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As part of my PhD research into the political theory of intellectual freedom and how it plays out in various contexts in Canadian librarianship, I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s work on multiculturalism and the politics of recognition. Glen Sean Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks also engages with Taylor’s work from an Indigenous perspective, and rejects Taylor’s conception of the politics of recognition because of the way in which Taylor’s liberalism can’t recognize the power imbalance between the settler state and Indigenous communities in Canada. The politics of recognition has also been challenged from feminist perspectives (Nancy Fraser, for example, argues that such a politics ignores material redistribution in favour of an idealist recognition of difference - similar to the performative acts municipalities and police forces are currently engaged in to prevent having to deal with material structures of police racism and brutality) and from Queer perspectives (Dean Spade argues that the recognition and inclusion of transgender people in hate speech codes [such as Canada’s Bill C-16] further embeds trans people in structures of medicalized oppression and police transmisia). From the intellectual freedom perspective, there’s another angle that I think is worth exploring in addition to these ones.

Taylor’s primary concern is with the issue of Quebec’s “distinct society” status and Canadian multiculturalism more generally, and fits into debates within liberal political theory around whether or not classical liberalism’s focus on individual rights was sufficient, or whether another conception of group, community, or collective rights was also necessary. Taylor posits two kinds of liberal societies: a majority, classically liberal society which he equates with “English Canada”, in which individual rights take priority; and a minority culture such as Quebec in which individual rights are in some way sacrificed to a collective goal, in this case the survivance of Quebecois culture. For Taylor, the larger (“right” or “default”) society is always the classical liberal one in which procedures are in place to guarantee individual rights in order for individuals to pursue their own conception of what is good (i.e. what is a good life). The role of the state, in this view, is to develop and enforce the procedures by which such rights are upheld. This “procedural liberalism” can be seen in the responses of IF absolutists to critical challenge. VPL, TPL, and the Ryerson Centre for Free Expression constantly base their responses to criticism on individual rights, the procedures which guarantee them (in the last instance, this means legislation such as the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights) and neutrality over any particular conception of the good. Libraries, like all liberal state institutions, can and must remain agnostic as to any particular conception of the good, and this agnosticism holds even in the face of racism, sexism, transmisia, ableism, and classism. It is a core tenet of classical liberalism that the state and its institutions must not have an opinion on what any individual might consider “good” (white supremacy, for example, or gender essentialism) and therefore cannot commit to any particular form of good. This places the liberal conception of state institutions at odds, in fact, with any real content to a statement of values. When Vancouver Public Library, for example, includes “community-led planning” and “community partnerships” among its list of values, it is with the unspoken proviso that this planning and these partnerships cannot commit the library to any conception of the good that the community might hold. Ostensibly “neutral” Liberal proceduralism must always trump any conception of the good the community might hold (trans rights, for example). This is why those values are immediately jettisoned whenever they threaten liberal proceduralism (e.g. when they require a commitment to trans rights).

For Taylor, the liberal proceduralist society does not hold any particular conception of the good, and therefore its set of procedures allow any individual’s conception of the good to be pursued unimpeded. By contrast, any community’s conception of the good (Quebec’s, or the Wet’suwet’en, or the trans community) is only allowable up until it infringes on the individual rights supported by liberal procedure (i.e. until it becomes “censorship” or interferes with the economic activity of the majority society, as the Wet’suwet’en blockades did). The conflict between these two kinds of society/community is the tension Taylor wants to explore, and he develops his politics of recognition as a way to resolve the antagonism.

But Taylor’s view of the liberal procedural society/state not committed to any particular conception of the good is totally false. The liberal society and state in Canada, the US, or Britain which claims to allow individual conceptions of the good to flourish while itself being agnostic as to any particular one of them, in fact holds private property and profit as a social good and directs its energies and resources - indeed its legal and juridical procedures - to accomplishing and protecting those conceptions of the good. Because Taylor is an idealist, he falls for into the idealist trap that if something is not explicitly spoken (i.e. if the idea is not represented in some kind of text), then it does not exist. So the fact that the liberal, settler-colonial state does not admit that it is commited to a particular (capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal) concept of the good means that it must be neutral in that respect. Liberal philosophy, as the ideology of the bourgeoisie, always takes the capitalist state at face value.

In this view, then, the proceduralism of the liberal state does not simply (neutrally) guarantee the rights of individuals, it commits to individualism as a good because individualism (competition, lack of solidarity) is a requirement for profiting off private property. When it defends the expression of racism, white supremacy, or transmisia in the name of intellectual freedom, intellectual freedom becomes merely a euphemism hiding a liberal procedural commitment to a particular good: the fracturing of society along the lines of identity, the impossibility of any kind of collective action, of a community proposing, supporting, and achieving its own vision of a good society. The problem is that, like Taylor, and like most white liberal society, librarianship has been taken in by the idealist, individualist vision of liberal political theory. It has fallen for the idea that it is a neutral guarantor of the individual right to pursue one’s own conception of the good, and is therefore oblivious to the fact that it is committed to - and actively engaged in - the reproduction and maintenance of a particular form of good (racial capitalism) that is actively harmful to society and the planet.

I have written before about the need for librarianship to be explicit about its commitments. One prerequisite for that would be for library CEOs and their friends at the Ryerson CFE to really interrogate the liberal political philosophy that (unconsciously) informs their positions and perspectives, and in particular the racist, patriarchal, and heteronormative inequalities the “neutral” proceduralism of liberal society in fact commits them to.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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