Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Toleration and Intellectual Freedom

We’re leading up the the loudly lauded Bland Books Week, often abbreviated to BBW, which I assume is some sort of fat joke aimed at female librarians. It’s the time when American librarians celebrate their willingness to break absolutely no laws and very few common mores to supply books in libraries.

Librarians in America don’t have to do much to defend intellectual freedom, but they like to practice it, and that’s what counts.

Other places in the world aren’t so fortunate, and maybe we should look at them. After all, if the ALA includes books that were banned in Ireland 50 years ago as a plot to ban books, we can certainly look abroad to places without much intellectual freedom.

For example, we might look at the list of countries that have banned or tried to ban that ridiculous anti-Muslim YouTube video. Some of the bans are for practical purposes, I suppose. If you have a large population of violent people ready to kill other people for their beliefs, I guess it’s easier to repress freedoms than educate people in toleration.

And some misguided folk think we should be respectful of the religious views of others and understand why they might get upset, as if they were children who couldn’t help themselves as they rioted violently.

However, those people misunderstand what intellectual freedom is based on. It’s not about respect, but about toleration, and those are very different things.

A few hundred years ago in Europe, a bunch of Catholics and another bunch of Protestants started killing each other over relatively minor religious differences. Then as now, such activity is barbarous and savage, and just like now the conflicts were often about power rather than religious belief itself.

Nevertheless, after a few decades of senseless bloodshed, saner heads prevailed and very slowly people realized that they could get along just fine without killing other people who happened to disagree with them about things that didn’t matter for most of daily life. Religious toleration made its way across most of Europe as a political value.

That’s toleration, not respect. Respect means I like what you do; toleration means I won’t kill you for not doing what I do.

Although it has many meanings, usually respect has a connotation of valuing or esteeming something favorably. If I respect your religion, it often implies that I think it is a good or worthwhile thing for you to believe in and practice that religion.

The thing is, most people don’t respect other people’s religions in this sense, even though they demand that respect from others. If I am, say, a Christian, I by definition think Islam is a false religion, even though I might think it teaches many good things. Conversely, if I were a Muslim, I might think Christianity is perhaps a good religion, but at its very best an incomplete religion. And Hinduism, don’t let us Christians or Muslims get started on Hinduism!

Now I might respect the right of someone to follow their religion, as I favorably value human rights. I might even respect the fact that someone is a religious believer, e.g., if I considered the worst offense to be atheism. But I don’t really respect your religion in the sense that I think you should be practicing that religion. I think you should be practicing mine. If I didn’t think mine was the best religion, I’d go practice some other religion or none at all. You probably feel the same way.

Fortunately, intellectual freedom doesn’t require respect; it requires only toleration. Toleration can take two forms. It might mean a lack of persecution for your religious beliefs (and no, criticism isn’t persecution), or it might also mean a lack of political or social penalty for holding your religious beliefs.

For example, while English Catholics avoided persecution for their beliefs for a long time after the wars of religion had stopped, they still faced certain penalties, like not being able to attend universities or hold certain political offices. Currently, the Saudi Arabian government doesn’t persecute Christians as such, but it restricts some of their religious practices like proselytization.

The intellectual freedom we in America have come to support is the fuller definition of toleration for religious belief and every other non-harmful creed or action. The government doesn’t officially persecute anyone for their religious beliefs, or their race, or their gender, or any of the other typical varieties of persecution in the world, even if some citizens do.

As an American, I can legally criticize or ridicule any group I want. I might face countercriticism or even social ostracism for loudly proclaiming I thoroughly despise  Muslims or Christians or women whose names in in “i” instead of “y” (especially if they put little hearts over the “i”),  but I won’t face arrest, and if anyone physically attacks me for holding such beliefs, they will be the ones breaking the law.

The biggest religious conflict comes from groups of religious believers who demand respect for their religion without providing even the mildest toleration for the beliefs of others. There are pockets of intolerant believers in every religion.

They can’t support intellectual freedom because they can’t tolerate the existence of people who don’t believe what they believe, and they either have, or would like to have, the power to impose their beliefs on others. If we support intellectual freedom, we’ll support religious toleration, and we should promote it in the places where it’s least available.

The focus on local book challenges is all well and good, but what it usually shows is that in public Americans often have a high regard for intellectual freedom. Those who truly want to censor books, as opposed to have them reclassified into the adult section of the library, are very rare.

If we want to champion intellectual freedom, we should focus our efforts internationally as well as well as nationally, and take up causes that need defending, like making stupid videos. Instead of congratulating ourselves and playing at battles already won, we’d spend more time talking about the international struggle for toleration and intellectual freedom that lies ahead.



  1. The Librarian With No Name says:

    When you’ve got a society that’s doing things wrong, you agitate for change. When you’ve got a society that’s doing things right, you pat yourselves on the back and regularly remind everyone how easy it is to do things wrong.

    Banning books, or any other form of art or expression, is something that’s never going to go out of style. Everyone has a list of materials they have a hard time defending. I happen to think that a good chunk of the alternative medicine books on my library’s shelves are on the same moral level as selling repackaged breath mints as a cancer cure. But I don’t call for their ban, because we don’t ban books.

    A good banned book display will present most viewers with a ton of books that were banned by idiots for ridiculous reasons and a few that were banned by misguided individuals with their hearts in the right place. It should reinforce the idea that, like all good sins, banning information is tempting as well as wrong and ultimately destructive.

    You don’t ignore your diet and physical activity just because you’re healthy at the moment. You stay healthy by maintaining it. And you don’t successfully argue the really difficult questions of toleration and intellectual freedom with people who don’t have a gut-deep instinct for why intellectual repression is bad.

    I don’t know about you, but if I’m setting out to defend a video that has half the planet pissed off for about a dozen reasons, I want to be able to ask “Well, you wouldn’t ban a book, would you?” and not have my audience answer “I guess we haven’t lately, but now that you mention it…”

  2. I Like Books says:

    Speaking of respect and toleration and religion and that video… I read in the newspaper today that a Muslim man was arrested in Egypt and charged with blasphemy for tearing up an English-language Bible during a protest against that video.

    I thought that was interesting on several levels. First, it’s rare for someone “over there” to get in trouble for insulting a minority religion, but Egypt is enforcing a kind of equal-respect policy (not toleration as the AL described it). But I couldn’t imagine that kind of policy in the USA. Too weird. Oh, they almost banned flag burning, didn’t they? Okay, I guess anti-blasphemy laws could exist here, too. Anyway, as a church-going Christian reading that article, I utterly failed to become offended. I don’t care that the man ripped up a Bible, but I am a little upset that he got arrested for it. My coworker saw the headline, but he said he didn’t care enough to read it.

    That article did, in a sense, give me a chance to practice what I preach. What would I think if it was Muslims blaspheming Christianity? Now I know– Let them, they’re entitled to express themselves. So can we please stop killing people over a stupid video?

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      It all depends on what you mean by “anti-blasphemy law.” Currently, there’s a state representative here in Oklahoma working to repeal our own anti-blasphemy law, which is still on the books from 1910. It’s a misdemeanor to say or print words that cast “profane ridicule upon God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Scriptures or the Christian or any other religion.” We’ve also got one that makes it illegal to work on Sunday, unless you’re setting aside another day as a day of worship.

      Of course, since nobody has been convicted of blasphemy in America since 1928, they’re only laws in a theoretical sense. It’s really interesting to look at the wording of some of the older ones, though.

  3. Surely the key to the practice of toleration is the simple fact that, if I don’t discriminate against or limit the practice of your religion, then you have no grounds to stifle mine. Toleration is the safeguard of the free exercise of religion for all. Lack of toleration wins only as long as the regime or the society consensus favors the winner. When the tide turns, the intolerant one may well find that he/she is not tolerated by the new winner. Toleration gives a free and level playing field.

    In the library world, if you don’t like putting, say, books on alternative medicine on your shelves, the best way to handle the situation is to include as well volumes that seek to refute the claims of alternative medicine. Disagreement and controversy, as our AL has so well pointed out, are not the enemy of toleration. The very fact that both sides of an issue are on your shelves says that toleration is alive and well. And that’s a good thing.

  4. Tom Lehrer
    “National brotherhood Week”

    Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
    And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
    And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
    And everybody hates the Jews.

  5. Amy says:

    Bravo AL! I loved this article and applaud you for it!

  6. Allison says:

    I haven’t noticed ALA using the BBW acronym this year. I’m so glad they caught on! Weirdly enough, the only place I have seen it this year was on this blog.

  7. Development Arrested says:

    They realized that they had made a huge mistake when their ad in the local paper got an interesting response at the Gothic Castle.

  8. Respect isn't hard says:

    I know many people that respect other religions with
    out the need to practice that religion. I mean real
    respect, not just toleration. My religion is right
    for me, but I don’t make the assumption that it’s right
    for you. Everyone has different needs.

  9. Pat Serafini says:

    I agree with every point that the poster made. Every point was made very articulately and compellingly.

    However, I have a question. Did I miss the boat or is “toleration” now acceptable as the noun for “to tolerate”? I thought the word was tolerance. I know this is petty, but I am curious enough to want to know. I am Canadian, so maybe toleration has become so imbued in the American collective conscious that the word’s use does not raise any sociolinguistic eyebrows. I don’t want to offend anybody (because I am Canadian :) – yes I can stereotype myself).

  10. Annoyed Librarian says:

    As far as I know, both words mean more or less the same thing. I used “toleration” because I was thinking of John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration,” which I remembered reading about at some point. Looking at the Wikipedia entry for Toleration, it seems there was a British “Act of Toleration” and a “Maryland Toleration Act.” So maybe that’s the more historical usage. Based on the Wikipedia entry for the “Letter Concerning Toleration,” it doesn’t look like Locke was especially tolerant in his argument for toleration.

  11. Not as good at vocab as I thought says:

    Today I learned toleration was a real word, and not just a misused version of tolerance.