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One thing I’ve figured out in my research on intellectual freedom is that two competing notions are hidden beneath what is presented as a clearly defined legal and moral concept. Intellectual freedom can be understood as both an origin - something which naturally pertains to individuals, must be protected and remain unchallengeable - and an outcome - intellectual freedom as something to be attained. Both these forms of intellectual freedom have long philosophical lineages, but the clearest expressions can be found in social contract theory and Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”

For Kant, “enlightenment” is the outcome of a process of self-education, in which one eventually discards the “self-incurred tutelage” of authority to think for oneself. Intellectual freedom, then, is something to be achieved, and outcome to work towards. If libraries were to focus on this form of intellectual freedom, then they would prioritize education, up-to-date information, fighting misinformation, etc. And we know that libraries do, in part, do this. In part this is what we mean by supporting intellectual freedom.

But the other form of intellectual freedom, which comes out of social contract theory, sees intellectual freedom as something the individual possesses originally. Like all other natural rights and freedoms in the so-called state of nature, the individual of social contract theory is a priori intellectually free. To support and maintain intellectual freedom in this sense is to resist censorship, remain “neutral”, ensure the equal distribution of free speech/free expression, etc. And we see that libraries try to support intellectual freedom in this sense as well.

There are problems with intellectual freedom as outcome to do with power, ideology, and the impossibility of a simple correspondence of ideas to the material world. But for now I want to tease out some of the consequences of intellectual freedom as origin.

Intellectual freedom as origin means that whatever ideas one happens to have must be the result of that originary freedom. We rarely go so far as to say that these ideas were deliberately chosen in a form of rational choice, but they are (in whatever sense) rational. Who are we to argue with the ideas that a rational, free individual has chosen to subscribe to. The role of libraries in supporting intellectual freedom is to ensure that nothing impinges on the free choice of whatever idea anyone happens to have. This has grave consequences for information literacy. Carrie Wade has exhaustively challenged the orthodoxy in this area (here, here, here, and here, for example) - definitely read her work on this!

I want to connect this idea of intellectual freedom as origin with two connected movements that have special significance in the pandemic: anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. Under the terms of intellectual freedom as origin (social contract, state of nature, absolute individualism, etc). Not only does society have no right to challenge the ideas an anti-vaxxer or an anti-masker might hold, society has no right to even try. The “natural right” to uphold and protect an originary intellectual freedom means that we have to presume that any individual has freely chosen the ideas they have and the positions they hold, no matter how dangerous or unsupported they are.

At one stroke, education becomes an impossibility, given that education is there precisely to change the ideas that an individual holds (which is why homeschooling, at least in my province, is connected to libertarianism, which is itself connected with anti-vaxx and anti-mask positions).

But this originary IF does not just have theoretical forebears (as a materialist, I definitely wouldn’t want to suggest that). There are solid social, political, and economic reasons to stand by an idea of IF as origin. Think of “the customer is always right”; think of the myth of the radically individualist thinker, standing alone, and misunderstood by everyone else (and the social alienation that underwrites this position); think of the spread of conspiracy theories like flat-eartherism and QAnon, both of which rely on an intellectual freedom position that says any idea you happen to hold is true simply by virtue of the fact that you hold it. The oppressive structures of capitalism rely on these ideas being taken at face value, taken for granted, common sense.

How does education fit here? I think education relies on the ambiguity between IF as origin and as outcome, because education is a core element in the outcome tendency. But it is anathema to the origin tendency, and there’s the rub: if libraries are not just “give them what they want” institutions, if we are indeed institutions of education, “useful knowledge”, then we would have to be able to distinguish in practice between outcome and origin. But this would require taking a non-absolutist stance on IF (because absolutism would have to include IF as origin, as it does now).

Similarly, for libraries to be “arsenals of a democratic culture”, there has to be a way for ideas to change. Use of a library to produce the kind of well-educated public that ensures democratic health and longevity only works if your theory of IF can encompass intellectual change. IF as origin can’t, because it prejudges every idea - no matter how perverse - as the product of a free, individual, rational choice.

All of the positions that arise out of IF as origin - think of “the customer is always right” in the context of anti-mask customers - have become more acute under COVID, as has just about everything else. This is a good opportunity to rethink the assumptions of intellectual freedom and the consequences such assumptions force upon us; the crowning irony of a profession supposedly committed to intellectual freedom.

This contradiction at the heart of intellectual freedom - obscured by the reification of the social relations of intellectual activity and “freedom” itself - require resolution. Whatever we end up with, and this resolution would likely have another name than “intellectual freedom”, has to take both the genealogy of its concepts and its obligations seriously. As always, however, this will in turn require a transformation of the social relations that produced the social contract, Kantian enlightenment, and library values themselves.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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