Article Image

Canadian librarianship is heading into a moment of truth/crisis around intellectual freedom. The events around hosting transphobic speakers at Vancouver Public Library and Toronto Public Library, accompanied by a doubling-down on free speech absolutism and a dismissal of critics as confused, naive, or inexperienced, have exposed deep faultlines within the profession. However, these events are, I suspect, only the curtain raiser for a much graver test of our professional values and, indeed, of the idea of a coherent “profession” as such.

Now that the far-right have figured out that they can gain not only publicity but the “moral support” (I use the term loosely) of public libraries, piggybacking on their trustworthiness and the hegemonic discourse of libraries as bastions of democracy, they will undoubtedly continue to follow the same playbook. They will dupe unwitting public library CEOs into adopting the far-right rhetoric of free speech (as opposed to intellectual freedom) and they will benefit from the “neutral” platform the libraries give them.

On the academic side, both Ontario and Alberta have mandated “free speech” policies, either in the form of adoption of the so-called “Chicago Principles” or some similar policy developed by the universities themselves. My colleague Dr. Shama Rangwala has critiqued the idea of a “free-speech crisis” on Canadian campuses, writing that “a ‘free speech crisis’ on campus is a red herring, and one too often deployed by right-wing governments around the world, when the real threat is to academic freedom”. In a sentence which applies equally to the academy and to the defense of free-speech absolutism by public libraries, she notes that “if indeed all opinions are valid and legitimized, then the university is reduced to a marketplace of ideas where, for example, white-genocide theory and theory of evolution are equal commmodities”.

(Note that there’s something to be said here about the “demarcation problem”, the question of how to tell science from pseudo-science in the philosophy of science, but that will have to wait for another time).

It was clear in the recent debates over the Toronto Public Library platforming of a transphobic speaker that both the library systems themselves and the Canadian library associations were mainly caught completely off guard. The community response in Toronto was overwhelming, leading to a large protest at the library branch where the event was being held. The library responded - to its eternal shame - by calling the cops into the library and forcibly, illegally detaining protesters (demonstrating, if any such demonstration were still needed, the alignment between public libraries and state violence). The ripples from these events spread throughout the profession, at very public cost both to our associations and to the community trust in libraries as public institutions. Brianne Selman noted on Twitter that the cost of platforming a transphobic speaker at that time was very high. And all of this came as a total surprise to library leadership, in the libraries, and in our associations.

What is coming next must not catch us by surprise: after several years of skirmishes, intellectual freedom is about to erupt into a Canada-wide battle. Librarians, our associations, and our administrations need to come up with ways and plans to respond. With respect to the Chicago Principles mandate, I hope that CAPAL at the very least is working on something to help academic library workers through what is bound to be a difficult and contentious period. I have no faith that CFLA, especially the Intellectual Freedom committee, is prepared to do anything but rest on the sanctimonious denials that anything is wrong and that anything should trouble their unwavering belief in bourgeois intellectual freedom absolutism. Insert “This is Fine” gif here.


One thing I’ve been thinking again about since all of this began, is the question of virtue ethics. I was prepared to write a blog post called “Intellectual Freedom and Virtue Ethics”, but it turned out I already wrote it on another intellectual freedom occasion. So this time, I thought I would take a different tack.

Nafsika Athanassoulis begins her introduction to Virtue Ethics (Bloomsbury, 2013) with a discussion of how virtue ethics came to take its place within the field of ethics alongside deontology and consequentialism. In a nutshell, deontology claims that ethics have to do with process and procedure, essentially prioritizing intent over outcome. Consequentialism takes the opposite tack and argues that whether an action is ethical or not depends on its outcome. Generally speaking, as I noted in the previous blog post, the defenders of intellectual freedom absolutism take a deontological approach - the maintenance of the abstract rule of intellectual freedom is ethically right, no matter what the consequences - while the critics tend to adopt a consequentialist argument: the defense of IF absolutism leads to real harm and therefore needs to be rethought/reformulated. I myself have tended to rely on the consequentialist position in my critique of IF absolutism, arguing that deontological IF absolutism prioritizes an abstract rule for ethical behaviour at the expense of real people’s lives and wellbeing. Ethics, I have argued, is too complex to be left to the unquestioning adherence to a simple rule (though this is the basis, for example, of Kantian ethics).

For Athanassoulis, however, both deontology and consequentialism rely on over-simplified ethical rules: either the intention matters, or the outcome matters. But, she argues further, this is because both deontology and consequentialism see ethics as a question of “what to do?” Both kinds of ethics are meant to help people answer ethical questions like what they should do in a given situation. These ethical positions are action-oriented.

Virtue ethics, however, takes a different approach, drawing on an Aristotelian position that was long disregarded in Western philosophy. Virtue ethics argues that ethical questions do not take the form of “what should I do?” but “what kind of person should I be?” Expanding this to libraries, we can say that both deontological and consequentialist ethics try to shape what actions a library will take (enshrined, perhaps, in a policy), while a virtue ethics approach would try to shape what kind of institution a library is. Virtue ethics is not based on the ideas of rules, as deontology and consequentialism are, because rules end up being one-size-fits-all, they are unable to deal with conflict between one rule and another. This is exactly what we have seen in the conflict between IF-oriented and community-oriented library values at VPL and TPL: in a conflict between values, one abstract rule has to take precendence. Because the deontologists are in charge of the libraries, the deontological priority (intellectual freedom) takes precedence over the consequentialist priority (community). Indeed, this split between deontological intention and consequentialist outcomes is enshrined in the ALA distinction between the Office of Intellectual Freedom and the Social Responsibility Round Table. So long as we have to choose between deontological and consequentialist ethics, intellectual freedom and social responsibility will remain incompatible and incommensurable.

Virtue ethics starts from the rich, conflictual, complexity of ethical life. In asking “how should I live my life?” it makes space for the conflict between values, rules, positions, etc. It does not ask for unquestioning obedience to an overarching principle; it does not even ask for coherence, because for virtue ethics the important thing is what kind of life you are living. You do not take your eyes off either intentions or consequences, but they take their rightful place within a larger, more complex moral landscape. These are the questions we need to ask of our libraries, our associations, and ourselves right now in order to prepare for the coming crisis.

One reason deontological and consequentialist ethics were, until the late 1950s, considered the only possible ethical approaches, is because rules and procedures conform to the logic of capitalist exploitation, the instrumental reason that sees efficiency and productivity as the only values. Rules and procedures are great for making decisions - ethical or otherwise - quickly and with little mess, but therein lies the problem: ethical questions cannot be properly decided quickly and easily. They are always going to be messy and require hard conversations, debates, and conflict. As we saw with the deontological position entrenched at the top of our public libraries and our library associations, abstract ethical positions based on rules don’t like to be challenged: they want the decision made quickly and unchallenged. In this respect, such abstract ethical positions do nothing but further entrench an authoritarian, hierarchical power structure at the heart of the profession.

We must not be caught by surprise by what is coming. We need to be prepared to have these discussions, to recognize, critique, and challenge the ethical presuppositions we are making. Now is the time, as we were shown by the protesters in Toronto, to challenge the unquestioned “truths” of the profession and the power that supports and benefits from those “truths”. If politics is, as I think it is, the dialectic of ethics and power, then it is time Canadian librarianship did more than cast off the outdated cloak of “neutrality” and proclaimed itself a profession of social justice, of community, and the complex, conflicted messiness of ethics.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview