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In an early defense of TPL’s platforming of a transphobic speaker, Vickery Bowles made the rhetorical move from the usual library term, “intellectual freedom”, to “free speech”, a term with particular political connotations and a set of adherents who range from centrist liberals to the most rabid alt-right white supremacist. This rhetorical move was at best naive, at worst calculating and dangerous, since it changed the nature of the argument from one of deplatforming (not censorship) and the struggle between conflicting library values, to one of right-wing propaganda, bringing the weight of bigots on the right down on the heads of anyone who challenged Bowles’ authority.

The irony - or perhaps the tragedy - of this rhetorical move, and of “free speech” absolutism more generally, is that its adherents, in libraries and in the alt-right, claim speech as the ultimate overriding freedom while fundamentally not believing that words or the ideas they convey have any power at all. It is doubly ironic that so many of the alt-right adherents of free speech absolutism are writers who, you would think, would be professionally committed to taking words seriously. But in the end, they are nothing more than the dishonest, disingenuous shills Sartre described in Réflexions sur la question juive:

“The antisemite evades responsibility [to value things] like he evades his own conscience; and choosing for himself a petrified permanence, he choses a morality of petrified values. Once done, he knows he will always be at the top of the [moral] ladder.”

It is bad enough for writers to devalue words, but it is doubly sad when librarians do it. If librarians deny the power of words, refuse to take words seriously, then how can we defend the practice of reading? What is the point in collecting books and texts, in teaching literacy (including information literacy), if the power of words, language, and the ideas they represent is denied?

The most the defenders of free-speech absolute can grant is that words cause “offense” or “hurt people’s feelings”. For example, in his blog post for the Ryerson Centre for Free Expression, Jim Turk cannot move beyond “offensiveness”:

I am among those who find Murphy’s views offensive. But, then, I must confess I find many people’s views troubling and offensive these days. The question is, in a democratic society, whether anyone’s offense at someone else’s expression gives the right to prevent others from hearing it in a public place. The answer is “No.”

When I was on the CFLA Intellectual Freedom committee, my attempt to get people to see harm as opposed to mere offense was never grasped or granted. But as Meredith Farkas has noted in her recent blog post, harm is a real, material effect of speech:

“I can’t even fathom what all this feels like for LGBTQ+ staff at the Toronto Public Library who are not only being harmed by this, but in whose names these harms are being perpetrated.”

Words cause effects - that any writer, reader, or librarian can deny that is indicative of the fundamental dishonesty of the free-speech absolutist position. And, just as Roy Bhaskar argued in The Possibility of Naturalism that social structures are real precisely because they have causal power, the causal power of words is bound up in their social reality. Denial of the power of words, reducing their causal effect to offensiveness and hurt feelings, is a denial of the reality of words: something no writer or librarian can subscribe to in good faith.

Indeed, such causal power was recently the subject of sustained criticism of Boris Johnson in the UK, where he was repeatedly called out for continuing to use divisive, militarized language (“surrender”, “treason”, “betrayal”) around any challenge to his Brexit “plans”, language which other MPs argued, passionately and persuasively, were causally connected to death threats and violence against MPs. Johnson refused to apologize for his remarks about murdered MP Jo Cox. Another MP described Johnson’s language being repurposed in a death threat:

Jess Phillips, the Labour MP and women’s rights campaigner, highlighted an anonymous death threat she had personally received, quoting Johnson’s image that he would rather be dead in a ditch than fail to deliver Brexit. “That is what will happen to those who fail to deliver Brexit,” it said.

Johnson, of course, true to the bad-faith dishonesty and recklessness of the alt-right, denies that his words have any causal effect in the world.

Words have causal power. The only way to deny this, other than outright dishonesty, is for political purposes, or out of the ignorance of privilege. These two characteristics are often combined. Boris Johnson, Jordan Peterson, anyone who writes for Quillette can safely deny the causal power of words because they wield an even greater power: the power of wealth, class, gender, race - the privileges that have insulated them their entire lives from any of the violence that attends those without such privilege: marginalized people, poor people, queer people, people of colour. In short, they can deny the causal power of words because they are never on the receiving end of the kinds of violence that, for example, trans people face daily. When brought face to face with testimony to such violence, as Vickery Bowles and the TPL board were last month, they are incapable even of recognizing it, let alone understanding it or changing because of it. Indeed, free-speech absolutists like Vickery Bowles are able to deny the power of words because they are immune to them - quite literally, words are wasted on them.

On the political side, the denial of the power of words is bound up with populist adventuring, the lighthearted wish to consign social relations to the flames of sectarian violence, secure in the knowledge that, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, you and yours will always come out on top. We know that radicalization of white terrorists in the US and Canada happens online, amid the language and texts of other white supremacists. Politically, the editors of Quillette want the world to burn, and they are happy to egg it on, all the while hiding behind a fundamentally dishonest insistence that the power of language is limited to offensiveness and hurt feelings. Tell that to the victims of the Charleston Church Shooting, the Orlando Nightclub Shooting, the Quebec City Mosque Shooting, or the victims of anti-trans violence.

But of course there is an even deeper level of dishonesty here, in that at the same time as denying the causal power of words, free-speech absolutists use words to whip up their followers, to radicalize, to steal elections. Denying the power of words, of speech, of language is simply a way to hide from the consequences of speech. The reason they come out so hard against deplatforming, calling it censorship, is precisely because deplatforming is a consquence, and they want no consequences for speech except for other people to get hurt. Immunity for themselves, and hell for everyone else. It’s not just dishonesty, it’s cowardice.

Returning to Sartre, in his extended discussion of anti-semitism, we find the phenomenon of free-speech absolutism in a nutshell:

Never believe that anti‐ Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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