One of the best things about the D&D roleplaying system is it provides you with a structure you can interpret or build on. The alignments, ranging from good to evil and from lawful to chaotic, are one such simple system, which nevertheless can spawn infinitely complicated philosophical disputes. Especially when it comes to True Neutral—neither good nor evil, neither lawful nor chaotic. Is this state ever achieved in real life and how does it look like? In my character sheet, I claimed I’m trying to be True Neutral. Time to elaborate on what this means to me.
Let’s begin with words. You may have noticed that people have different definitions for the same word, and sometimes the dictionary definition seems to be irrelevant. Furthermore, we people often have an idea whether a word signifies something positive or something negative. In our current infamously polarised and polarising times, once a word gets branded with a positive or a negative connotation, it becomes almost impossible to use it in a different way.
Picture this earth-shattering, totally novel idea: I think words are intrinsically neutral. What’s more, I think words describing human traits or abstract concepts often have a neutral, a positive and a negative form. Thus, many misunderstandings and aches stem from either refusing to see the other side of the same coin, or ignoring the fact certain traits tend to cluster together, leading to unrealistic expectations.
For example, democracy is not inherently good or bad. We can easily picture both a utopia in which consensus prevails and leads to everyone’s well-being, or an anti-utopia in which fools outnumbering the sages leads to catastrophic results. Same goes for monarchy or other forms of government. History is ripe with examples for any point you’re trying to make.
Personality traits are another field where this idea can be applied. Sloth, for example, typically evokes negative associations. While I’d argue it’s actually a neutral term, meaning “a disinclination to work or exert yourself”. The “positive” sloth may be called ingenuity, as many of the inventions driving progress were created by clever people who didn’t want to work too much. The “negative” sloth is laziness and apathy, which can indeed lead to neglect and suffering. So two sides here—positive and negative, creative and destructive. Something akin to Chinese dualism maybe, which I don’t claim to understand, but mention just to reiterate how trivial indeed it all sounds, how I am for sure reinventing the wheel here, but still need to put it into words, my way.
Now I jump to the less philosophical and more practical side of the matter, namely troubles people have with each other. Often, we may be admiring someone for a trait, seeing its positive side, but failing to see its unavoidable negative side. A classic example might be someone married to a workaholic, who is somehow surprised by the fact that relationships and family will always play second fiddle to the workaholic’s career. Another one could be the friend or partner deemed boring for following a routine, while missing the fact that their preference for structure is the same trait that makes them reliable and trustworthy. People seem to seek walking contradictions they will never find, or tend to focus on a trait perceived as negative, refusing to dig deeper and acknowledge it may have a silver lining. In Bulgarian, we have quite the fitting saying for such a situation—both the wolf is satiated and the lamb is whole, similar to the English “you can’t have your cake and eat it”. It’s impossible, and that sucks.
The other concept I mentioned is clustering of traits, by which I mean the tendency that, on average, a person with certain traits is more likely to behave in a certain way or possess some other traits, regardless of the positive/negative sign. For instance, to drive a stereotype to an extreme, an introverted programmer is less likely to be a keen, skilled dancer. It would be unfair to expect them to be that, and if we go about torturing people with our unrealistic expectations, we’re bound to get disappointed.
This is especially dangerous in combination with the previous point. So if we perceive someone as successful in their career and that attracts us to them, while we fail to see how a successful career on the flip side means less time devoted to other pursuits, and we fail to recognise other traits that usually cluster with being driven and hard-working (like being controlling, or distant, or aggressive), what chance do we have of achieving any happiness or understanding?
None of this serves as an excuse for ill treatment of others, or means we shouldn’t strive to become better, to polish our neutral traits so that the positive side shows more often than the negative. I use it as a tool to view the world and its interconnections more clearly, always searching for the neutral version of a word, and extrapolating how it might be used for good or evil.
Am I replacing a two-colour view with the one-colour view of gray, limiting myself even more? I don’t think so, for I don’t deny concepts the possible quality of goodness or badness. I try to see both and neither at the same time, constructing the fullest possible picture, which can be damn confusing and leave you as dumb as a newborn, and certainly not as fun as dual-wielding axes while riding a dragon bare-chested.
But celebrating the neutrality of words and the world is both boring and comforting, true to the duality of concepts I tried my best to describe. And it is incredibly liberating, as the whole world becomes your palette. Nothing is forbidden, nothing is allowed, everything is an instrument in your toolbox, an idea you can add or remove from your thought cabinet at any time. That, to me, is the meaning of True Neutral.
P.S. Does this mean True Neutral excludes personality and identity? Well, Paul Graham has an interesting essay on the merits of keeping your identity small. Although I agree with him regarding productive discussions, for me it always has been important to have a core principle, some roots that keep you grounded. Therefore, I need to offer this addendum explicitly: keep your identity small, but non-zero.