These Trying Times

Beyond Ignorance

August 17, 2017

With the school year starting soon, I’ve been thinking about how we might approach information literacy this year (because every year is a new opportunity to figure out a better way) and I’ve also been thinking about Charlottesville and how librarians should respond to this moment.

David Lankes, director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, has been thinking about it, too. His hot-off-the-press blog post on this issue following the violence argues that racism is a form of ignorance and libraries, as platforms for learning, must commit themselves to fighting that ignorance in the library and throughout our communities. “Don’t think that open doors are sufficient to be sanctuaries: actively engage and invite in people of all classes, and races, and creeds . . . This is not about ideology or political party, this is about our mission: to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in our communities. Racism is antithetical to this mission. Period.”

I wish it were that simple. Racism isn’t always a form of ignorance, it’s often a thoroughly-researched choice. We have seen a wild flourishing of knowledge creation through a multitude of new channels, and all of the impassioned players assume their goal is to improve society. What an improved society looks like and who gets to decide – that’s where differences surface. The word “racism” itself has been turned inside-out to denote that which threatens the dominance of whites in American society.

So the question is how to we talk together when the words we use mean different things and our concepts of American history, our understanding of present society, and our values are in conflict?

We have always taken solace in the notion that, with enough information, people will make rational decisions, and if some don’t – well, there’s always persuasion through rational debate. Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address opponents of our form of government could serve as “monuments to the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated as long as reason is left free to combat.” That notion that rational discourse would lead us toward enlightenment was echoed by John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace: “We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge.” Both believed debates rested on common principles and the assumption that the goal was harmony and good will.

Most people, to go by the number of vigils held Sunday and Monday night, are inclined toward those goals, just as most people involved in a natural disaster respond with extraordinary acts of selflessness. I’m not convinced this comes from being informed or from the exercise of reason or from enlightened self-interest. It comes from caring about other people and an impulse to help one another.

When the white supremacist mob gathered in Charlottesville, with their swastikas and torches and perfectly legal firearms, they stood for something very different. There is no reasoned debate with hate as it summons pyres of facts and figures to its cause. There is no knowledge that will cure people who boldly declare it invalid. There are no commonly-held principles to bring us together.

So what’s a library to do? I think we must admit that we have a bias toward a certain kind of reasoning. That we not only want libraries to be places where knowledge is made but that we hold certain truths to be self-evident, if hard to live up to. That we stand for both intellectual freedom and against bigotry and hate, which means some freedoms are not countenanced. That when we say “everyone is welcome here” it also means “we’ll fight those who insist not everyone ought to be.” That we don’t have all the answers, but some answers are wrong. That we must be brave enough to know our own history and recognize the ignorance we’re trying to overcome ourselves. That if we embrace fundamental values, we cannot be neutral. That reason isn’t enough. That caring for one another matters, too.

Somehow, along with traditional learning goals like recognizing the role well-reasoned evidence plays in making an argument and the more practical bits like how to use the printers and where the bathrooms are, it seems important to convey these values to our students and invite them to value both reason and care.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.