Article Image

The philosophical lineage of intellectual freedom in libraries relies mainly on either J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action, or a combination of the two. Often, Mill’s influence goes unacknowledged, because Mill’s liberalism and the reasoning used to justify it, is hegemonic in Western bourgeois society. We breathe it in at home, at school, at work; it is an unmarked presence in government policy and press releases. It is ideological in the Marxist sense - a set of ideas more or less consciously held by which people make sense of the society around them. Precisely because of the “normality” or common-sense of classical liberalism, Habermas’ variant on liberalism is often conceived as bringing more conscious thought, more “critical theory” to the project of supporting and maintaining absolutist intellectual freedom.

In both the Mill and Habermas versions, intellectual freedom is important because all arguments, views, values, and opinions must be open to challenge and reconsideration. Indeed, this is the only way “the truth” can be approached - through the challenge and reconsideration of previously held ideas. There are three main problems with this perspective.

First, it assumes that ideas are not determined by a person’s background, experience, position in society, relative position in dynamics and structures of power, etc. Ideas are pure and immediate, and are adopted and changed by the conscious choice of the person who holds them. Many other non-liberal theories argue that this is not the case, that ideas are produced. This is fatal for absolutist intellectual freedom because it holds that the intellect is never free, but is always in a relationship with social necessity.

Secondly, and this objection is directly related to the first, it assumes that individuals are self-sufficient beings who are faced with society as something that stands apart from them, something which opposes and oppresses them, rather than as something they are born into and which produces them. Mill’s whole view of freedom is predicated on this (artificial) separation between individual and society. It presumes that individuals have inherent freedoms which can only be constrained (rather than enabled) by society, and so the only question for Mill is how much social constraint is permissible. It never occurs to Mill either that individuals are socially produced, or that our social relationships make possible any conception of individual freedom in the first place. (This is due, of course, to his class position: it would never occur to a white bourgeois man that his own freedom was anything but absolute. The perversity of Mill writing about freedom in the presence of actual slavery is astonishing).

For both Mill and Habermas, individuals relate to one another externally, through conversation, argument, and discourse. Because of their race, class, and gender position, they can safely ignore the question of power - they see the world as populated entirely by individuals with the same power and privilege as themselves. The third objection to Mill and Habermas is that the ideal speech situation, the one which convinces and forces reconsideration, is at best rare and at worst a complete illusion.

Raymond Geuss, in his article on Habermas’ 90th birthday, sums up the problem with the Mill and Habermas position:

a noted problem is that liberals seem to presuppose - although they don’t usually admit it, and certainly do not draw attention to it - that discussion is always possible, and always a good thing, assuming, of course - a huge idealizing assumption, but one liberals are in general willing to make - that the situation is not an emergency with imminent danger to life and limb in which action must be taken immediately.

In Confronting the Democratic Discourse I call this the problem of lives and time: because of their subject position (which includes relative safety from violence and poverty), many liberal librarians are unable to understand that lives (Indigenous lives, Black lives, Trans lives, Disabled lives) are currently being taken, and that climate change means we no longer have all the time in the world to reach a consensus (as if we ever did). This social position also allows liberals to exclude material questions (including questions of bodies) from their conceptions of liberty. Reading Mill, one is struck by how the only things up for discussion are opinions, beliefs, ideas. It is impossible for him to understand that, for Black Americans at the time he was writing (1859), it is not their ideas and opinions that are threatened, but their physical freedom, their very lives.

Geuss goes on to say that,

In any case, it is important to recognize that [liberal] assumptions are actually empirically false. Discussions, even discussions that take place under reasonably favourable conditions, are not necessarily enlightening, clarifying or conducive to fostering consensus. In fact, they just as often foster polemics, and generate further bitterness, rancor and division.

This, of course, lies at the heart of the rift between defenders of IF-absolutism in Canada and their critics, and between defenders of austerity and labour exploitation in the UK and their critics. Faced with criticism, followers of Mill and Habermas can be expected to keep an open mind, to be prepared to reconsider based on new information and better arguments, right? After all that’s the philosophy underlying intellectual freedom and liberal-democratic librarianship…

And yet, Vickery Bowles was considered brave and upstanding for her direct admission that she was “not going to reconsider” her stance on room rentals. In a response to a resolution put forward by its membership, CILIP rejected putting the resolution up to the challenge of competing points of view, thus allowing the truth to emerge through a process of consensus, and preferred to try to manage its private partnership problem internally, behind closed doors. As we have seen from documents released under the Canadian Freedom of Information Act, Toronto Public Library also preferred to try to manage its room rental problem in secret, rather than being open to the criticism and challenge of other arguments. More recently, CILIP refused to reconsider its ill-advised paean to Dominic Cummings in the face of membership criticism.

As we can see, neither CILIP nor TPL (and by extension the organizations that supported TPL) conform to their own principles of intellectual freedom. While lecturing critics on the importance of “all perspectives” and the democratic indispensibility of absolutist IF, IF defenders were violating the very precepts of their own position. If, as IF-absolutism defenders maintain, IF is a procedural application of liberal principles in order to improve knowledge and approach the truth, then violating those procedures is incoherent, if not simply hypocritical.

Fundamentally, what is lacking in the Mill and Habermas philosophy of IF and, indeed, in many other areas of social relationships, is any understanding of power. Geuss again:

No amount of human exertion will suffice to permit us to establish within the domain of the natural phenomenon “communication” a safe-zone that is actually completely protected on all sides from the possible use of force, nor can we even realistically anticipate in some utopian sense a form of communication where relations of domination were completely suspended or canceled out.

In reality, then, libraries can either put their weight behind (say) trans people and workers, or behind those who threaten them. There is no neutral third option. And yet, such a utopian impossibility is precisely what libraries, their CEOs, and our professional organizations base their IF rhetoric on. They do not understand that as state institutions, as professional associations, they automatically possess and confer prestige, authority, and power on anything that goes on under their auspices. As a result, they lend support to particular social and political commitments (like transphobia or austerity) while insisting on the inapplicability of the question of power to their positions or behaviour. Until libraries and those who hold hierarchical power within them fully take on board the issue of power (in all its forms), and the problem of lives and times, the same rifts and divisions we currently see in the profession are only going to get worse.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview