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I’ve been trying to understand how the room-rental to transphobic speakers at Toronto Public Library and the “airport-style” security implemented at Winnipeg Public Library are connected, first to each other, and then to the dominant conception of intellectual freedom. This blog post is a “thinking aloud” about one way to understand the connection.

The TPL controversy was explicitly framed around intellectual freedom: the Charter right of freedom of expression had to be universally and equally applied as an aspect of democracy protected and sustained by libraries. On the other hand, intellectual freedom was not (that I know of) explicitly applied to the Winnipeg case in any concentrated way. There were some comments about the restriction of intellectual freedom to any user who was prevented or discouraged from entering the library due to the security measures, but most of the challenges to the policy focused on the fact of exclusion itself.

The way I think these two events are connected is in the way they play with the idea of “acceptable inequality” within the context of “liberal egalitarianism”, the form of liberal political philosophy derived from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. For Rawls, “justice as fairness” is composed of two principles.

1) The principle of equality of opportunity. This posits the universal and equal application of rights, regardless of social position (i.e. class, identity, wealth, privilege, etc). This is the “colour blind” egalitarianism of Rawls’ position. For Rawls, this principle means that “assuming that there is a distribution of natural assets, those who are at the same level of talen and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system”. From a critical perspective, this principle ignores or erases structures of oppression and inequality (and indeed, this principle is used to deny the existence of such structures in real politics). A charitable interpretation would argue that by this principle Rawls is seeking to overcome or circumvent such structures.

The first princple is balanced by a second:

2) The difference principle. In a social system defined by equality of opportunity, some inequality is justified if and only if it benefits the least advantaged members of society. Rawls illustrates this principle in a few different ways, but perhaps a good example is that of trickle-down economics, where the justification is that increased wealth at the top flows down to those at the bottom, and “a rising tide raises all boats”. Again, in real politics and economics, this principle is often used to justify and support an unequal and exploitative status quo.

What is important here is that the first principle giveth (absolute universal equality) and the second princple taketh away. The idea of an acceptable departure from universal equality is often deployed in political theories derived from Rawls, but often with different criteria. Charles Taylor, for example, in his work on the politics of recognition, argues that the difference principle can be applied to cultural differences (universal equality except where it would lead to misrecognition of individuals) and James Tully applies it to culturally diverse polities (universal equality except in the right to self-determination of ethnic or cultural minorities).

In practice, what I think happens is that the difference principle becomes a kind of catch all or get-out-of-jail-free card, to be used to enforce or circumvent the universal application of equal rights for political purposes.

In the TPL case, absolute universal application of the Charter right to freedom of expression was applied, with no recognition of the difference principle, which would have allowed TPL to reject the room-rental because that would have been to the advantage of transgender people. (Similarly, at the infamous TPL board meeting, the letter but not the spirit of Taylor’s “politics of recognition” was adhered to.) In the WPL case, the difference principle was applied in the sense that inquality of access to the library was justified in the name of increased safety for library workers. The denial of structural inequalities and oppression made possible by Rawls’ first principle allows for the non-recognition of marginalized people as disadvantaged.

I’ve argued on this blog - and I know others have as well - that one of the problems with absolutist IF is that it is used to trump (and I use the word advisedly) all other values. I think the political tactic is a little more subtle than that: what library leaders and policy makers do (probably unconciously, given the hegemonic position of liberal philosophy) is to implicitly frame their policy decisions according to one or the other of Rawls’ two principles of justice. Intellectual Freedom happens to be one of the values that lends itself to reliance on the principle of equality, while other values (security, confidentiality, etc) are deployed in order to leverage the difference principle.

Once we see things in that light, we can actually apply them to many library and library-adjacent decisions. Unwillingness to support BIPOC library workers is justified by reference to the principle of equality; lack of collegiality in decision making to the difference principle. Unfortunately, what Rawls saw as a normative way of creating the conditions for a just society are too easily recuperated for the purposes of the exercise of traditional (class, race, and gender-based) power. Perhaps unfortunately is the wrong word, if we understand liberal political philosophy as having been developed precisely to ensure the continued functioning of that power.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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