The Uses of Impartiality

Impartiality takes three forms. The first is an accidental impartiality that occurs when it just so happens that I am uninvolved in the contest, dispute or conflict. I call this form accidental because it does not require any special gift of disinterested judgment on my part. If circumstances had been otherwise and I had been involved, I would likely be cheering, aiding and abetting one side. It must be added that accidental impartiality necessarily entails profound ignorance of the contest, dispute or conflict, and thus pronouncements from the position of accidental impartiality are usually beside the point and irrelevant.

I am, it so happens, accidentally impartial when it comes to contests between figure skaters, disputes between physicists, and conflicts between militant factions in the African jungle. I do not care who wins because I do not understand the competition, the debate, or the conflict. It would not trouble me to see either side win, or both, or neither.  And not only do I not, as we Texans say, have a dog in the fight—I also know nothing whatsoever about dog fights.

This is why accidental impartiality does not qualify a man to act as an “impartial judge,” and why he should in fact hold his tongue and keep his irrelevant opinions to himself. If I were called upon to act as the impartial judge of a figure skating contest, for instance, my profound ignorance of figure skating would require me to award the trophy on the basis of my irrelevant opinion of the skaters’ costume or choice of musical accompaniment. And the same goes if I were called upon to act as the impartial judge in a dispute between physicists or a conflict between militant African factions.

* * * * *

Counterfeit impartiality is the second form, and this obviously occurs when a mask of cool detachment conceals a face that is creased with anxiety and aglow with concern. This is naturally the form of impartiality that is most often advanced as a qualification by men and women who are panting to be selected as an “impartial judge,” and an ability to convincingly counterfeit impartiality is, in truth, a prime qualification for those who wish to join a conspiracy of cronies. There are few skills that serve men and women better than than the ability to appear judicious while handing their friend the biscuit, and kicking their foe out the door.  I advise all ambitious young people to practice it assiduously, before a full-length mirror.

If young people are looking to model themselves on the great masters of counterfeit impartiality, I advise them to study just about anyone who is promoted (or self-promoted) as an expert. I hasten to add that I am not implying that there are no genuine experts, or that that impartial expertise is on all fours with accidental impartiality, but only that the impartiality of many experts is entirely counterfeit. To revert to that vivid Texas colloquialism, you cannot become an expert and not grow partial to one dog. In fact, it is almost impossible to become an expert without placing a substantial wager on the outcome of the dogfight.

Expertise means experience, and experience means involvement. If I have sufficient expertise to understand what a figure skater does in a quadruple jump, I will certainly be sufficiently involved in figure skating to have taken on all sorts of biases and partialities.   I will have friends and be part of a faction, and I will have to demonstrate some loyalty if I wish to keep those friends and remain part of that faction. The same is true of the physicists who sit in judgment of disputes between physicists, and of critics who lead public opinion to root for one of the armed factions in a conflict in some faraway African jungle.

* * * * *

This leaves us with what I call anguished impartiality, by which I mean an impartiality that causes acute mental suffering in a genuine expert because it requires him to briefly suspend his loyalties and betray his friends. He is not an ignoramus who is accidentally impartial because he can see no difference between the two sides. He has a dog in the fight, and a very large wager riding on that dog. He also has cronies to whom he is indebted for favors, and a fit of impartiality will very possibly oblige him to welsh on this debt.

He knows what cronies do to welshers, and that is why he feels anguish.

The anguish of true impartiality is well known to practitioners of counterfeit impartiality, and they they are therefore capable of writhing like Hamlet when they cannot maintain the pretense of detachment. So you must not take an appearance of mental anguish as proof that you are in the presence of an impartial judge.

But you should take the presence of mental anguish in yourself as pretty strong evidence that you are in fact acting as an impartial judge.  You feel that mental anguish because you are welshing on the debts you owe to your cronies, and risking the large wager you have placed on your dog.

* * * * *

What this comes down to is that impartiality is very hard.  It may be too hard for many people, and is certainly too hard for anyone to exercise at all times. Indeed, when we consider that true impartiality must be either stupid or disloyal, a man who claims to be impartial at all times must be either a fool, a fink or a fraud.

Thus we should aspire to an inconsistent impartiality in the matters that interest us most. We should hold our tongues on questions we do not understand; and we should, more often than not, declare our loyalties and do our duty to our friends when this is not the case.

But above all else, we should never forget that no one enjoys being an impartial judge, unless, of course, they are just pretending to be impartial.  In that case they enjoy it more than you can possibly imagine.

9 thoughts on “The Uses of Impartiality

  1. Pingback: The Uses of Impartiality | Reaction Times

  2. You’ve just described my experience — long ago before newspapers collapsed — of doing my best to be an objective journalist. In the small town where I worked there were numerous obnoxious politicians, all of whom happened to be good old boys trying to be conservatives. The bureaucratic politicians, all of whom were polite Democrats, simple could not grasp what was going on when I would report accurately incidents in which the obnoxious ones were truly treated unfairly, actually brought up a stone cold fact, etc. etc. They would say things like “but you seem like such a nice young woman!”

    But I wasn’t and I’m not. I try to be impartial instead.

    What power there would be in it if today’s media understood the meaning of what you’ve written. How horrible Trump would appear if only they’d become willing to do the suffering necessary to write about him impartially. As it is, their reporting has all the class and substance of a professional wrestling match.

    You’ve been in my prayers since I read you’ve joined one of my clubs. I was tormented in elementary school for being too smart, in high school by a gang of boys upset by my column in the school paper. I was shunned by the other women at the law firm I worked at in the early 2000s because I “got caught” at an antiwar protest, and then my bloodthirsty boss fired me for it. Today I work at a lefty nonprofit and I have to simply keep my mouth shut now that I’ve learned how well, evil, they are. I don’t have the social protections of reporter or professor. I’m a clerical worker. I don’t have the same rights you used to have, but I wish you still did. I owe a lot to conservative professors and teachers and I’ve loved more than one. You will remain in my prayers.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. I’m afraid I don’t see the media as particularly fawning when it comes to the current President, but we are probably thinking of different media. I think impartiality is important in some circumstances, but that it is not nearly so virtuous as many people seem to imagine. Let’s say a man tells a rude joke about my wife. Should I be impartial and decide to laugh simply on the standards of stand-up comedy? Or should I punch him in the eye? I think most people would agree that my first loyalty is to my wife, even if the joke is very good by the standards of stand-up comedy. Now let’s say a man correctly accuses my wife of a lie. Should I be loyal to the standards of truth and denounce my wife? Here things get hard and we run into what is called “being torn by divided loyalties.” I think this is inescapable in human experience, and that everyone is constantly confronted with the dilemma of being a fink to his friend or a fink to some abstract principle like truth and justice. It is not obvious to me that we should always choose to fink on our friends.

      • I think I’m the one who was unclear. It’s a reporter’s duty to be impartial or objective no matter what his or her own feelings are, no matter where his or her sympathies lie. That’s difficult but that’s the JOB. It seems to me that the mainstream media hate Trump so much (or have been paid off or whatever their problem is) that they can’t even honestly report on his flaws because they’re entirely too busy spinning his mere positions as absolute evil. The most of them obviously hate him and therefore they’re not doing the hard work of being impartial.

        I’ve often thought long and hard about this business of “finking on our friends.” I have no answers but I sure do admire the way my mother supported integration but always made it plain that she loved and would stand by her segregationist daddy. She walked that line in a truly admirable way. Again, even a child could tell what “emotional labor” that was for her, but as a woman I can see that that’s what an actual woman (as in a true adult) does – she doesn’t go around whining about her emotional labor of holding a family together as best as can be done.

      • I see. That makes more sense now. That is an interesting story about your mother. I expect we all walk that line in one way or another; and that we also, very likely, make our children walk that line too. We are commanded to hate evil and love one another, and to do both at the same time involves a little tension. I have a particular loathing for people who are moral at the expense of their ancestors, people who try to show they are holy by desecrating the graves of their forefathers. Some of our descendants will no doubt tear down out statues because we drove automobiles, or ate meat, or in fact did something that no one has yet thought to denounce as wicked.

  3. Impartiality is so hard to genuinely achieve and so easy to fake it makes me appreciate the use of adversarial systems where each side is supposed to have an advocate. With regard to expertise…

    In cases where a trade-off of genuine goods is inevitable, everyone should prefer that each good in play have its advocating experts, none of which are to be regarded as evil, and all of which are to be appreciated as playing a necessary role in public discourse. The lockdown controversy would have been a good time for this, since no one denies that both the virus danger and the economic and social cost of the response are both real. Unfortunately, the media did its usual thing of moralizing everything and declaring only one opinion morally acceptable, which poisoned any possible debate. Of course, now that we’ve switched into hypermoralistic “kneel, white man” mode, I actually miss the days of “you don’t care about old people” vs. “you’re an aspiring tyrant”.

    In cases where there is a genuine expert consensus, the way for it to be properly recognized and received would be for each political group to hear it from experts who are genuinely on their side, whom they can trust share the same commitments. Here the Left’s stranglehold on academia and professional societies is a serious problem. Probably few of the things these experts say are tainted by their liberal bias, but how is a non-expert conservative or moderate to know which? We know for certain that the Left weaponizes expertise. Everything they want is “settled science”. They whine that conservatives don’t trust them, but why should they be considered trustworthy when their biases are in play? The easiest way to know would be to see where other experts with contrary biases agree with them. Even then, a cross-partisan consensus is not guaranteed to be true, but it is certainly more trustworthy.

    • You are probably right that the politics of academic scientists hurts their credibility more than it hurts their science. Having lived with the tribe for most of my life, my sense is that most physical scientists are not interested in politics. They are interested in playing with their microscopes, and adopt whatever politics happens to be floating in their environment. Nowadays that politics is NPR progressivism. They get their furniture from Ikea, their clothing from Land’s End, their worldview from NPR, and then are set to get back to their microscopes.

  4. Loved this post, sir. You have a way of getting to the finer points of a matter that, as much as I dislike having to admit it, usually escape me entirely when they otherwise present but a faint blip on my radar.
    I was once called upon (ordered, in point of fact) to give “expert testimony” in a lawsuit involving a friend (the defendant), and his accuser (the plaintiff). The dilemma I faced was of having been named the “expert witness” for the plaintiff. I’ll spare you and your readers the great majority of the gory details, but suffice to say that I lost a lot of sleep over this in the weeks leading up to the hearing, and almost (*almost*) forced the county sheriff to drag me into the courtroom ‘kicking and screaming’ as it were (I knew the county sheriff, and he talked me out of my plan). I’m getting too old and cantankerous, fifteen years after the fact, to worry much anymore about appearances given off by being dragged into a court bound and shackled by law enforcement or whatever. Given the very same set of circumstances, that would be the route I’d choose at this point, for better or worse.

    • Glad you liked it. I once had to testify in court against a student whom I knew to be intermittently crazy, but whom I liked and talked to in his lucid intervals. He was accused of throwing a cinderblock through the windshield of a car, and I had to testify that I was not surprised to hear he was accused of having done such a thing. It wasn’t like ratting on a close friend, but it still felt like betrayal Funnily enough, I didn’t fear he would pitch a cinderblock through my windshield in revenge.


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