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.