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As my PhD research on Intellectual Freedom in Canadian libraries evolves, it is moving away from ethical and political-economic questions towards what should more properly be described as political theory. One thing I am trying to do is to situate the IF transphobia incidents at VPL and TPL within larger social and political issues in Canada, especially as they relate to the question of minority rights. Minority rights, in the classical-liberal, absolutist IF perspective, are that free speech/free expression protects, against the tyranny of the majority. This is straight out of John Stuart Mill. But as I have written before, Mill’s theory, like Locke’s, was developed in a relatively homogeneous society of white, property-owning men (with white women and all people of colour by definition excluded from political and philosophical consideration).

Over time, imperialism/colonialism and globalization changed the face of the societies in which these theories arose. In imperial centres like the UK, immigration from the colonies exposed the racism at home early on: think of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968, and more recently - drunk on Brexit - the British government’s attempts to deport members of the “Windrush generation” who had come from the colonies to the UK between 1948 and 1970. In settler-colonial states like Canada, similar processes have taken place with respect to demands for Indigenous sovereignty. What were formally seen - at least in their own self-image - as relatively homogeneous states (and formal policies of assimilation were meant to maintain some sense of homogeneity) have now had to face up to the fact that they are not just multicultural but multiethnic and (more importantly, in Canada’s case), multinational polities in their own right. Additionally, globalization has (or had - things are changing rapidly) bound sovereign nation-states into international or global organizations like NAFTA, the EU, the World Bank, or the United Nations. The important role played by the WHO in the current pandemic and its defunding by Donald Trump (while the US was already millions of dollars behind in its WHO funding commitments) is an indication of the current tensions between national sovereignty and international order.

All this to say that the classical liberal philosophy of Locke and Mill has not been adequate to imperial or settler-colonial states for a long time, and yet it is most often with reference to Mill (or others of the same ilk, like Jefferson and Madison) that IF absolutists deal with questions of minority rights. One has only to glance into any edition of the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Handbook to see this in action.

To deal with the changing complexion both domestically and internationally of the question of minority rights, cultural diversity, and multinational politics, various political theorists and philosophers in the 1990s developed the theory of a politics of recognition. Axel Honneth, James Tully, Nancy Fraser, and perhaps most influentially, Charles Taylor, all addressed the politics of recognition from various minority rights angles. The theory began as a way to understand and recuperate the project of multiculturalism, but it rapidly gained prominence not only in feminist theory (for example in Fraser’s work, though she is also critical of the concept), but in queer and trans rights work as well. Basically, the politics of recognition draws on Hegel (and sometimes on Frantz Fanon) to argue that since self-consciousness (and some would say individuality itself) comes about through mutual recognition with an Other who is an equal, misrecognition or nonrecognition can have a harmful effect on people’s self-image, leading to various psychological and social problems. These problems, the theory goes, could be mitigated by a properly egalitarian politics of recognition. Accordingly, various “recognitions” took place within settler-colonial states, recognition of land rights and cultural practices (towards Indigenous people), recognition of a distinct society (for Quebec), recognition of gender equality (for women) and, in 2016 with Bill C-16, recognition of gender and sexual identity as protected grounds in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

I would argue that the values statements of public libraries attempt to participate in this politics of recogition, through values of community engagement, but also through much of the discourse around safe spaces, respect for all identities, and allyship. What critics of libraries - especially in the transphobia, room-rental debates - point out is that these values and commitments are discarded when they challenge Intellectual Freedom - IF becomes the only value that matters. Recognition, then, only goes so far, remains limited to only particular spheres (cultural or identity spheres) rather than actually making libraries change their policies.

In many ways, this problem lies at the heart of one of the most convincing critiques of the politics of recognition, Glen Sean Coulthard’s Red Skin White Masks (2014). Coulthard argues that because the politics of recognition is predicated on equality, it allows recognition to be limited to spheres of cultural practice (where we can all be considered equal) but not to fundamentally unequal relationships (colonizer/colonized, for example, or labour/capital) (Coulthard draws on Fraser’s distinction between “affirmative” rather than “transformative” redistribution, that is, a surface adjustment of minority/majority relationships, rather than a fundamental transformation). The liberal regime of (formally) equal rights and an exploitative political economy remains untouched. As a result, recognition becomes “cultural recognition” only, and the project of multiculturalism is saved without having to deal with the underlying capitalist social and economic system.

The height of hypocrisy when it comes to recognition is “consultation”. As we have seen with respect to UNDRIP, and most recently with pipeline approvals, Indigenous consultation has become a key part of the federal government’s process. But consultation merely involves recognition of Indigenous views, it does not go so far is to listen to them, take them seriously, or act on them. Coulthard’s argument is that the presumption of equality in a politics of recognition is completely fictitious in a society based on colonial oppression and exploitation: the Hegelian theory of recogntion does not hold in a situation of such vastly unequal power relationships. The power of the Canadian state means that it can deign to offer “recognition” without having to actually change.

We saw the same thing play out at the scandalous Toronto Public Library board meeting in late 2019, when many trans people stood up to tell their stories to the board. They were, in the sense we have been discussing, recognized by the board, and much of the discourse coming from board members has been around recognition of the rights, needs, and harms facing trans communities. But the aftermath of the board meeting - and the documents received under FOIA show that this outcome was determined in advance - have shown that, as with settler-Indigenous relationships, the politics of recognition only went as far as the board wanted and no further, that is, only as far as possible to demonstrate recognition/consultation, without actually having to change library policy.

The politics of recognition is not the only way to understand these dynamics, but it does offer a particularly clear-cut way to understand the VPL and TPL reactions to criticism of their IF position in the last couple of years.

More to come…


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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