they are both playing baseball, even with the same baseball and in the same “conversation” (pitch), but it’s clear to me which is which.

        Implication is what the speaker (pitcher) does. Inference is what the listener (catcher) does.

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