“neutral” civil servants in the BBC comedy “Yes, Minister”

When professionals try to distance ourselves from politics by claiming to be neutral, we end up serving the powers that be.

We’re taught that a good professional must stay out of politics and take a neutral stance in their work. Journalists, scientists, civil servants, facilitators, designers, bankers, teachers, HR officers… the list goes on. All of these professionals are supposed to bring impartiality to their work, to keep their political views to themselves and avoid so-called “bias.” Many professions are subject to ethical codes which require neutrality, some of which are enshrined in law.

Although professionals have noble intentions for maintaining this stance, the whole idea of professional neutrality is a myth that obscures the workings of power. Whether we’re aware of it or not, in the act of claiming to be neutral we become complicit in the use of power. In other words, our attempt to distance ourselves from politics is itself a political act—one that serves the status quo.

On what basis do professionals claim that our perspective is neutral? For some the answer is the scientific method, the attempt to free humanity from irrational beliefs and seek objective truth through unbiased experimentation. For others it’s fairness, the notion that treating each person exactly the same, without fear or favour, will best serve the interests of all. Or maybe it’s that our status as experts—informed by education and experience—allows us to rise above political arguments to determine what serves the greater good.

These claims to neutrality obscure the underlying systems of power that determine who is allowed to call themselves neutral and whose perspectives are marginalised. As professionals, society grants us privileges. We have the power to decide which beliefs are irrational and which are objectivity valid. We have the privilege to assume that society is a level playing field where everyone has access to the same opportunities. We believe we deserve the position of expert and the social status that comes with it.

A glance at today’s headlines shows that these privileges aren’t shared by everyone. For example, a recent study shows that British society doesn’t seem like a level playing field for many non-white people who experience systemic racism. Another estimates that four million British workers live in poverty, unable to support their families despite working long hours.

As professionals it’s difficult to see our privilege, for good reason. The system is set up in such a way that it’s almost impossible to attain professional status without suppressing our political awareness. We’re forced to participate in the delusion of our own neutrality as a condition of entry to the profession.

So when we attempt to apply a neutral stance by, for example, making sure everyone in a meeting has an equal chance to speak—from the CEO to the junior administrator—our privilege prevents us from seeing difference, the unequal playing field that the headlines demonstrate. While junior staff might appreciate being given the space to speak, they know that their perspectives carry less weight than the CEO’s. At best their views will be taken into account, at worst they might face consequences for sharing perspectives that threaten the comfort of those in power.

In this way, our claims to neutrality end up serving the powers that be, even while we pat ourselves on the back for being so open-minded and progressive. This use of power is pernicious because it combines a reiteration of oppressive norms with a feel-good story of “openness” or “collaboration”, a story told for the benefit of those in power and at the expense of the marginalised. If you’ve ever heard the term “compulsory fun” used at work–or watched an episode of The Office—you’ll know what I’m talking about.

But cracks are appearing in the system of professional power. In what’s been called the post-truth era, the tacit agreement between experts and the institutions they serve is breaking down. Some professionals are beginning to realise that neutrality is a myth which upholds a deeply unequal status quo.

Are we ready to take responsibility for the political implications of our work, even as we risk being labelled “unprofessional” in the process? Today we face a choice between business as usual—which means continuing to serve the powers that be—and courage. Are we ready to stand up, to discard the illusion of neutrality and to use our power to serve the transformation of society?