What I’ve Learned from Being Neutral

Side view of the author gazing to her left on a beach with mountains and houses in the background
Photo by Emilios.

The idea for today’s post came from Sarah F. Thanks for the suggestion, Sarah!

Unlike most of my fellow citizens, I had to sit out the recent election cycle. I voted, but I did not display a yard sign, put a bumper sticker on my car, contribute to a campaign, or like any candidate’s Facebook page. As a federal judicial employee, I’m prohibited from engaging in any political activity at any level. I’m not permitted to campaign on anyone’s behalf, nor am I allowed to publicly endorse any candidate. I cannot like a partisan post on social media, or attend rallies, and in most cases, I can’t participate in issue advocacy. At least for as long as I serve in my current role, you will not see any politically focused posts on this website.

These restrictions exist because the judiciary, to maintain the trust and respect of the public, must present itself as neutral and unbiased. A key component of our Constitution is the separation of powers. Federal judges are granted lifetime appointments so that they may be free from political influence in presiding over cases and deciding important legal issues. Litigants and criminal defendants deserve to have their cases decided on the evidence and law rather than on pre-existing notions, biases, and prejudices.

The limitation of my personal freedom of speech is a small price to pay in exchange for having a hands-on role in the administration of justice. While having to refrain from political engagement can at times be frustrating, it also comes with some collateral benefits, particularly related to social media. When I know I cannot respond to political posts, I find myself more likely to read them with the goal of understanding the poster’s point of view as opposed to formulating a persuasive reply. I can more calmly and reflectively observe the ways people on each side of the aisle are thinking and talking about an issue. People are unlikely to unfriend me based on my political views, which has helped me to avoid falling into the echo chambers in which so many people seem to be living these days. I don’t get pulled into online debates that are unlikely to change any minds on the issues and are very likely to raise the blood pressures of everyone involved.

Freedom of speech is a crucial right in our democracy, and I would not encourage my fellow citizens to keep their strongly held views to themselves for the mere purpose of keeping the peace. I do, however, think that there is something to be gained from using social media in a more measured way. We don’t need to engage in ad hominem attacks and demonize our opponents. Complex, multifaceted debates need not be reduced to tweets and memes. We need not unfriend or unfollow those with whom we disagree. We can engage each other by asking questions rather than posting retorts, seeking to understand one another instead of striving to get the most likes and have the last word. We can investigate the source and really contemplate the message before sharing or retweeting someone else’s post. To borrow from one of the more positive quotes in circulation, we can promote what we love instead of bashing what we hate.

One thing I am allowed to do is to express my views in private conversations with friends, family, and acquaintances (unless those views relate to pending cases or controversial legal issues likely to come before my court; on those things, I cannot opine). Over the past year or so, I’ve had some enriching and eye-opening in-person discussions. These talks have been much more enjoyable and productive than anything in which I might have participated on social media. As commentators lament how polarized our society is today, I suggest that we all make an effort to engage with each other face-to-face, to discuss the difficult issues, to ask questions, to seek to understand one another’s arguments rather than simply responding to them. I believe that the more we do this, the less divided we will become.

“I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.”

Maya Angelou, from The Human Family

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