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Neutrality Backlash

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"He who is neither one thing nor the other has no friends."

This trope is what happens when someone refuses to choose a side in a conflict, and it ends up biting them in the ass. Perhaps they spend the war sitting on their hands, or maybe they try to play up to both sides. Regardless, at some point one side or the other will come calling for revenge, if Laser-Guided Karma doesn't catch them first.

Contrast With Us or Against Us, where one side declares everyone not on their side an enemy, and Neutral No Longer, where the neutral party is forced to pick a side during the war, either because they got conquered by that side during the conflict, or because one side's atrocities drove them into the other side's camp.

Compare with Pacifism Backfire, Mediation Backfire, No Points for Neutrality (which is about gameplay effects of alignment), and Alien Non-Interference Clause. Can overlap with the Golden Mean Fallacy, Stupid Neutral, and Bystander Syndrome. If the neutral party is attacked by the bad side because it is vulnerable without a potential ally, then this is a case of Head-in-the-Sand Management. If the neutral party is attacked as retaliation for not aiding the good side, then it is a case of Accomplice by Inaction.

However, this trope can be Subverted at times; in some situations, staying Neutral and out of the way can often be the safest (and wisest) choice for one to survive. It can even at times (such as when the conflict is Evil Versus Evil) be more ethical to choose neutrality than to pick a side.

Note: Aversions of this trope go under God and Satan Are Both Jerks, Screw This, I'm Outta Here, Take a Third Option, or some combination thereof. Or in extreme cases, Omnicidal Neutral.


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     Anime and Manga 
  • Cells at Work!: The opportunistic bacteria are largely a bunch of fair-weather friends who side with whoever has the upper hand and will switch in a moment's notice. Because of this, they don't get much respect in return; the harmful bacteria consider them a bunch of suck-ups who can't be relied on, while the white blood cells would rather just kill them off even if they're friendly - they're still germs, after all.
  • Gundam:
    • In Mobile Suit Gundam, we have Side 6, a group of colonies who not only gain independence from the Earth Federation, it declared neutrality from the One Year War. Despite this, Zeon wasn't too keen on letting it stay up if they ever backed the Federation, leading to a few attacks in Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket when the Gundam Alex is moved into a colony there. Eventually, Side 6 was reclaimed by the Federation after the war.
    • Anaheim Electronics, despite being the Federation's primary defense contractor after the One Year War, rose to prominence by the Federation strongarming the defeated Zeon's own defense contractors into being subsidized by Anaheim. Because of this, the company's ranks included enough people sympathetic to Zeon that they saw no problems with selling high-tech arms to both sides in subsequent conflicts. Although initially not suffering any consequences from doing so, Anaheim's backers in the Vist Foundation were eventually unmasked as blackmailing the Federation government to be left alone; once the truth came out, it eventually cost Anaheim their monopoly in the mobile suit development and manufacturing industry due to the Federation, no longer considering Anaheim reliable, forming the Strategic Naval Research Institute as their own in-house competitor.
    • Mobile Suit Gundam SEED has this happen to the Orb Union. Being only one of three areas on Earth that isn't backing either the Earth Alliance or ZAFT (the others being the Kingdom of Scandinavia and the Equatorial Union) and one of the few areas that has the resources and manpower to theoretically protect said resources, it becomes the target of invasion once Blue Cosmos takes over the Earth Alliance. In Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny, the Orb leaders are so terrified of a repeat performance that they strongarm Cagalli into siding with the Earth Alliance and yet they're still invaded late into the series, this time by ZAFT.
  • In Kino's Journey, one particular story stands out; two kingdoms were stuck in a Forever War, until they realized that they simply liked murdering innocent people. Now they spend time together sacking all the neutral villages that stayed neutral in the conflict for sport.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • A Man for All Seasons: In the end, Thomas More's tragedy revolves around this. He does not like the fact Henry the Eighth is creating his own schismatic Church, and therefore can’t bring himself to participate, but he does not wish to make himself an enemy of the king by raising too much of a stink. Therefore he resigns his office (without saying explicitly that it's in protest), keeps his opinion to himself, and tries to stay out of the way… but those who stand on Henry's side (for one reason or another) decide he is an obstacle to Henry's policy all the same and give him a Kangaroo Court and behead him.
  • Dogma: Azrael was a Muse who stayed neutral in the war between Heaven and Hell. Unlike the Phantom Stranger above, he ended up in Hell. He is less than happy about this.
  • Immortals: Zeus spends most of the movie trying to keep his fellow gods from getting involved in a mortal war, going so far as to kill Ares for interfering. As a result, Hyperion succeeds in unleashing the god-killing Titans, something Zeus or any other god could have easily prevented.
  • Scanners features a Mega-Corp trying to weaponize telepaths known as 'scanners' finding itself at war with a murderous scanner called Revok trying to build a scanner army of his own. There is also a faction of "good" scanners who have decided to remain neutral in this conflict. Problem is, Revok is a Super Supremacist who will murder any scanner who isn't willing to join him. Consequently, most of the "good" scanners are massacred by Revok's hitmen.

  • One of the many origins Europeans gave to fairies was that they were neutral angels who refused to pick a side when the Devil revolted against God and Heaven. Rather than be turned into demons and cast into Hell, they were left to their own devices on Earth without ever returning to Heaven since they were neither good nor evil. Whether this is actually a punishment from their point of view is debatable. Another variant has it that they were barred from Heaven, since they had also been disloyal, and from Hell, since the demons resented them for not having helped and blamed them for their defeat, leaving them with only Earth to stay in.
  • One of Aesop's fables tells the story of the war between birds and beasts. In the war the bat changed sides at whim, claiming his wings to make him a bird and his teeth to make him a beast. When the war was eventually ended in a truce, he was ostracized from both groups for his actions and forced to only emerge at night while others slept.
  • In one Jewish midrash, a young Abraham was brought before King Nimrod for refusing to worship idols, and cast into a furnace. His brother Haran, watching this, thought to himself that he would support Abraham if he survived but side with Nimrod if Abraham died. When Abraham miraculously emerged unscathed, Nimrod asks Haran where he stood in this debate. Haran said that he sided with Abraham, was thrown into the furnace, and did not get a miraculous survival.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Motherland: Fort Salem: Scylla's parents were "dodgers" — witches who refused to join the US Army despite being required to by law, resulting in her spending her childhood moving around to avoid detection. The Army caught up to arrest them, but Scylla's parents died in the scuffle.
  • Survivor: A common theme on contested votes is for one or a few players to become the swing vote. While on paper, players in this position have the luxury of choosing who they want to align with, in practice, neither side trusts the swing as much, especially the side that loses out. In two famous examples, Christy in The Amazon and Big Tom in All-Stars were both in a swing vote position but misplayed it so badly that the two sides came together to take them out instead.

  • Pretty much everything that goes wrong for Sam in Revolting People is because he doesn't want to upset the British, but he doesn't want to reject the rebels either. One episode opens with him having a nightmare that he's gone to Hell for refusing to pick a side.

  • In The Book of Revelation in The Bible, Jesus criticizes the church of Laeodocia for being "neither hot nor cold," wishing they would be one or the other. He says because they are "lukewarm", "I will spew you out of my mouth."

    Web Original 
  • In The Fire Never Dies, Governor Hiram Johnson of California tries to keep his state out of the fighting with a declaration of neutrality. What results instead is a bloody three-way struggle in the Central Valley. Between the devastation of the war and the requisition of crops by all three sides, widespread famine results, earning California the nickname of "The Golden Abattoir".

  • In The Order of the Stick, Therkla the half-orc falls in love with Elan while on an assignment from her master, Lord Kubota, to kill Hinjo (whom Elan is bodyguarding). She tries her best to protect Elan while still serving Kubota, and in the end tries to convince Elan and Kubota to simply let each other be. Unfortunately Kubota believes in With Us or Against Us and fatally poisons Therkla. Doubly painful in that Elan was never going to reciprocate Therkla's love.
  • In Outsider, the Loroi do not recognize other races' claims of neutrality in their war against the Umiak. When Jardin asks Tempo, a Loroi diplomatic officer, why this is the case, she explains that it's partly because the Umiak are an imperialistic species that absorb, if not outright enslave, other races, and partly because a number of races that proclaimed themselves to be neutral ended up betraying the Loroi.
    Tempo: You may choose to be friendly with the Loroi or with the Hierarchy, but it is no longer possible for any nation to be friendly with both. [...] Those who do not actively oppose the enemy will inevitably end as their servants, one way or the other.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Amphibia episode "The Core and the King", it's revealed that when Andrias's friend Leif betrayed him and stole the Calamity Box, their friend Barrel was torn on whether or not to stop Leif, with his indecisiveness allowing her to get away with the box. As punishment, Andrias ordered him to patrol the Northern regions.
  • Archer: In one episode, Mallory claims that she hates the Irish because of Ireland's neutrality during WWII, to the point that Archer grew up honestly believing that Ireland was on the Axis side. This is obviously just a flimsy excuse for her flagrant bigotry, however, as Mallory has no trouble associating with people from other neutral countries or even former Axis countries.
  • The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes: Mar-Vell tries playing mediator between the Kree and the Avengers. Unfortunately for him, his fellow Kree take this as a sign he's a spineless coward, and the Avengers take his trying to stop the Kree just blowing Earth up as an act of betrayal, throwing him in prison with the other Kree.
  • Played for Laughs in Futurama, as Zapp Brannigan is enormously suspicious of the Neutral Planet.
    Zapp: I hate these filthy Neutrals, Kif. With enemies you know where they stand but with Neutrals, who knows? It sickens me.
  • One episode of South Park has Stan being exiled from his hometown simply because he refused to vote for one of two potential new school mascots, based on the fact that they both suck. (It's a giant douche and a turd sandwich, for the record.) After learning An Aesop that you have to learn between bad choices, because in politics all choices are bad, he comes back, casts a vote, only for the school to keep its old mascot. So yeah, his vote didn't even matter, which is Played for Laughs.
  • Transformers:
    • In The Transformers, Paradron was a pacifist colony founded by Cybertronians who fled the Fourth Great War (whatever that was) and refused to do anything when Decepticons Cyclonus and Scourge located them. As a result the Decepticons conquered their planet. The Autobots then staged a rescue mission that resulted in them blowing up the planet to keep it out of Decepticon hands.
    • In Beast Wars, Tigatron resigns from the Maximals and the Beast Wars after he accidentally causes the death of a friend. Dinobot pretends to invoke this trope to get Tigatron back on their side, but it doesn't work. At that point Dinobot tries to invoke the trope for real, and would have killed Tigatron if Optimus hadn't turned up in time. In the end Tigatron rejoins when the Predacons make it clear that they'll only do more damage if they aren't opposed.
  • This is mainly the crux of the Mandalore storyline in Star Wars: The Clone Wars with Duchess Satine stubbornly clinging to her pacifist ideals and insisting Mandalore stay neutral during the Clone Wars. This results in her administration being toppled by the Death Watch and Maul’s syndicate and ultimately costs her her life.

    Real Life 
  • Under the laws of Solon in ancient Athens, citizens could be stripped of their citizenship if they refused to get involved when the city was in stasis (a form of civil war). Solon himself, according to some sources, was regarded as not siding with his fellow aristocrats enough to keep them happy, while at the same time not being populist enough for the demos. (He wrote that neither riches nor poverty made one morally right, which was apparently a thing that needed saying at the time.)
  • Niccolò Machiavelli explicitly advises against taking the neutral position: you'll only end up as a prize for the winner. Better to be winners together, or even losers together (you'll support each other) than someone's dessert.
  • Neutrality in any conflict can also risk incurring the hostility of both sides rather than neither, leading to the expression "those who stand in the middle of the road get hit by traffic going both ways".
  • The Neutral Nation was a group of Native North American tribes of the Iroquoian branch of the Hokan-Siouan linguistic stock that occupied territory along the northern shore of Lake Erie. The French gave the Neutral Nation its name because of its neutrality in the Iroquois-Huron wars. They were able to remain neutral because they controlled flint grounds useful for making spears and arrowheads. Once gunpowder was introduced into the conflict, and once the Neutral Nation absorbed the remnants of the Hurons, the Iroquois practically destroyed them. Possibly doesn't count because of the influx of Hurons, although the Neutral Nation would certainly have been better off allying with the Iroquois early on.
    • Speaking of the Iroquois, the Iroquois Confederation's neutrality during the American Revolution is largely what doomed them. To be fair, they were pretty spent after being very much involved in many of the preceding wars, and were understandably a bit confused about the people they had previously known only as the British suddenly fighting each other. Still their neutrality caused the colonists to view them as fair targets to raid for supplies while the British made a point of leaving their fate in the hands of the newly formed United States during the Treaty of Paris. Though given the way that Native American tribes were treated by the US over the next two centuries, the situation probably would not have improved for them in the long run had they actually taken a side.
  • World War II:
    • The French State - dubbed 'Vichy' France because while they were still fighting the Germans they set up a temporary capital in the spa-town of Vichy (Bordeaux, Marseilles, and other cities were the personal fiefdoms of various parties and so unsuitable due to the risk of assassination, espionage, and desertion) - was this played straight. It still controlled a large empire and decent navy but the Allies stomped on it several times, either because it happened to be in the way of planned operations or because its possessions were perceived as a threat. After Operation Torch the Germans got in on this, finally dissolving the country and assuming direct control over it. In essence Vichy was everybody's Butt-Monkey.
    • Oddly enough Marshal Petain had little interest in remaining neutral and it was only later groups which attempted to portray him otherwise. Many in the French State's government, including the Marshal himself, wished to ally with Hitler's Reich. These included forming a French militia which fought for the Axis even after France's liberation by the Allies. It was Hitler, of all people, who had no interest in taking France on as a full partner because they were just so demanding and insubordinate. For their part the Allies only grudgingly decided to work with the rebels after they realized that the French government had no intention of resisting.
    • Belgium attempted to be neutral during the opening years of World War II, even refusing the Allies to build any defence lines inside their borders or let them to land on their beaches; so when Germany invaded Belgium, they didn't have anyone to help them defend their country from German conquest.
    • The Netherlands attempted this as well, on the basis of "Staying neutral worked out for us in WW1, so why not now?". Unfortunately for them, they didn't count on the idea of the Nazis deciding to conquer them anyway, so when they were invaded in 1940, they were forced to pitch weaponry last used in the Napoleonic era against arguably the most modern army of its day. Unsurprisingly, they got steamrolled, only managing to hold out for five days.
    • The Norwegians attempted to be neutral at the beginning of World War II. Both British and Germans would have preferred that they stayed neutral, too—as long as the neutrality would be bent to their own advantage. When it became clear that their enemies would happily violate Norwegian neutrality when it suited them and Norwegians lacked both ability and willingness to resist meaningfully, both British and Germans decided to intervene militarily in Norway.
    • Averted with Sweden, who actually did stay officially note  neutral during World War II and didn't suffer any harm from it, making it through the war virtually unscathed. It wouldn't have lasted, as the Nazis did have plans for all of Scandinavia which they considered the hallmark of Aryan civilization aside from themselves, but the war turned against them before they had a chance to move against Sweden, and Germany soon had bigger things to worry about.
    • Averted with Switzerland as well, who were basically in the same boat as Sweden. The Nazis already annexed Austria in 1938 and drew up invasion plans for Switzerland, planning to divide the country with Fascist Italy, but for a variety of reasonsnote  did not choose to invade and the Swiss came out of both world wars unscathed. Presumably, if the Soviets and British had surrendered, Switzerland would have been in a lot of trouble.
    • However this backfired spectacularly on the Axis when it came to South America. Rather frustrated in the continent's neutrality during the conflict and the previous world war while they de facto aided the allies, Hitler declared South American ships (sans Argentina) to be fair game for U-boats. The sinking of several Brazilian ships caused that country and several of its neighbors to formally join the war on the Allied side where they began to actively hunt down U-boats and even send expeditionary forces.
  • After a surprise victory in the 1979 election, new Canadian PM Joe Clark and the Progressive Conservative party were left just short of a majority in parliament. The Social Credit party offered to lend Clark their votes in exchange for certain concessions towards Quebec, but Clark immediately rejected their offer, declared that he didn't need their support to form a viable government, and just to stick the knife in he persuaded one of their MPs to join his party. Nine months later, Clark proposed a crippling rise in fuel taxes, which prompted the opposition parties to call a vote of no confidence in his government. Despite his earlier actions, the Socreds again offered their support in exchange for Quebec getting a slight reduction in the proposed tax. Once again, Clark refused. Since they hadn't gotten what they wanted, they weren't going to support Clark, but they liked the opposition leader, Liberal Pierre Trudeau, even less. So ... the Socreds sat out the vote of no confidence, which made it hard for anyone inside or outside government to take them seriously, and they quickly lost support even among their own followers. That would probably have happened anyway, given the trends in Canadian politics during the 1980s, but their decision to abstain from what is the most important vote a parliamentary body can take led to them being delisted as a party in federal elections by the middle of the decade as they could no longer field enough candidates.
  • This is perceived as one of the reasons that newspapers are dying. Lots of people would rather get their news from an explicitly ideological source on cable TV or the Internet rather than read some bland centrist account in a newspaper, presuming they are centrist and don't have their own biases. The latter in fact is more likely; historically newspapers were more than happy to take sides on just about any issue, and were usually published with a specific agenda in mind. Said initial agenda could be alluded to in the names of some of the smaller papers. The ideas that news should be 'neutral' and that 'commentary' should be separate from the news are relatively recent concepts.
    • This also applies to the American cable network CNN. The channel came into being in the 1980's and quickly established a reputation as a highly-respected news organization. Like most large reporting outfits in the USA, they followed the standard conceit of being "absolutely unbiased", which was fine when they were doing straight reporting. However, competition from the extraordinarily biased Fox News Channel (and later MSNBC) starting in the late-90's resulted in the network getting squeezed from both sides. Keeping their reporting "unbiased" fed into Fox's allegations of CNN's "liberal bias", while their efforts to stylistically ape Fox News drove liberal viewers away to MSNBC (which had shifted significantly to the left after the 2006 midterm elections). By The New '10s, cratering viewership forced CNN, now a distant third in the ratings, to mostly give up on the investigative journalism they were known for and simply report on whatever story might attract the most attention. Like celebrity news, or fixating on a missing plane for over a month.
  • During Argentina's National Reorganization Process, General Iberico St. Jean, one of the more hardcore ideologues, threatened that when all the leftists had been executed, the junta would move onto the undecided.
  • Subverted for some nations in the Cold War, some like India who are more neutral in siding with either the West or the Soviets, but their neutrality is respected as they are very much a valuable ally to both sides.
  • Often immediately after elections in the United States, people vote for a third party or don't vote at all get called out for their decision by those sharing their political beliefs. This is particularly prominent when the election results in the party elected has in little in common with the non-voter's beliefs. The people who do vote often feel that the non-voter split the vote and allowed the lesser evil win. However, the non-voter is quick to point off that they let their conscience guide them.
  • Shortly before U.S. elections, it has become common to see ads pointing out that, while who you vote for is private, whether you voted at all is public information, not-so-subtly implying that all your friends and family will go to the trouble of looking up your voting record and then shun you for not participating.
  • Many heated debates online will always have people taking a side and sticking with it. People that try to Take a Third Option or try to make fun of both sides for their extremes will usually get called out by both sides for wasting everyone's time.
  • Though he has been Vindicated by History since, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was known during his tenure for avoiding numerous social issues and refusing to talk about them, which wound up causing him to take heat from both sides and be known as a "do-nothing" President. The truth was that he preferred to take action slowly and gradually, as he believed the sudden action both sides urged him to do would only cause the other side to be even more hostile than what actually happened.
  • This seems to be happening to the U.S. health insurance industry as of 2018. While they had initially opposed some aspects of the Affordable Care Act during its trip through Congress a decade earlier that would cost them money in the short term, such as the ban on refusing coverage due to pre-existing conditions, they never explicitly opposed the bill as a whole, realizing that in the long term its insurance subsidies would provide them with a windfall from new customers,note  but they didn't bank on opposition to Obamacare so vigorous that it would lead to the election of a Republican Congress (and, later, president) that, having realized that it would become popular in the meantime, instead tried to do everything they could to sabotage it ... introducing more and more instability into the health-insurance market, exactly the last thing they wanted.
  • Come election day, a long standing gripe is that if someone doesn't vote, it's as good as voting for the other guy.
  • Sports broadcasters on nationally-televised games in sports where regional coverage is the norm are often accused of being biased against both teams participating in the game simultaneously. Joe Buck, who did play-by-play for Fox Sports from 1994—2022 and is a frequent target of this criticism, attributes this to the more neutral approach which is necessitated by the game being broadcast nationally appearing biased for long-time fans who are used to their home markets' coverage where the announcers are going to be slanted towards the home team — he admits to falling victim to it himself when he was watching NBC's coverage of the Stanley Cup Finals when his hometown St. Louis Blues were playing for it in 2019.
    Buck: Fans are used to hearing their hometown guys. When you come at it objectively, people aren't used to it.
  • In the era of social media, certain celebrities get hit hard with this trope if they don't speak up about whatever hot button sociopolitical issue that exist at the time. (Of course, if and when they do, they'll still get backlash because they didn't talk enough about it, or they were "late to the party," or didn't say what they wanted to hear, or because the audience thinks they really should "stay in their lane" and not get on their soapbox.)
  • In 2019 UK General Election, one of the reasons why the Labour Party lost was their indecisive stance on Brexit. While many Labour voters and political figures like London Mayor Sadiq Khan were staunch opponents of Brexit, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn (who has long held the view that the European Union is a "neoliberal cartel") officially declared his party to be neutral on Brexit and instead called for a new referendum. Needless to say, this backfired with pro-Brexit voters flocking to the Conservative Party while a good portion of anti-Brexit voters either stayed home or voted for the aggressively anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalist Party instead.
  • On December 18, 2019, the House of Representatives voted on articles of impeachment towards President Donald Trump, accusing him of abuse of power. While it passed on mostly party lines, one notable dissent was Hawaii Democratic representative and 2020 Presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard, who voted "present" instead of "yes" or "no". She reasoned that the entire impeachment ordeal was purely political and that the voters should decide if Trump should go or not. Making matters worse was that she attempted to introduce a bill that would instead censure Trump rather than impeach him. Liberals and conservatives both called her out over this, feeling that she was trying to suck up to the other side at best or that Hillary Clinton's accusation of her being groomed by Republicans as a spoiler candidate, like Jill Stein was in 2016, might have some merit to it. Ironically, Gabbard's favorability numbers fell precipitously afterwards with Democrats, potentially harming her ability to serve as an effective spoiler. Since then, she has formally identified as an independent.
  • Disney CEO Bob Chapek infamously took a neutral stance towards the "Don't Say Gay" bill that was eventually passed in Disney World's home state of Florida. Although the bill was unpopular among Disney employees, who alleged that it would harm LGBT children by banning discussions around gender identity, Chapek claimed that Disney supports diversity yet refused to publicly condemn the bill. Needless to say, everyone was angry with the pro-LGBT side accusing Disney of abandoning the queer community while the anti-LGBT side smeared Disney as a "woke" and "degenerate" corporation. Even within Disney employees like The Owl House creator Dana Terrace and DuckTales (2017) writer Benjamin Siemon called out Chapek for his indecisiveness. Eventually, Chapek officially condemned the bill but his initially neutral position made him seem indecisive and tarnished the company's inclusive image.