Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching a couple of issues roll through the online librarian community: the Chick-fil-A gay marriage row, the Tosh ‘rape joke’ story, and the gun control commentary over the movie theater massacre in Aurora. I’m not here to rehash the multiple viewpoints on each of these subjects, but to hone in on something I observed with each one on both Facebook and Twitter: the loud and public announcements of unfriending or unfollowing on the basis of holding opposing positions by my fellow librarians.
On one hand, I understand it: a person can be so offended by someone else’s attitude that they wish to rid themselves of the malefactor. Social media is a platform of personal choices, ranging from whom to talk with to what to talk about. As such, it follows that it should not be an uncomfortable place.
Perhaps some of these actions are the product of the weak connections people have made on these services, choosing to associate with others for the most tenuous of reasons (“You like the color blue? Me too! Let’s connect!”). As easily as these bonds are formed, so too are they broken by the first brush with conflict; when relationships are built on such shaky connections, it does not take much to knock them down.
On the other hand, this open denouncement of another on the basis of holding a contradictory position has underlying implications that really bother me. Personally, I don’t see how ending an online friendship (acquaintanceship?) brings about any sort of understanding to any issue; in turning one’s back to another, it ends the dialogue right there. While I might not be able to convince someone to see things my way, at the very least I’d like them to know where I’m coming from (and vice versa). The movement towards a more inclusive and understanding greater society does not start by excluding people who don’t agree with you. In turning off people with dissimilar viewpoints, this action merely carves out a smaller and more efficient echo chamber and leads to gaps of comprehension and acknowledgement. When you stop questioning, examining, and evaluating the many facets of the world (including attitudes and beliefs), I think there is a lot to be lost in the greater whole.
Professionally, it feels like a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. To flat out reject and condemn someone’s personal ideas and feelings while defending the right to collect and provide access to unpopular, unsavory, and/or otherwise indicted works of literature seems hypocritical when placed next to each other. At first glance it puts a premium on published works over the spoken word or online social communication; a bound book is placed on an intellectual freedom pedestal while a tweet, Facebook update, or blog post is not afforded the same considerations. In my current comprehension of the concepts of intellectual freedom and the freedom of expression, I find no caveats or clauses allowing for its abridgement because it is not “correct” either socially, politically, or morally nor the format or medium where it appears.
Furthermore, such public acts perpetuate confirmation bias in our critics who believe that the library does not collect certain types of materials because it content is too conservative/liberal/etc. for the liberal/conservative/etc. librarians. While some might argue that there is a compartmentalization that happens when it comes to collecting material for the library that sets aside personal judgments, librarians are still imperfect human beings who opinions, beliefs, and biases. This kinds of behaviors erode our credibility to make that claim that we act in an unbiased and fair way in approaching our collections. Ultimately, it betrays some of the tenets of the profession that attracted us to it in the first place.
It is a fair counterargument to say that breaking ties with someone does not equate to telling them to be quiet or placing other restrictions upon them. Freedom of speech and expression are protected from government consequence, not social or societal. As well it should be since there should be a means in which to demonstrate or affirm one’s own belief system. For those people who simply broke ties without overtly condemning the opposing viewpoint, I concede the point. I can only rebut by saying that my observations have shown me that this is not always the case.
In writing this, I’m hoping that people step back and give a little more thought as to how they act when confronted with different opinions on their various social media platforms. It’s not that librarians shouldn’t wear their beliefs or politics on their sleeve, but they should be aware of how that looks and appears to others. At a time when the field is struggling with defining (and redefining) what the library is in this digital age, the perception of the library is a critical component. If we can’t make our credentials as neutral institutions unimpeachable, how are we different from the search biases displayed in search engines like Google and Bing, the slant of news companies like the New York Time or the Wall Street Journal, or any number of online entities that show you the world through their kaleidoscope?
I know I can’t possibly address all the extenuating and exacerbating circumstances that led people to unfollow or unfriend others, so some of what I wrote may not apply. As such, your mileage on this post may vary but I hope it offers food for thought.
In reflecting on what I have written before I press the Publish button, perhaps I am trapped in some form of naïve idealism which compels me to find a middle ground, one that wants me to engage and try to get a better understanding so that the world doesn’t look so vastly and wildly discombobulated. It’s not an easy undertaking in the slightest when faced with onerous and odious beliefs, but I still make the attempt. It’s part of an eternal struggle to reconcile intellectual freedom and freedom of expressions as ideals versus the reality of my own beliefs, opinions, and thoughts within the world around me. In working towards these ideals in their more pure form, I feel it strikes at the heart of the notion that the library is a place that offers something for everyone, regardless of who they are and what they believe. Libraries offer their collections and services to all who seek it, not all who are worthy it.