Beyond Agreeing to Disagree

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.

11 thoughts on “Beyond Agreeing to Disagree

  1. I think I understand where you’re coming from on this, Andy, but I do disagree with you in several respects.

    First of all, nothing in my online presence says I’m a librarian. I block access to my profile, and I don’t talk about being a librarian in my comments online. So when I act online, I am rarely doing so as a librarian; in fact, in situations where I do consciously act as a librarian (such as here), I tend to do so only where the matter at hand touches on what I do as a librarian.

    I say “tend” because I can’t guarantee that I am perfect in this. At work, even when patrons express some of the most inflammatory of viewpoints, I don’t say much of anything, except to defend the rights of other patrons to also have viewpoints or to promote lifelong learning or access or somesuch. I don’t even have much in the way of bumper stickers, outside of one as an IU alumnus and another as a Doctor Who fan, because I’m aware I am a public figure as a librarian. So I’m not living up to any particular opinions about librarians, because few people know me as such.

    As a private individual, however, I have plenty of opinions. In social media, I do sometimes develop connections out of relatively light interactions (“sure, I’ll ‘like’ Chocri chocolate bars because I eat them sometimes and friending them will get me a coupon), and I have several times stated that I am ending connections with particular groups. In each case, it’s because there have been such pointed and intentional insults that, as a private citizen opposed to X, I really have no more use for the group.

    Where I have more at stake — real friends — my three instances of unfriending have come after several attempts to discuss things with the person in question and being unable to come to a point of agreeing to disagree. And, frankly, I’m rarely going to comment much on something I don’t care about pretty deeply anyway. I don’t, for example, go online every time I use Tide detergent to talk about the quality of my wash, or what it means for my interactions with others. I do, however, sometimes discuss passionately what I believe about political issues.

    You know, I am subjected to such asshattery at work most days that I simply don’t have any interest in sitting around and being unimpeachably neutral elsewhere. Should I try to talk reason? I learned a long time ago that I am not changing anyone’s mind by being reasonable. Do I have an obligation to seek out and then stay with things I personally find repulsive? No.

    So, not a congnitive disconnect, but the kind of compartmentalization I’ve done my whole life. When I did retirement plan administration, I didn’t feel a need or even an interest in telling people how to apply for plan loans. When I worked as a journalist, I didn’t whip out a notebook everytime someone said something. When I did insurance, I didn’t try to sell it to everyone. I do not try to force anyone into my religious or political beliefs. Why would I need to be perfectly impartial at all times as a private citizen who happens to also be a librarian? I get plenty of practice being impartial at work.

  2. RE: unfriending – People get offending too easily when someone disagrees with them. Partially, I think the offense they take is when they feel they do not have a clear understanding of their own beliefs, or they do not have sufficient arguments/evidence to back up their assertions.

  3. I have two thoughts I’m going to try and tie together and may fail with!

    I don’t believe that libraries are neutral institutions – what they (should) do in their aim to provide resources that don’t promote certain items over others, their reaction to attempts of censorship etc., mean that they make inherently political choices on a daily basis, and their policies simply can’t be neutral. They have educational and egalitarian goals that are in themselves political. We make value judgments about what we don’t give a platform when it’s of such a low quality or so hateful that it doesn’t deserve the light of day.

    I think agnostic pluralism has the potential to be incredibly valuable to society, and public spaces like libraries and online venues for discussion offer us the opportunity to engage in debate, disagree with people, work to change people’s minds when we think they’re mis- or uninformed about a topic, in a constructive way. There comes a point, though, when I personally have to walk away. When someone challenges a view you’ve expressed, or if you feel the need to challenge someone’s view, you can be as polite as possible and provide factual information, but you’re not being impartial or neutral, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to be, librarian or otherwise, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to unfollow or unfriend when you feel like you’ve hit a brick wall (or are offended/hurt by someone’s behaviour towards you). I think when you mention you’ve done it and point out someone’s ignorance or hateful behaviour could be a warning to others? I don’t know, I’ve not done it myself.

    As a librarian, I didn’t feel like I could be impartial about things like social justice. It’d be neglecting an important aspect of the work I did. As a researcher, I certainly don’t, because it’d be intellectually dishonest. As a citizen, I feel like I should stand up for certain things when I believe them to be worth standing up for. As an internet user…I have to pick my battles. But they’re battles that need to happen.

  4. I think Lauren has some great points. I don’t think that promoting the freedom to read and fighting censorship necessarily means that we should promote all worldviews equally. I have sat and helped people research and try to prove views that I found personally repugnant. I treated those persons with the same basic respect every human deserves, but providing equal access does not necessarily mean that we have to publicly say that both sides of every argument have equal value. As librarians we have a responsibility to certain ideals that are not equally supported by all political views.

    This, I feel, is a different issue than the public de-friending of those with different beliefs. It seems imperative for the future of public discourse that we learn the lost art of disagreeing amiably. Shutting down the views of those we disagree with is just not particularly helpful. It neither convinces anyone, nor grows understanding between sides. I find it very difficult to deal with sometimes. As a person who lives in a part of the country famous for beliefs that are different than my own, I would be constantly embattled if I were to respond to every post I disagree with on Facebook, but for people I care about, there’s a chance that I could start to humanize the opposition just by stating my point of view, and perhaps start to help people see that “I don’t agree” is not an attack.

  5. The issue is the medium of social media, or really any kind of electronic discourse. Even in e-mail, it’s easy to misinterpret what someone is trying to say. In a social media environment, it’s even easier, given that many of us, maybe most of us, aren’t talking to people that we actually know. In addition, that fact that our comments may be directed to one particular person, but it can be seen by everybody in a particular circle, complicates matters even more. I could be addressing a comment to my wife, my brother, or a person I’ve been friends with for 15 years, but people who don’t know me at all will see it too. We end up responding to what we think the comment means, without putting it into the context of knowing that person or the relationship between the people already communicating.

    As far as how this affects librarians, I think it’s a learning experience. Most librarians, while passionate about many different issues, tend to think that we’re above the fray. We pride ourselves on being defenders of free speech and expression, and facilitators of critical thinking and informed debate. However, when an issue really touches a personal nerve, it turns out we’re a bunch of hotheaded, irrational humans just like everybody else.

  6. My favorite part of this post is: “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.” That sentence kicks ass, Andy. I have a good example of it too – I posted something to my facebook cheering on Mayor Rahm Emmanuel when he told Chick-fil-a that they’re not welcome in Chicago. But several of my friends pointed out how rulings like this can easily be turned on their head – this is the same type of thinking that kept black-owned businesses out of the city for a long time. You cannot deny a business entry to a city if they aren’t actively discriminating against a group. I genuinely hadn’t thought of this – only my feelings that the CEO of Chick-fil-a is an evil jerkbag. And after some thought, realized that what my friends were saying makes sense.

    It helps to listen to all opinions. Now if that person is actively discriminating or bullying? That’s another story. That’s why the internet gods created the block function.

  7. The followers of Isaac Newton rather famously took up one of his famous expressions, “Non fingo Hypotheses” – roughly “I won’t fake a hypothesis” as a motto. They believed that all truths began with an ignorance, so declaring ones ignorance was an invitation and an invocation to discovery. I think in our partisan age “I disagree with you” should be the invitation to tries of friendship. It says I care enough about you to engage with you, my equal. To disagree is not an affront, but a statement of solidarity with the humanity of the other. With so many places to turn our eyes, the act of looking at one another is a pledge.

    To be clear, the decision to promote discourse is not a neutral value. It takes a stance against anyone who would use power to enforce uniformity. Librarians make a space for the plurality of thoughts not because it is a received law that we follow, but because it is the most efficacious way to promote human flourishing. In order to make this space available, we must not be neutral towards the necessary architecture of the public sphere; discourse, civility, empathy. We aught to promote them actively, since they’re the foundation of intellectual freedom. Newton refused to feign hypotheses, but he was brash in his insistence that he had the right method for turning ignorance into truth. In this way, librarians remain neutral to the merits of the various recorded products of civilization, but never doubt that civilization must be protected, so that those products may continue to be produced.

    As for the concordance between the public and private speech of librarians, we are allowed to be complex beings. Professional ethics are just that, ethics that guide the action of the professional while we are acting as agents of the profession. When you are outside that domain, other ethics will naturally apply. It doesn’t mean that you’re being a bad librarian, it means that you’re being a good you, in all your complexity. If, however, you find that you’re acting spontaneously on a case by case basis, without the benefit of a fully formed ethical system, you could do a lot worse than the ethics the profession holds dear.

  8. I remember reading this article on Salon about personal Facebook accounts becoming echo chambers.

    And for the most part mine is, and I have no problems with that. I have dropped family members from my Facebook feed because I couldn’t bear to see their aborted fetuses and gun-toting jingoism another day. For me, Facebook is a retreat into an ongoing conversation with my friends. I want it to be fun, moderately informative, but really I want it to be an opportunity to connect with people I rarely get to see. For many people they have diverse lives, and diverse enough interests that I can gloss over an occasional comment. But if the only thing they share is something that I find personally offensive, I’m dropping them.

    There was a period of several years in my life when I stopped reading the paper and watching the news entirely. I needed to live in a vacuum away from the drama of the second Bush administration, because the daily disgust that I had, living in DC and constantly being surrounded/assaulted by the constant stream of rage inducing apoplexy was making me physically sick. Seriously. My blood pressure was skyrocketing and I was on the verge of having a stroke. So I took steps to shield myself from reality, embracing only fiction and wilderness retreats for as long as I needed to do so. I’m not going to put myself back into that condition, under any circumstances. And if that means I don’t talk to a second cousin or some random person I met at a conference, I have no problem with that.

    Does this affect my work? Not in the slightest. Because in my personal life I am entitled to have my own personal opinions and associate with whomever I please. When I am in my position at work, I will answer all questions to the best of my ability regardless of the effect that it has on me. Yes, I have answered conservative Christians who come looking for biblical justification for discrimination against homosexual people. I showed it to them in the concordances, and where to search online to find that. And then I walked away. As people we have the ability to be impartial in our dealings professionally, regardless of our personal politics. You may be agnostic, maybe, but I’m definitely not.

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