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Neutrality is anything but

“We watch people dragged away and sucker-punched at rallies as they clumsily try to be an early-warning system for what they fear lies ahead.” — Unwittingly prophetic me, March, 2016.

Sheet cake photo by Flickr user Glane23. CC by 2.0

Sometime after last November, I realized something very strange was happening with my clothes. My slacks had suddenly shrunk, even if I hadn’t washed them. After months of struggling to keep myself buttoned into my clothes, I gave up and purchased slacks and jeans one size larger. I call them my T***p Pants.

This post is about two things. It is about the lessons librarians are learning in this frightening era about the nuances and qualifications shadowing our deepest core values–an era so scary that quite a few of us, as Tina Fey observed, have acquired T***p Pants. And it’s also some advice, take it or leave it, on how to “be” in this era.

I suspect many librarians have had the same thoughts I have been sharing with a close circle of colleagues. Most librarians take pride in our commitment to free speech. We see ourselves as open to all viewpoints. But in today’s new normal, we have seen that even we have limits.

This week, the ACRL Board of Directors put out a statement condemning the violence in Charlottesville. That was the easy part. The Board then stated, “ACRL is unwavering in its long-standing commitment to free exchange of different viewpoints, but what happened in Charlottesville was not that; instead, it was terrorism masquerading as free expression.”

You can look at what happened in Charlottesville and say there was violence “from many sides,” some of it committed by “very fine people” who just happen to be Nazis surrounded by their own private militia of heavily-armed white nationalists. Or you can look at Charlottesville and see terrorism masquerading as free expression, where triumphant hordes descended upon a small university town under the guise of protecting some lame-ass statue of an American traitor, erected sixty years after the end of the Civil War, not coincidentally during a very busy era for the Klan. Decent people know the real reason the Nazis were in Charlottesville: to tell us they are empowered and emboldened by our highest elected leader.

There is no middle ground. You can’t look at Charlottesville and see everyday people innocently exercising First Amendment rights.

As I and many others have argued for some time now, libraries are not neutral.  Barbara Fister argues, “we stand for both intellectual freedom and against bigotry and hate, which means some freedoms are not countenanced.” She goes on to observe, “we don’t have all the answers, but some answers are wrong.”

It goes to say that if some answers are wrong, so are some actions. In these extraordinary times, I found myself for the first time ever thinking the ACLU had gone too far; that there is a difference between an unpopular stand, and a stand that is morally unjustifiable. So I was relieved when the national ACLU concurred with its three Northern California chapters that “if white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”

But I was also sad, because once again, our innocence has been punctured and our values qualified. Every asterisk we put after “free speech” is painful. It may be necessary and important pain, but it is painful all the same. Many librarians are big-hearted people who like to think that our doors are open to everyone and that all viewpoints are welcome, and that enough good ideas, applied frequently, will change people. And that is actually very true, in many cases, and if I didn’t think it was true I would conclude I was in the wrong profession.

But we can’t change people who don’t want to be changed. Listen to this edition of The Daily, a podcast from the New York Times, where American fascists plan their activities. These are not people who are open to reason. As David Lankes wrote, “there are times when a community must face the fact that parts of that community are simply antithetical to the ultimate mission of a library.”

We urgently need to be as one voice as a profession around these issues. I was around for–was part of–the “filtering wars” of the 1990s, when libraries grappled with the implications of the Internet bringing all kinds of content into libraries, which also challenged our core values. When you’re hand-selecting the materials you share with your users, you can pretend you’re open to all points of view. The Internet challenged that pretense, and we struggled and fought, and were sometimes divided by opportunistic outsiders.

We are fortunate to have strong ALA leadership this year. The ALA Board and President came up swinging on Tuesday with an excellent presser that stated unequivocally that “the vile and racist actions and messages of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville are in stark opposition to the ALA’s core values,” a statement that (in the tradition of ensuring chapters speak first) followed a strong statement from our Virginia state association.  ARL also chimed in with a stemwinder of a statement.  I’m sure we’ll see more.

But ALA’s statement also describes the mammoth horns of the library dilemma. As I wrote colleagues, “My problem is I want to say I believe in free speech and yet every cell in my body resists the idea that we publicly support white supremacy by giving it space in our meeting rooms.” If you are in a library institution that has very little likelihood of exposure to this or similar crises, the answers can seem easy, and our work appears done. But for more vulnerable libraries, it is crucial that we are ready to speak with one voice, and that we be there for those libraries when they need us. How we get there is the big question.

I opened this post with an anecdote about my T***p pants, and I’ll wrap it up with a concern. It is so easy on social media to leap in to condemn, criticize, and pick apart ideas. Take this white guy, in an Internet rag, the week after the election, chastising people for not doing enough.  You know what’s not enough? Sitting on Twitter bitching about other people not doing enough. This week, Siva Vaidhyanathan posted a spirited defense of a Tina Fey skit where she addressed the stress and anxiety of these political times.  Siva is in the center of the storm, which gives him the authority to state an opinion about a sketch about Charlottesville. I thought Fey’s skit was insightful on many fronts. It addressed the humming anxiety women have felt since last November (if not earlier). It was–repeatedly–slyly critical of inaction: “love is love, Colin.” It even had a Ru Paul joke. A lot of people thought it was funny, but then the usual critics came out to call it naive, racist, un-funny, un-woke, advocating passivity, whatever.

We are in volatile times, and there are provocateurs from outside, but also from inside. Think. Breathe. Step away from the keyboard. Take a walk. Get to know the mute button in Twitter and the unfollow feature in Facebook. Pull yourself together and think about what you’re reading, and what you’re planning to say. Interrogate your thinking, your motives, your reactions.

I’ve read posts by librarians deriding their peers for creating subject guides on Charlottesville, saying instead we should be punching Nazis. Get a grip. First off, in real life, that scenario is unlikely to transpire. You, buried in that back cubicle in that library department, behind three layers of doors, are not encountering a Nazi any time soon, and if you did, I recommend fleeing, because that wackdoodle is likely accompanied by a trigger-happy militiaman carrying a loaded gun. (There is an entire discussion to be had about whether violence to violence is the politically astute response, but that’s for another day.) Second, most librarians understand that their everyday responses to what is going on in the world are not in and of themselves going to defeat the rise of fascism in America. But we are information specialists and it’s totally wonderful and cool to respond to our modern crisis with information, and we need to be supportive and not go immediately into how we are all failing the world. Give people a positive framework for more action, not scoldings for not doing enough.

In any volatile situation, we need to slow the eff down and ask how we’re being manipulated and to what end; that is a lesson the ACLU just learned the hard way. My colleague Michael Stephens is known for saying, “speak with a human voice.” I love his advice, and I would add, make it the best human voice you have. We need one another, more than we know.

 

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