The Urge to Censor, Or: “Everything You Think Is True”
By: Robert Sarwark
This time around I’d like to share a few reflections on the nature of diversity of opinion as a reflection of truth. Please forgive any philosophical wax that may build up as a result. And as always, the ideas and opinions expressed herein are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the American Library Association or the Office of Intellectual Freedom.
Internal Dialogues of a Bubble Boy
I don’t know what to do with this knowledge.
Well, is it really so bad, after all? Is it really that shocking, all things considered?
I don’t like this. Not one bit. Is this triggering? Am I triggered?!
It’s just words though, right? Words, ideas, maybe some half-baked calls to action that won’t inspire more than 1% of readership to do anything other than nod their head in agreement?
Maybe it’s just entertainment.
Entertainment? Isn’t that what all non-work-related reading is, to a certain extent? (Entertainment: Ultimately from the Latin for “that which comes or is held in-between [work, duty, necessity]?”)
Your etymology of that word is interesting but debatable. But yes. This kind of salacious writing is entertaining to some people. Some just think it’s “cool.”
Hmm. What I think is “cool” definitely isn’t universal.
I feel as if a rift has been widened, but I myself am torn about whether there’s anything to be done about it other than acceptance. Disappointed, resigned acceptance, but acceptance nonetheless, as in there’s nothing else to be done about it.
Really what it comes down to is that I just wish I didn’t know.
The above is an attempt to frame my (admittedly overwrought) thought process upon a recent incident (if I can even call it that). In passing, I had caught a glimpse of someone in my personal orbit — “Taylor,” I’ll call them — casually browsing on their smartphone what I perceive to be a news outlet antithetical to everything I stand for. I found myself feeling taken aback, but, I thought, it would’ve been extremely awkward to address it, given the context. “Hey! Don’t read that! Ever! It’s bad!” just doesn’t seem like a feasible approach. What’s more, it would have made me the definition of a hypocrite.
You would think that as a scholar and writer on issues concerning book banning, intellectual freedom, the First Amendment, access to information, etc. that nothing would shock me at this point. But I can’t stop thinking about it.
For obvious ethical reasons I don’t wish to out Taylor, nor even anonymously shame them. But I do feel the need to write about this moment and moments like them in order to better organize my thoughts.
“Everything You Think Is True”
The quote in this post’s title is something my friend and fellow Peace Corps volunteer in Cape Verde, Brian Newhouse, once brought to my attention. Brian attributes the line to Prince, but the idea is one that many have pondered throughout history: how much do the worlds of matter and mind overlap? Here’s how Brian sums it up:
We enter both worlds the moment we are born. Our physical world consists of our family, our friends, our homes, our buildings, our cars — essentially everything we can see and touch. And our mental world consists of everything we think, everything that goes through our mind. It is a collection of our experiences and thoughts we continue to build upon as we live our lives.
His elucidation of this truism was a great point of discussion as we lazed around Brian’s apartment during the weekends, usually after going on a casual walkabout in his host-town, Assomada, on the island of Santiago, or a hike through the mountainous countryside surrounding it. He or I or whoever else was with us would inevitably talk about our different experiences in life, how they led us to a tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean, and what we wanted to do once our service was over. Though representing a tiny and very specific subset of society as U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, I was always amazed by what I didn’t know about my cohort and their motivations, both inspiring and, occasionally, controversial (e.g., “Doing Peace Corps is a good way to get into law school”).
But I suppose this is what I’m struggling with the most at the present moment: I don’t ever foresee an instance in which I might have a similarly substantive conversation with Taylor. This is both a disappointment and a relief. But what’s for sure is that neither of is going to change our point of view on so many different issues any time soon.
At the same time, I feel as if I’ve had a breakthrough. I feel as if I understand the urge to censor better, now that I’ve been on the other side of it.
My friend Brian concludes his think-piece: “In the end[…], the point of view that matters most is the voice that influences the greatest body of people — be it through political will, military personnel, or a drug that makes you feel damn good.” This pragmatism is easily provable as correct. I’m truly not so worried about the mere presence of material that I personally find objectionable. I do worry, however, about the influence of those potential calls to action, usually through “dog-whistle” language that stokes paranoia against Muslims, immigrants, minorities, and women. And until I actually went and read an article or two from the website in question while writing this post, I don’t think that I could’ve elaborated on exactly what I found so problematic about it. But here it is, distilled: I am extremely wary of the wrath of the already powerful against the already vulnerable. And that is the root of my urge to censor.
A Great Divide
I’d like to leave you with the following tweet, which has been occupying my thoughts alongside everything else currently going on in the U.S. and the world:
Stop and think about this a moment.
Not just because you may find it vile.
Because it crystallizes a great divide in American life. When faced with a choice between the powerful and the vulnerable, whom do your reflexes send you rushing in to defend? https://t.co/1dLS4vvKpO
— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) October 1, 2018
I suppose that this is the crux of much of our politics today (and always has been, really), at least insofar as we separate ourselves into the binary of left and right. And while it is difficult for me to understand how any “regular” person (itself maddeningly impossible to define other than “not outrageously privileged”) could side with the powerful over the vulnerable, I’m realizing that this probably says more about me and how I see myself as fitting into the world than about anyone or anything else.
As a librarian, and even if I somehow attained the lofty rank of Librarian of Congress, I am not at the forefront of the push and pull of national or world power. But I do think that it is one of my professional and ethical obligations to continuously be weighing these factors in anticipation of my current or future patrons’ needs and/or realities.
So yes, I am coping with my unpleasant surprise in what I hope is a healthy manner. And I’ll most certainly get over it. In the meantime, I feel that I’ve recommitted myself to the values of my profession calling for intellectual freedom and equitable access to information.
Just don’t ask me to read that site again.
Robert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.
Because I have feared confirmation bias, and because I have given presentations on “Fake News”, I often browse ‘the dark side’. Not always. but have been making more of an effort to compare sources of information. In the end, I still make my conclusions, but my browsing history may be seen as nefarious either way.