24 March 2012

Intolerance, Censorship, & Other Requirements of Rationality

From time to time I will likely reflect on censorship here, because it is an issue that demands more nuanced examination in the modern library landscape. Not, however, the kind of attention that library advocates usually give to it. Most of the library world (in my view) has a visceral reaction to any mention of "censorship," as if its very name was capable of beckoning twisted Inquisitionists back from the dead to steal our freedoms (I silently roll my eyes every time I sit in an LIS class and hear my professor ask us rhetorical questions about our opposition to censorship). Library advocates, most notably the American Library Association, are decidedly opposed to censorship in any form. The ALA's Library Bill of Rights states:
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of the their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
So there is a general patent assumption that censorship is intrinsically bad and an impediment to intellectual freedom. (My local public library even recently re-affirmed its decision to not filter p*rn on its computers, in the name of not invading patron privacy, and I guess, avoiding the expense of filtering software). Considering popular historical associations with censorship, such as government and school banned books lists, and the reputed Index Librorum Prohibitorum, issued by the Catholic Church, any discussion of censorship still carries significant political and emotional charges. 

I don't think we ought to up and start banning books again, but I do think that the ALA's outright opposition to censorship is an erroneous position. I also think that many librarians need to re-think their approach to public service in regards to serving patron 'wants'. This may have more bearing on personal philosophy than on library policy, but trusting too much in Enlightenment values can be an obstacle to intellectual freedom in itself. 

Personally, I've always found the use of 'intellectual freedom' and 'censorship' as antonyms to be a bit odd. We generally gain freedom in other areas of our lives by 'censoring' our habits. I won't have the freedom of health if I sit and eat biscuits all day, so I naturally have to control my eating. We also lose out on enlightenment and intellectual enrichment if we choose to spend years reading Elizabeth Gilbert instead of Plato or T.S. Eliot. So we (I hope) put down the frivolous chick lit and immerse ourselves in something more substantial. This is also a form of censorship. And, *gasp*, it actually advances our personal enrichment.

In late 2009 I attended a lecture that seemed to capture all of my frustrations with trends in higher education curriculums (or lack thereof) and the opposition to censorship at the time. Many of my acquaintances are probably tired of hearing me talk about it, as for several months afterward it dominated many conversations (and sadly the recording appears to have disappeared from iTunesU). Alasdair MacIntyre*, distinguished moral and political philosopher and now emeritus professor at Notre Dame, then gave a lecture he entitled Intolerance, Censorship, and Other Requirements of Rationality. He asserted that in contemporary society, our common goods can only be determined through grassroots shared rational deliberation, and that in order for this kind of deliberation to be recognized as rational and just, it must be accessible to everyone. Alongside commentary on the phenomena of outlawing Holocaust denial, Communist censorship, and the scramble that followed the publication of the infamous Mohammed cartoon in Jyllands-Posten in 2005, he used a principle called 'selective rational intolerance' as an explanatory rule for how our debate ought to be controlled (i.e., not all opinions and postulations are equally valid and valuable, and we should treat them accordingly). He naturally shifts to the issue of reading and censorship:

"...the evident problem in our culture is not that there is some danger of the young, or indeed the middle-aged, having their sentiments enflamed by reading Shakespeare or Eliot. The problem in our culture is that only a tiny fraction of the population are likely to read them at all. And that we’ve stumbled on this problem at this point is no accident, for the question of what it is bad for people to read, and the question of what it is good for them to read, have to be posed together and answered together.  
If someone is badly in need of some good...and I have no good reason for preventing them receiving it, but nonetheless do prevent it, I act unjustly towards them. It makes no difference whether the good in question is a water supply or a set of books..."
So, one can assert that intellectual freedom and enlightenment are served by promoting access to good books above vacuous ones, not just making everything available and championing patron self-determinism.

MacIntyre then addresses some responses to the questions of what one ought to read, first ousting the 'no-censorship' crowd:

"The standard liberal answer, leave them free to read whatever they choose, is not just mistaken, but irresponsible. For the goods of reading are to be achieved only through having learned what to read, in what order to read it, and how to read it. And this kind of discrimination involving as it does knowing how as well as knowing that, has to be acquired from teachers. The best teachers are, of course, parents. And every good intelligent parent is only able to educate by also acting as a censor. “Read this, don’t read that. Read this, rather than that. Read this, now, but that, not yet.” Only by thus acting as censor can a parent or any other teacher educate. The good of censorship serves the goods of reading well. "
I found his point about reading well only being achieved by reading the right books in the right order particularly salient. As he notes, it's ridiculous for someone to learn calculus before they have mastered the basics of algebra and geometry, yet few educational programs design their philosophy curriculums in the same way. Granted, the decision to read Plato and Aristotle before Nietzsche cannot be so scientifically determined, but to deny that there is an order to our learning in this discipline would, in a way, be a denial of the real value of the texts themselves.

MacIntyre goes on to explain that the response of the Catholic Church to the question of what is good and bad for us to read, namely, the Index, was ill-conceived, yet its continued existence makes an important statement. In 1966, Pope Paul the VI suspended the administration of the Index under Canon Law, but he did not abolish it altogether, and declared that its moral force remains. The point of the Index, MacIntyre explains, was not a totalitarian effort at mind control:
"Consider the situation of those Catholic students who in nineteen-fifty had to get permission to read, say, books by Descartes, Hobbes and Hume. What the fact that those books were on the Index was intended to say to them was that the reading of those particular books is morally, politically, metaphysically, and theologically, very dangerous. That you are putting your soul, your human flourishing, your salvation, on the line, by reading those books. And now note two things: that what should have been thus communicated is true, and that it’s just this that makes the reading of those books supremely interesting and worthwhile. The intellectual life is and ought to be understood as a life of risk-taking and danger...prohibition was to be followed by permission...The injunction was 'Read dangerously, and be educated by living with that danger, but don’t do so before you’re well-prepared for such dangerous reading.'" 
 This differs markedly from the modern progressive idea that each man determines his goods for himself, as well as the professional philosophy of so many librarians that it is their job to give patrons what they want. Granted, the library business model might be in danger of becoming unsustainable if it didn't cling so tightly to its commitment to fulfill patron desires, particularly in terms of entertainment materials. In conducting reader's advisory, there is also the added complication of patron uniqueness. There is no de facto way to know if a particular books with particular risky ideas may be harmful to someone at a particular time (MacIntyre himself doesn't propose any concrete mechanism to achieving grassroots shared rational deliberation, aside from the individual exercise of his principle of 'selective rational intolerance' and keeping insults out of political discussion). But the important take away from MacIntyre's considerations is that there is more to promoting the intellectual freedom and enlightenment of our patrons than treating 'censorship' as the bad big brother. The point of Banned Books Week should not be simply that 'censorship is bad', and certainly not that 'books ought to be read simply because they are controversial' (which is the message so many celebrations promote, intentional or not). As MacIntyre said, danger in books is what makes them interesting, but it is also irresponsible to read with the attitude that the consumption of controversial ideas will in itself achieve the goods of reading.

*During one visit to his office hours, he casually asked, after reviewing my clumsy paper, what I wanted to do after I graduated. I said that I was going to become a librarian, to which he promptly replied, "Good." That one moment alone has provided me with a lifetime of professional validation.

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