The “Anti-Neutrality” Missionary

I would suspect that the reason so many academics, librarians and many other bookish sorts with a penchant for being political kooks can’t abide or entertain the possibility of institutional neutrality is precisely because they themselves have become so convinced of something or other and have “worldviews” that color their every glance at the world around them. This has always struck me as a strange comorbid symptom of higher education or years of autodidactic reading: rather than years of research and writing making the well-read/tenure-track crowd more averse to thought-systems or philosophies that others have scraped together, it seems to make them more willing to adopt them. Even more counter-intuitively, Fanatical nerds seem to hold tighter to their “-isms” the longer they’ve been tangled up with them; they rarely seem to develop the disillusionment that one would expect. You would think that those reading human history would see fallibility as the general theme of the capitalized ideologies; it’s always a surprise to me when a grown adult still holds to the dream of social perfectibility, especially someone who you’d think would have read enough to know better.

Paul Hollander hypothesized that one reason for this is that despite their often great and obvious intelligence, these kinds of people end up not making great money or even enough to be truly “comfortable.” They also have a lifetime of “geek insecurity” gnawing at them. Thus there develops the kind of resentment and alienation that lends itself to “hardened utopianism.”

Anyway, because these people marinate in deeply–and increasingly–political working environments and are themselves frequently very ideological personally, and because they are more often than not adherents to structuralist schools of sociological thought adjacent to capital-M Marxism, they either believe or think they believe two important things:

  1. Everything (literally) and every place is political/ideological and probably oppressive (a’ la Althusser‘s theories of ideological conveyance or Freire’s pedagogy work);
  2. Other people are consciously or unconsciously acting out ideological and political beliefs or assumptions with every act from combing their hair to taking a dump to reading the newspaper to riding a bike (or some combination of all of them).

This is what these kinds of people mean when they say stuff like “you can’t get away from politics” or “neutrality is a myth.” They’d argue with a straight face that…*looking out the window and picking something at random*…a PARK BENCH can’t even be politically neutral, and they may even take the time to analyze and explain the historical processes and people involved in creating the park, getting the bench permits, pouring the concrete footings, choosing the bench design, etc. They will conclude for you that that park bench is where it is in its current configuration because OPPRESSION. No exaggeration.

Those kinds of statements are the faith statements of evangelists and zealots, not objective fact. In the minds of these people, the political intrigues of society are very much like God and/or Satan in the minds of Abrahamic believers–everywhere all the time. And, just like for believers, there are sins and virtues concomitant with the oppression/liberation political Manichaeism informing their view of society. All institutions–libraries especially–have to be claimed, colonized and catechized in the Fanatical philosophy du jour, be it “radical empathy” or “cultural humility” or “anti-racism” or “defending human dignity” or whatever guise “furthering our generally progressive political worldview” takes. These folks are as committed as missionaries, and not the friendly kind who build picnic shelters and import rice and wear Hawaiian shirts–these are the kinds of missionaries who throw intransigent pagans into fires.

Quoting Hollander again: “Politics takes on religious overtones when religion proper withers, at any rate among intellectuals.”

So, just as anyone who has been to CCD may have had to hear the Deacon say something like: “Even when you are all alone in the darkest closet in the most deserted town, God sees what you do!,” so would one of the “anti-neutrality” thinkers tell you: “Even when you are in the library just looking for information for your term paper about the colloquial shrimping vocabulary of Florida panhandle shrimpers, you are engaged in political activity and are a party to oppression!”

Neither claim is falsifiable, neither claim is meaningfully actionable, neither claim is intellectually serious and neither claim can be the basis of ethical library service.

Related read:

Note: At this point I should point out that I don’t feel it necessary to write or talk much about the “anti-neutrality” of the sort that comes from real and obvious religious Fanatics who profess real and obvious religious beliefs. First, because they are usually so easy to see coming and second, because the separation of church and state is already entrenched in US law with piles of cases to keep it there. Should a librarian ever say something like “This program isn’t RELIGIOUS, we’re just telling people what Jesus has done for them!” or “You can’t let those people have a meeting room, they’re SODOMITES!” it’s easily discernible as an ethical violation and legal problem. It’s not so clear when the zealot is instead featuring a secular saint or martyr (and/or related folk devils) with strong and clear political implications to a reasonable observer. Also, I note further that if there are “anti-neutrality” arguments being made by conservative/rightist Fanatics in the library world, I haven’t seen them, probably because there’s not many of that kind of person in the library world or, if there are, they’ve likely been cowed into professional silence.If the reader knows of any vocal right-wing Fanatics arguing for libraries to be more right-leaning institutions or to align with right-leaning causes/organizations, comment below with links. I’d find it fascinating to see how their arguments align or diverge from the standard, progressive anti-neutrality arguments being thrown around right now.

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