In 1765, an edgy French teenager by the name of Francois Jean de la Barre was accused of desecrating a crucifix in the pious city of Abbeville. He was eventually arrested and tried, but, somehow, through the course of the investigation, the act of vandalism that originally angered the whole town moved to a back burner. It seems that when they searched the 19-year-old’s bedroom or chamber or whatever they called it, they found “indecent” works of erotic fiction and, much, much worse for Francois, a copy of the Philosophical Dictionary. In terms of popular understanding and reaction, this was something like the Satanic Bible of its day, with a few dashes of Anarchist Cookbook and Gender Queer thrown in for good measure. This book REALLY bothered the Catholic Church and the noble class that defended it, as the anonymous author (later revealed to be Voltaire) was pretty plain-spoken about the abuses of both.
Long story short, Francois was found guilty, paraded around in a cart, publicly humiliated through forced penance and had his tongue pulled out while he was still alive. After that, he was beheaded and burned with a copy of the “blasphemous” book nailed to his decapitated body. Now THAT’S censorship!
You might ask: how does this sadistic abuse of political power enforce a case for neutrality AT ALL? Wouldn’t it make the opposite case? Wouldn’t it have been better to RESIST the Church and nobles who turned poor Francois into teenager flambe‘?
Some points to consider:
- Institutional Neutrality Does Not Mean Agreement With the Abusive Powerful or Inaction in the Face of Injustice or Evil– A politically neutral institution can, in fact, make positive statements of values, provided those values are NOT contingent upon or changeable in respect to any individual case. In the case of De La Barre, an institutional statement like: “Violent punishment for crimes of conscience is unacceptable by thinking people” would not be ethically problematic or a politically non-neutral stance. To apply that standard differently depending on the individual actors involved, however, would be PRECISELY unethical and non-neutral. You can’t kill or excuse the killing of a French nobleman for mocking the Catholic Church and you can’t kill or excuse the killing of a poor Dutch cartoonist for depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a dress. Neutrality means assiduous defense against hypocrisy. Fanatics are always hypocrites, by the way, and they often codify their hypocrisy within their ideologies.
- Institutional Neutrality Does Not Mean Individuals Within That Institution Cannot Act or Speak From Personal Conscience–A Fanatic can exercise his duties quite ethically and neutrally within a neutral institution while being simultaneously deeply involved in various causes outside of it. The danger arises when dealing with the type of Fanatic who becomes convinced that the neutral exercising of duties on the clock hurts whatever cause he is involved in off the clock. This is why it’s a very good idea to listen closely for and be aware of the causes and movements that the officers, administrators and employees of a public library are involved in or hold dear and watch for that influence to creep into their work. It can and often does.
- Institutional Neutrality Means Awareness of Roles– Not every institution has a role to play in every aspect of society nor a role to play in solving every social problem. Many librarians have a messianic self-image and dispute observable realities like this one, which is why administrative leadership and library boards should be very careful to loudly and clearly spell out for themselves/their staffs and their communities exactly what role(s) they intend to play AND HOW THEY INTEND TO PLAY IT/THEM. If a public library’s message to its community is that it’s going to use taxpayer money intended to run a public library on combatting after-school hunger, for example, then the community should not discover that by surprise when a local news crew shows up for a feature story. Institutions that chase new missions like this often do so out of the individual and personal ideological convictions of leadership, and public libraries are absolutely no exception. For example, if a public library hires a fat library director and suddenly there are programs about “body positivity” or “fat acceptance,” one is just as likely to be seeing a personalized ethical abuse of a public position as an example of diversity and/or inclusion.
- Institutional Neutrality Means Guarding Trust and Credibility–People still trust public libraries (for now) because they are seen to be “above the fray” of the various political and cultural conflicts in our Big Junior High of a society. Political messaging and partisan involvement–even tangential–hurts the credibility of institutions and their representatives, according to Pew research. This may seem obvious to you, a thinking person who isn’t a Fanatic, but you’d be surprised how many librarians dismiss such an idea as a “myth” or “rhetoric.” They WANT the libraries they work for to get MORE involved in political and sociological controversies and, predictably, to message, program and collect resources in ways that reflect their beliefs. Some of us seem to be feeling left out of the downturn in public trust that journalists, scientists, business leaders and medical professionals are enduring, like a dysfunctional FOMO.
- Disinterested Observers/Reporters Make Convincing Cases–When someone appointed by a politician tries to convince us of what COULD be scientific fact, a part of us doubts their word when what they are saying aligns with the political belief framework of the appointing powers. When Soviet scientists told us the plume of radiation coming out of Chernobyl was from a venting accident in the first few days, but EVERY OTHER nuclear scientist on earth was saying it was something more serious, we knew better than to believe the Russians. Involvement and partisan alignments hurt credibility that way. I think this is why when the politically neutral Red Cross says “We see evidence of war crimes,” the world takes it more seriously than when one of the commanding generals says it (or denies it). But the world has now arrived at an intellectual and ethical moment where even the neutrality of the RED CROSS is criticized.
So how could a neutral library have helped poor Francois de la Barre?
- Bring attention to the case and cases like it, putting them in historical and ethical perspective.
- Feature and discuss the works/resources being questioned and banned.
- Neutrally state the non-partisan and politically neutral values of the institution.
- Use the neutrality of the institution to make a strong case for a just outcome.
“This week in Abbeville, a teenage nobleman is on trial at least in part for owning The Philosophical Dictionary, a work which questions the theology and practices of the Catholic Church. If found guilty, the defendant faces agonizing torture and the death penalty, an inconceivable outcome for a crime of conscience or intellectual crime in a civilized society. The Imaginary Time-Traveller Public Library encourages you to learn more about the case and cases like it at our display “Blasphemy and Other Intellectual Crimes” and to contact Duval de Soicourt or representatives of the local magisterium to share your opinion.”
You may be thinking: “BUT THAT STATEMENT DOESN’T TELL PATRONS TO BE OUTRAGED!” or “IT DIDN’T TELL THE POWERS THAT BE TO FREE FRANCOIS!” “THAT STATEMENT DOESN’T OFFER HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF OPPRESSION!”
That’s right. That is not a public library’s role. The public library’s role is information, not conscious attitude-formation beyond the very general effect of offering the work of others. The library’s role is facilitation, not opinion leadership. Some librarians disagree and they may even eventually come to rule the profession. They are making great strides in that at the moment. I predict that if and when they do change the nature of public librarianship, the Pew Research polls mentioned above will begin to show the same downturn in public trust for libraries that other institutions have suffered. However, the route from that distrust to the political/funding consequences that will follow will be shorter for public libraries than for most institutions…and we will have arguably earned it much more willfully.
When the Fanatics run things, the public is comfortable taking away their funding.