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Having heard the Beethoven, we hear Ives differently, and having heard the Ives, we hear Beethoven differently. We carry the discourse around in our heads. We can no more ignore it - can no more listen ‘innocently’ - than we can follow the ancient recipe for turning lead into gold… But why should we ever want to ignore the discourse? The force and richness of our response to music (and not only music) depends on it. That is what is meant by participating in a culture.

Richard Taruskin, On Russian Music, p. 341.

Last week, at Safiya Noble’s talk at the Ontario Library Association Superconference, an audience member asked how we balanced the need to regulate and moderate things like search engines with the risk of authoritarianism. How do we prevent becoming, like, say, China. The implication in “slippery slope” questions like this is that we begin from a position of unrestricted freedom which (in some way) self-regulates and which any attempt to consciously interfere with must then lead to corruption and authoritarianism. Safiya Noble responded by saying that this very idea of an unrestricted, self-regulating online space was a myth, and that we have to begin there - with the knowledge that our online spaces are already constructed with particular goals and ends in mind - and not from some myth of “the internet in the state of nature”. The simple dichotomy between “free search” and “Chinese authoritarianism” is a false one.

The next day, at my own talk, which called for critical skepticism of any reliance on abstract concepts like freedom and democracy, as well as for a partisan, committed librarianship, I got the same question. If I call for a departure from “neutrality”, from the self-regulating unregulated (intellectual) freedom which - it is presumed - holds sway within the profession, then how do I suggest we avoid the slippery slope towards authoritarianism in librarianship. Having heard Safiya Noble’s answer, I gave basically the same one: there is no such thing as a state of nature populated by self-sufficient rugged individualists. There is no such thing as pure unconstrained freedom, intellectual or otherwise; we are all members of a culture, brought up by parents and teachers with their own values, perspectives, biases, and prejudices. There is no transcendental point outside the culture from which we can judge and decide whether or not to intervene. The very fact that we do not choose to learn a language is a good indication of the “already existing” culture that “limits” our individual freedom.

Everything we do - whether we consider it “neutral” or not - is a committed intervention in our culture. I’m calling for making that commitment explicit, just as Safiya Noble calls for the regulation of search and other online spaces to be made explicit (and public) rather than being left to private interests.

What is significant here is not only that the slippery slope question is itself “innocent” - it comes from a naive belief in autonomy, individualism, self-reliance, etc, all the bromides which a hegemonic liberalism instils in us from the time we are born, through parents who believe in these things, schools which teach them, the “common sense” of bourgeois society, and a marketing industry that capitalizes on the the consequences of believing in them. But the slippery slope question is also innocent in another way: it presumes the innocence of society. Our society - a society of freedom, individualism, and the social contract - is innocent, unregulated, living off manna from heaven. Other societies - and the current bogeyman is China - are coercive, authoritarian, deny individualism and freedom itself.

In a draft manuscript written in 1857, Marx challenges this idea, which was a mainstay not only of bourgeois economists like Adam Smith, but even of critics like the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Marx argued that we are never - can never be - outside society, outside a system of social and cultural relationships which pre-exist us and into which we are born and grow up. Like the liberal economists, liberal political theory of the 17th century - specifically Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau - inaugurated the idea of an original “state of nature”, in which self-sufficient individuals go about their business and exercise their property rights. Marx dismissed these ideas as “Robinsonades”, fictions like Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe of 1719. (For how these ideas play out in questions of sovereignty and the state, I recommend J. Moufawad-Paul’s recent blog post on Lenin’s conception of the state.)

The problem with such Robinsonades - still with us in the form of the presumptions behind the slippery slope questions - is that it prevents us from explicitly and publically taking control of our own society. Free societies (like free search and intellectual freedom) are, by definition, unrestricted, and any regulation or attempt to control them must lead to Chinese-style tyranny. But the truth is that such freedom does not exist - that is what it means to participate in a culture. By arguing from such an innocent position we do not guarantee some purported freedom of the public sphere, or the internet, or librarianship; rather we abandon the field to the private interests who already control and manipulate those spaces for their own profit, avarice, and lust for power.

This innocence is a core component of many issues within librarianship, from intellectual freedom (which relies on a veneer of sophistication and wordliness but is still based on a fiction of innocence), to the reaction of white librarians at ALA Midwinter: librarianship cannot be structurallly racist, sexist, or ableist, because we are a profession of unrestricted freedom; any misbehaviour must stem from individuals attempting to corrupt the state of nature (this is, for example, part of the argument around social media policies). This is the fiction of innocence that allows the far-right to co-opt library trustworthiness to give themselves a coating of intellectual credibility, and it is the fiction of innocence that allows racism, sexism, ableism, and all the other structures of oppression to thrive in our profession and our professional organizations.

If we want to fix these things, we must in some sense come to terms not necessarily with guilt, but with responsibility, commitment, the fact that, while we do indeed develop in a particular society and culture, we are not completely determined by it. We can - and must - make choices, but those choices have to made from a place other than a fatal innocence.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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