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PRINCIPLED NEUTRALITY, (REALLY?) Pt. 3, by Jabali Stewart




My hope was that somewhere in Austin’s remaining text there would be some clarity provided as to how silence in times of deep moral questioning serves students for the betterment of their development. Especially because in the words of Desmond Tutu,  “[i]f you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." Instead I remained disappointed because Austin used thoughts like, “[i]n the end, it's not my voice that really matters, it's theirs”, as his rationale for using principled neutrality.


I personally believe that school leaders who use statements like this do not understand well the office they hold. Students know that disposing of, or downplaying leadership voice in the performance of centering the voice of students is a lie. They see through the facade. This is all made quite clear when it comes to matters of discipline in which student voice, independence of thought, space of inquiry, views, and agency are all subject to top down hierarchical control. Teachers and other staff members also know this reality very well. There is an implied ‘either/or’ binary in the statement, which says it is either one voice or another; when the reality is that every voice matters, including that of leadership. This style of leadership is carefully masking the hoarding of power. 


Austin correctly emphasizes the importance of creating spaces for intellectual adventurousness and cultivating norms of civility. It is through open dialogue, critical thinking, and respectful debate that true growth and understanding can emerge, both for educators and students alike. Austin’s example of remaining silent in the face of complex issues, however, raises questions about the sincerity of his commitment to open inquiry and respectful dialogue. Coding his silence as principles neutrality undermines the very foundation of open dialogue he claims to value. While the idea of principled neutrality may appear appealing on the surface, it is essential to critically examine its implications. As I arrived at this conclusion about principled neutrality I asked myself again, ‘what would chatgpt think about that?’ The results did not disappoint. 


My prompt was: “It has been said that "While the idea of principled neutrality may appear appealing on the surface, it is essential to critically examine its implications." why is this the case?” 


Dear ChatGPT offered the following:


“There are a few reasons why the idea of principled neutrality, while seemingly attractive, deserves critical examination:


  • False Dichotomy: Neutrality often creates a false choice between taking a side or not engaging at all. However, effective leadership often involves navigating complex issues and promoting discussion while offering guidance.

  • Power Dynamics Remain: Leaders always have some level of power, even if they claim neutrality. Staying silent can be seen as tacit approval of the status quo, even if that's not the leader's intention.

  • Difficult Issues Need Guidance: Some complex issues have clear moral dimensions. Remaining neutral on issues like discrimination or hate speech can be seen as condoning them.

  • Silencing Important Voices: Complete neutrality can stifle important voices. If a leader never speaks up on certain topics, it might discourage students from doing so as well.

  • Limited Scope: Neutrality might be appropriate in specific situations, like mediating a conflict. However, it can't be a blanket policy for all situations.


In essence, the appeal of principled neutrality lies in its desire to avoid conflict and promote an open forum. However, critical examination reveals its limitations in fostering true dialogue, addressing tough issues, and providing effective leadership.”


I agree with this analysis. Looking through the response one word stands out to me…’guidance’. It is crucial for educators to recognize their role in shaping the minds of the next generation and to actively engage in discussions that promote justice, empathy, and inclusivity. It is also incredibly important for school leaders to recognize their role in the same regard, paying heed to the old adage ‘as the head goes so goes the body’. An effective school leader leads by example instead of employing a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach, or hiding behind  hollow ideologies like ‘principled neutrality’.

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