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In critical theory circles, one of the ways “critique” functions is by exposing the assumptions made by proponents of a particular theory or worldview. Sometimes these assumptions are unconscious, but whether they are consciously-held or not, they are always withheld or not made explicit by the discourse in question. This is one of the things Kant tried to do in his Critiques, it is what Hegel tried to do in his critique of Kant, and it is Marx’s focus in his critique of Political Economy. What has become apparent in the discourse of intellectual freedom is that there a set of social and political assumptions being made which, whether or not they are consciously or unconsiously held, are never made explicit. Because they are not made explicit, their political commitments do not become part of the discussion or debate around IF, and they end up either setting the terms of the discussion (when critics might think the terms themselves need to be different), or they force adherents and critics to have completely separate discussions cut off from each other.

In a CFE blog post from April 27 Alvin Schrader reiterates the absolutist view of intellectual freedom in libraries. Despite the title of the blog post being in the form of a question “should public library boards embrace intellectual freedom as their institutional soul”, Schrader is not interested in answering that question. His answer appears in the first sentence of the blog post: “I want first to address the fundamental role and value of the public library in Canadian communities - its ‘value proposition’, grounded in intellectual freedom - and then make a case for intellectual freedom as the institutional soul of the public library”. This is setting up a circular argument: libraries’ value proposition “grounded in intellectual freedom” is used to support the idea of intellectual freedom at the centre of librarianship. Schrader’s conception of intellectual freedom is assumed to be the right one, and is then used to answer the question of intellectual freedom itself.

There is much to critique in Schrader’s piece. It is clear that, despite mentioning some of the critical positions, Schrader has not seriously engaged with critics of intellectual freedom absolutism. Schrader unironically and without nuance repeats the democratic discourse of librarianship without indicating that the very fact of democracy is subject to debate and contestation.

But there is a particular set of assumptions that I want to challenge here. I have talked a lot about the democratic discourse, so there’s no point rehashing that argument. Rather, what I want to focus on is the self-determining individualistic social ontology that Schrader - and most liberal defenders of IF - take for granted. Schrader writes that the Supreme Court of Canada “provides insights into three key principles that shed light on why intellectual freedom is so fundamental to the Canadian body politic”, but he takes for granted the idea that the Supreme Court somehow transcends the social and political struggles in which all institutions are embedded. This is unsurprising, the Supreme Court - like libraries and the conception of intellectual freedom - have to be described in objective, politically neutral terms in order for the socio-political and economic system to maintain and reproduce itself. Distrust of institutions challenges the capitalist order. Schrader here simply applies to the Supreme Court the assumption of neutrality that has been so roundly criticized within librarianship itself. A commitment to the neutrality of libraries, IF, and the Supreme Court are all part of the same process of legitimation the upholds a “neutral” view of the Canadian state itself. What on the surface appears to be a fairly uncontroversial statement of fact becomes ends up supporting very particular political commitments.

One of the principles the Supreme Court has upheld is that “freedom of expression is instrumental to democratic governance and citizen partipation in social and political decision-making”. What I have argued in Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship is that “democratic governance” and “citizen participation” are ideological presumptions made about the state of Canadian society and politics, again for particular political purposes. My own perspective - which I try always to make explicit - is that there is no democratic governance in Canada, and there is no meaningful citizen participation in decision-making. Just prior to the coronavirus pandemic we were dealing with Indigenous blockades against pipeline development, the latest instance in a long tradition of Indigenous resistance in the face of social and political (“democratic”) exclusion. Similarly, Canadian citizens find themselves the “owners” of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, a decision approved by Cabinet and subject to no democratic oversight or citizen participation at all. I could go on.

But the heart of the assumptions Schrader is making, the one that I want to single out as the most unassuming of social assumptions made by liberal defenders of IF like Schrader and Turk, is the following:

[U]nfettered discourse fosters individual self-fulfillment and self-actualization, and thus directly engages individual human dignity… the open exchange of ideas encourses the search for knowledge and truth; intellectual freedom is the only pathway to individual and collective truth-seeking.

Unfettered discourse, individual self-fulfillment and self-actualization: these are all presented as uncontroversial facts about our society. And yet, there are many, many thinkers, scholars, and activists out there who deny these very facts. Simply to repeat them as facts, as Schrader and Turk do, is not to make an argument or convince us that they are the case. In that sense, they do indeed become ideological (less of a bad word for me than for Schrader, for obvious reasons). Schrader subscribes to a view of individual identity and social relationships (including discourse) that is of long standing in liberal philosophy: the idea that (somehow) individuals are not subject to social relationships that pre-exist them, that they are not born into social relationships (including language), cultures (including values and ideas), and dynamics of power. This idea has been disproved by sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and political theorists. And yet it is one of the mose deeply embedded ideological constructs of our so-called liberal democracies. Marx dealt with its presence in 18th century political economy by dismissing it as a “Robinsonade”, the myth of a self-sufficient bourgeois gentleman (erasing Friday). It reappears in Thoreau, and we all know how reliant he was upon the support and labour of his own (female) social relations. It is present in Kant (the categories of space, time, and causality are inexplicable to Kant except as innate ideas; he does not understand that we learn these categories when we are babies). It is present in the social contract theorists, for whom individuals living their best lives decide to come together after the fact to form a society. None of these social and political conceptions are tenable, and yet they form part of the unspoken social and political assumption Schrader relies upon in his defense of IF.

This ideology is not accidental. It is the ideology required by cis-gendered, heterosexual, white, patriarchal property owners in order to maintain their power in the world. They see themselves as “self-made men” with no social bonds to anyone else (especially not to the women and servants who perform the necessary labour). They come together in coffeehouses, the stock exchange, and parliament as independent, autonomous equals. They are ignorant of the ways their ideas, values, and discourse have all been produced by generations of social power and perspectives. There is no such thing as unfettered discourse: discourse arises out of previous discourse, out of the social world itself, it is inherited by people. In a famous formulation in the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx writes that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. How can there be such a thing as absolute “intellectual freedom”, freedom of any unqualified kind, in a world of such social and intellectual necessity?

The ideology of individualism informs the debate, and it is difficult to frame things any other way, precisely because absolutist IF defenders are not explicit about their own social and political commitments. Because of this, they can only understand phrases like “intellectual freedom seems a threat to social justice and must be supplanted by censorship in the name of equity and inclusion”. This sentence only makes sense from the perspective of individualist bourgeois ideology. If we reject the corrosive individualist presumption, we can understand that intellectual freedom can only arise out of collective social justice, and in that context the term “censorship” disappears. Censorship and intellectual freedom can only be considered binary opposites if one presumes individual agency and independent intellectual self-determination.

The unspoken political commitments in Schrader’s piece come closest to the surface in his discussion of capitalism. Like many contemporary observers, such as Shoshana Zuboff and Nick Srnicek, Schrader insists on adding adjectives to capitalism “wild west capitalism, uncontrolled capitalism, late-stage capitalism, predatory capitalism, disaster capitalism” in order to salvage capitalism from its various critiques. For Schrader, there are no problems with capitalism itself, it is merely “this current form of capitalist democracy” which has “metastasized into an uncontrollable malignancy”. For Schrader (as for John Buschman), there was a period of “good capitalism” when minority rights were protected and censors knew their place. Such a period, it should go without saying, is a complete fabrication, one which does nothing but prop up the exploitative, violent, oppressive system of capitalism itself. This is the political project absolutist IF serves.

The remainder of the blogpost relies on the ideological strawperson Schrader has set up. That critics of absolutist IF are censors who want less intellectual freedom, rather than scholars and practitioners who are explicit about their political commitments, who deny the corrosive individualism of hegemonic liberalism, and who deny that what we are calling for is censorship. In the absence of any real engagement with our work, critics of absolutist IF continue to be painted as misguided censors, extremists. It is not lost on me that this is how Schrader feels defenders of IF are painted. The difference is that we engage with Samek’s work, Turk’s work, Buschman’s work, Schrader’s work. It is hard to think that Schrader could to countenance the idea that absolutism in IF is never defined, if he had read any of the blog posts I and others have written on the subject. (OTOH, the earliest reference I’ve seen to “absolutist” IF is in Michael Gorman).

Anyway, this post is long enough. Needless to say Schrader concludes by simply repeating the same liberal canards that come up again and again, like the elision of offense and harm, the distrust and misunderstanding of intersectionality and overdetermination, of what Hegel thinks of as “historical subjectivity”, vocational awe, and first and foremost, the democratic discourse of librarianship. I will end, however, with one more example of the unquestioned and unchallenged assumptions which run through Schrader’s piece:

In early November 2019, in the midst of the public library meeting room controversies, a close librarian colleague wrote me: “What is most disturbing is so many people seem to have forgotten that we cannot pick and choose when to support free speech, a concept so fundamental to our democratic values and freedoms. As I pinned the poppy on my lapel this morning, I thought about this and all the work there is to do.”

Here we have the whole package: library neutrality (“we cannot pick and choose”), the democratic discourse, the presumption of already-existing freedom. But perhaps most pernicious of all the reference to the poppy, symbol of the recuperation for capitalism of war for profit, war for geopolitical power, war for the extension of capitalism, war for colonial oppression. The most ironic thing, though the irony is lost on Schrader, is that the reference to pinning on the poppy is a perfect example of how individual “choices” are determined by social, political, and symbolic power. Schrader’s colleague would not have used the poppy in such a symbolic fashion if they could not expect Schrader to understand the symbolism. There was no risk of an individual’s intellectual freedom making such symbolic identification impossible. In what sense, really, were Schrader and his colleague intellectually free to construe the poppy in any another sense?


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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