All this happened 20 years ago but I still regret my role in it. I worked with Maria and Frances. Maria was charming but also a bully – I guess a she was a narcissist. Everyone knew I was closer to Frances. Frances was lovely but not perfect (as none of us are). Relations between them had been deteriorating over a long time but it had reached the point where senior management got involved as they clearly couldn’t work together. I was summoned to talk to Kate who had mentored Maria for years but gave the impression of professional neutrality. I had long seen myself as being a mediator (this self-perception had little solid basis) and maybe felt a little flattered to be involved in sorting all this out. I knew Maria was primarily to blame for almost everything but somehow felt I had to present a ‘balanced’ analysis of what had been happening. I outlined all that Maria had done then ‘balanced’ all this with a similar number of failings on Frances’ side. Ultimately, Maria continued to climb the work hierarchy whereas Frances was moved sideways. Maybe whatever I said had little impact on any of the subsequent inequities but I always regret that brief meeting where I tried to be ‘balanced’.
The idea of balancing two equal sides is embedded in our culture and language. Pupils are taught to write essays giving a paragraph on each ‘side’ of a debate and use phrases such as ‘on the one hand … on the other hand…’ as if only having two hands means we cannot engage with complexity.
There are often many facets to any story and some are clearly closer to reality than others. It is dangerous as well as disingenuous to have a scientist and an anti-vaxxer presented as equal participants in a ‘balanced’ debate on the public health benefits of vaccinations. The scientist has an evidence-based justification for their pro-vaccine stance and should be taken seriously. (There are many other important and nuanced debates to be had about vaccinations such as whether Intellectual Property laws should be suspended and whether corporations should profit so much from publicly funded research.)
Being fair does not mean pretending two sides to a debate are equal or that there are only two sides. The change I would like in the world is for people to take the following quote seriously:
“If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality” Desmond Tutu
[Image: Stuart Bassil, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elephant.jpg%5D