Reconciling Our Values

When intellectual freedom and social justice collide in libraries

June 24, 2021

Photo of Annual speaker Alison Macrina

Some of the most fiercely debated flashpoints in the field of librarianship today lie at the intersection of intellectual freedom and other values of the profession, such as a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. At “Intellectual Freedom is Meaningless without Social Justice,” a June 24 session at the American Library Association’s 2021 Annual Conference and Exhibition Virtual, Alison Macrina, director of the Library Freedom Project, examined this convergence.

Macrina spoke about the thorny concept of viewpoint neutrality, or the idea that libraries must provide equal access to collections, services, and spaces without regard to the entrenched power dynamics that often shape library policies and outcomes. She also touched on libraries’ precarious position in the crosshairs of the culture wars.

“Many marginalized people, in particular Black people, working-class and poor people, immigrants, and the political dissidents who pose real challenges to the status quo, have never really enjoyed intellectual freedom nor First Amendment rights,” Macrina said. “Furthermore, people with the most objectionable views—the ones who dehumanize others and spread misinformation, who are often cited as the ones whose speech we really must protect, who we must allow use of our meeting rooms—are not actually at risk of being silenced. Without making this distinction in our conversations about free speech, we will only continue to perpetuate injustices against marginalized people’s intellectual freedom.”

Macrina mentioned a 2020 letter cosigned by dozens of authors, academics, and intellectuals and published in Harper’s, that decried so-called “cancel culture” and its alleged chilling effect on open discourse and debate. The letter stated that calls for racial and social justice have “also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Macrina pointed out that many of the signatories are, in fact, wealthy and powerful individuals with access to high-profile platforms.

How does Dr. Seuss fit into the contemporary conversation about cancel culture? Macrina noted that the author was far from “canceled”—the estate merely chose to cease publishing existing works. “What’s actually happening is that we are collectively refusing to let people be openly shitty to each other, or outright abusive. Before we came up with this collective refusal, this just happened. And people were constantly belittled, and we’re deciding now that that’s not okay anymore.”

Macrina emphasized how hate speech—and resisting uncomfortable speech—disproportionately affects communities of color. She connected this point to the hostile climate for critical race theory right now in certain academic circles: “To my mind, this is probably the biggest, the most serious threat to free speech in our current moment.”


In Practice by Meredith Farkas

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