Last night (October 15), Donald Trump took part in a town-hall style Q&A rather than participate in a virtual or online presidential debate. At one point, moderator Savannah Guthrie questioned Trump on his retweet of a conspiracy theory that “[Joe] Biden orchestrated to have Seal Team 6 killed to cover up the fake death of Osama Bin Laden”. The exchange went as follows:
“Why would you send a lie like that to your followers?” Guthrie asked him.
“I know nothing about it,” Mr Trump said.
“You retweeted it,” Guthrie pointed out.
“That was a retweet, that was an opinion of somebody, and that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there, people can decide for themselves, I don’t take a position,” the president responded.
“I don’t get that,” Guthrie countered. “You’re the president - you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever!”
Now, this exchange has many connections to debates around intellectual freedom in librarianship. In the first place, there’s the implication that presenting an opinion and allowing people to decide for themselves is a cornerstone of a free democracy. The 1939 Library Bill of Rights frames - in an early version of what today we call “both-sidesism” - as “all sides of question on which differences of opinion exist should be represented fairly and adequately” in library collections. An “opinion” (i.e. a retweet) is not amenable to a logic of truth or falsehood, but merely to fair and adequate representation. The villain in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose puts it like this: “the library is testimony to truth as well as to error”. But erasing the difference between error and deliberate falsehood raises questions we will return to below.
In the second place, the exchange quoted above raises the question of power. Guthrie’s distinction between “someone’s uncle” and “the president” as an acknowledgement that social position and power enters into the terms of the debate. This acknowledgement goes against some of the core tenets of liberal political thought, for example the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states in section 15.1:
Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
For liberalism, this section supports an unquestionable and unchallengeable equality of rights and liberties, universally applied laws, etc. It appears as fundamental to our sense of justice. However, as critics of “post-racial” or “colour-blind” political discourse have demonstrated, by denying that things like race, sex, or disability have any bearing on rights and liberties, the Charter of Rights in fact denies that structural inequalities on those bases exist. “Equality is enshrined on our Charter of Rights” becomes a way to deny the reality of structural oppression and inequality in the lived reality of Canadian society. (More recently, we can see the distinction at work in the way the RCMP responded to the Wetʼsuwetʼen and Tyendinaga land-defense blockades earlier this year, and the way they have allowed anti-Indigenous intimidation to proceed unimpeded at the Mi’kmaw lobster fishery).
This formal equality as the foundation of justice was made explicit in John Rawls Theory of Justice (1971) which revitalized liberal political philosophy, including the philosophy which informed the Canadian Charter of Rights. In the Theory, Rawls argues that social justice can only be achieved if people exclude any social or identity characteristics when they decide on principles of justice. Rawls argues that if people don’t know their social position, their class, race, etc, then they will decide on principles of justice that are fair to all. In this way, real inequality and injustice are evacuated from Rawls’ theory. In addition, any collective act or action is automatically undermined, because all possibility of coming together over shared experience is immediately suppressed. (This of course echoes the doomed, impossible imperative of capitalism to isolate workers even while work itself requires the increasing interaction of more and more workers).
Now, it may be argued that Rawls is attempting an abstract, generalized, universal philosophy, describing what ought to be the case rather than what is the case. However, Rawls’ philosophy became the foundation for real policy decisions - for example the framing of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. As Katrina Forrester has written in her recent book about the origins and reception of Rawls’ theory, “in his wake, political philosophy was remade. Philosophical liberalism became synonymous with with Rawls, and political philosophy synonymous with a kind of liberalism born in postwar America”.
But Rawls’ “original position” also by definition excludes differences in power. Rawls’ theory - and by extension all liberalism - is unable to comprehend the differences between an opinion disseminated by “someone’s uncle” and one disseminated by the “leader of the free world”. Similarly, libraries are unable to comprehend the difference between a transmisic speaker presenting her views on her own website or in her own podcast. “Retweets are not endorsements” is fine for “someone’s uncle”, but it is unappropriate to apply to platforming or dissemination undertaken by the president or by state institutions like libraries.
The third point I want to raise about Trump’s exchange is the idea that “people can decide for themselves” - another cornerstone of absolutist intellectual freedom. This idea, too, comes to liberal political thought through Rawls, but it is most succinctly expressed by Kant in his 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment?” Enlightenment, Kant claims, is “man’s [sic] emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another”. Charles Taylor expresses this idea in post-Rawlsian terms in his critique of Robert Nozick’s libertarianism: “realizing a [good life] involves developing the capacity to act and choose in a genuinely independent way”. For Taylor, “the free individual or autonomous moral agent can only achieve and maintain his [sic] identity in a certain type of culture”, and so political goals are those which tend to support the free, individual, and autonomous ability to act and choose in an independent way.
But the assumption that there is such a thing as a genuinely independent act or an autonomous actor is a huge one. What liberals going back to Kant ignore is that we are born and brought up in already existing social, cultural, and political relationships and structures (including racist and sexist ones). We are born into a household and community that speaks a particular language, that is the language that has primacy in our ways of thinking and communicating, our local libraries tend to default to that language in their collections, communications, programs, and services, we read easiest in that language, which means we are closest to writers in that language, and writers from cultures where that language predominates, etc, etc. Thought of in these terms, Kant’s contention that there is any way in which understanding may be used “without the guidance of another” falls apart. This undercuts the entire Kantian framework of intellectual freedom, by challenging the very idea of freedom for liberalism itself.
Ironically, it is the adherence to a Kantian notion of Enlightenment and intellectual maturity (rather than the liberal bugbear of postmodernism) that makes it impossible to take sides and call out falsehoods. To take a side, to commit to a position, to argue a point, to insist on a distinction between truth and falsehood is to try to overcome someone else’s intellectual independence (we can see this in the issue of reading-level or genre indicators for IF-absolutists). Respecting the intellectual freedom of individuals means that everything becomes an opinion (even an error, to be self-corrected by the intellectually mature individual) rather than a truth imposed by the objective outside world. Liberalism perhaps more than postmodern relativism (with its distrust of “grand narratives”) has contributed to the erosion of any idea of objective truth or fact in political discourse.
Notice, too, how political thinking involves processes and procedures. The truth content is unimportant; what is vital for liberal democracy is the procedure of respecting an individual’s autonomy. I have written elsewhere on the question of liberal proceduralism and its political effects.
Once we start looking at the genealogy of intellectual freedom and digging into its epistemological and ontological assumptions, it becomes easy to challenge the easy platitudes of, for example, the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. But more than that it makes it impossible to ignore the fact that liberal philosophy - including the philosophy of intellectual freedom - serves a very real political purpose: to erase structures of inequality and oppression, to place them outside of political discourse itself, to make them literally undescribable in its terms; but also to obscure the workings of power - both the power of the state and its institutions, but also our own capacity for collective power - and to make everything the responsibility of “free, autonomous individuals”.
Last week, Justin Trudeau encouraged Canadians to donate to food banks when they do their shopping. Swift criticism followed, that Trudeau more than anyone had the power to pass laws making food banks unnecessary and eliminating food poverty. But the ideology of liberalism makes this impossible for him and his party - indeed, the entire Canadian political class - to comprehend: Kant’s theory of enlightenment and Rawls’ theory of justice require that individuals make their own choices, decide on their own actions, and it is not the place of the state - or state institutions like libraries - to interfere with individuals’ use of their own self-guided reason. To do so would be to hamper individuals’ achievement of enlightenment itself.