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5 Frustrating Phrases in the Free Speech Debate

My flame of passion for intellectual freedom has never gone out, but being employed at a library again after an absence has certainly turned up the heat. And there has been a volcanic eruption this week in topics pertaining to censorship and intellectual freedom so I decided I would finally write and share this post that I’ve been meaning to do for some time now.

The following five phrases are ones that people have said to me in various debates around censorship and they are phrases that I’ve seen cycle over and over on social media. I’d like to remind everyone that censorship is an incredibly complex and vast topic and not all my specific examples will fit in every situation, but I’m doing my best to convey why I find these phrasings so frustrating and ultimately short-sighted. I also live and work in the sex positive community, so matters of sexuality and censorship is the area I’ve had the most experience with. If you’re a new reader hello, I’m Leandra, I write about sex and I’m a public librarian. Nice to meet you.


So, here it is, then.

1. "It's only censorship if the government does it."

So, here's the thing. At my library we had a rash of incidences where a patron was taking certain books from the shelves and purposefully shelving them in the wrong place so people would not be able to find them. They were erotica books, and of all the things that I have a particularly keen eye for spotting in the wrong place, it's erotica books.

After a while we had a second perpetrator doing the exact same thing, except this time it was with Trump books and pro-conservative titles. After a day of going through the stacks to place the books back where they belong, I was one uppity librarian.

This passive-aggressive censorship will not stand, man.

Because, yeah, I think it is censorship. I don't think people should be thrown in jail for moving books around or anything like that, but their actions are preventing people from finding ideas they disagree with, purely because they don't want other people consuming those things. 

I know lots of people that purposefully move Christian books in bookstores because they aren't Christian and I see Christians purposefully shove Cosmo magazines into the wrong places because they don't want people seeing or buying them. And I have no tolerance for any of them. I consider those scenarios as forms of censorship.

I consider challenging books to be removed from library shelves or school curriculum's to be censorship. I consider it censorship to use shame tactics against booksellers or distributors to remove titles from sale. I consider interrupting speakers before they can finish (or even begin) with intrusive protesting to be censorship.

Because if you're doing things that bolster the attitude of censorship, more censorship is going to happen. I use the example that a lot of people consider sexist or racist jokes to be things that contribute to a society that is sexist or racist. Well, that's my outlook when it comes to censorship. If you're doing even small things, or justifying extreme things with "it's only wrong if the government does it" you are feeding a larger system of censorship.

2. "People have freedom of speech, but not freedom of consequences."

This one has always made my stomach churn when I see it, mainly because I had a lot of people in my life who were emotionally abusive and would make up consequences for things I did that were not wrong, they just didn't want me doing them. It was controlling, bullying, and abusive. And I was told, “Well, you were allowed to do it, you just didn’t think of the consequences.” Problem is, I did think of the consequences, these people just made up different consequences because they wanted to punish me for doing things they didn’t like.

The School Walkouts, I believe, are a perfect way to illustrate this. Students that have been punished for participating in protests are basically being told the same thing: You have a right to do this, but you will have to face the “consequences.”

In the realm of free speech, too many people are making up consequences. Most of the time when I see someone throwing around  a “consequence” it is not a natural consequence but a threat. A power play.

Both liberals and conservatives do this and in my view these people have a really weird relationship with punishment. They get some sort of self-satisfaction from threatening or berating people for consuming ideas or doing things they don't like. Or perhaps it’s to cover up an insecurity or feeling of helplessness.

Either way, in my opinion, it’s a form of censorship.

3. "People have a right to write offensive things, but they are not entitled to a platform."

Problem with this one is that the “platforms" I've seen being targeted are book distributors and libraries.

We don’t build a library to serve as a platform for any one idea or ideology. A library transcends that. A library is a place where anyone can have fair and open access to information. That’s not a platform, that’s a concept. That’s a right.

Publishers fall under that same concept. The American Library Association includes publishers in their Freedom to Read statement that includes the following:

It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.

Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.

Read the entire Freedom to Read statement from the ALA here.

Access is part of intellectual freedom. Exchange of information and ideas is a part of access. Interfering with distribution or access is censorship.

4. "You're just afraid of being called out."

I'll keep this one short: Calling out on the internet is a fancy term for starting an argument. It's drama. It's useless. I have never changed my mind by being called out. I have changed my mind by reading books, articles, and blogs. By getting to know people. From original content, stories, and work. Which is why we should protect freedom of speech, access to information, and intellectual freedom.

Far more people are helped and grow and change their minds by having access to diverse viewpoints rather than being yelled at in a comments section.

5. "You have a right to free speech, but you don't have a right to harm others"/"Some forms of expression/speech cause harm and should be stopped."

We have a right to hear/be informed of opposing views, even ones we consider harmful.

In my anti-porn days I thought pro-porn views were harmful. I did want to silence and ban these ideas from getting to people. But then I started listening and working through my hurt. I wouldn't be who I am without working through a lot of unpleasant emotions and ideas.

Of course, this example is not going to be applicable to every situation, nor should it be. That's not my point. My point is that lots of people deem things "harmful" and expect them to just be banned without any criticism for doing so. But this in itself is often misguided, wrong, and dangerous.

I don't support a lot of stuff. But I do want to study it so I know how it works. I need to understand how even toxic ideas manifest and spread so I can better help people and go forward with my own causes. And to understand that, I need to be able to read and see those views. We need to talk, to communicate. I also need to understand that *some* views I deem toxic aren't toxic at all: I am just biased and disagree. Plenty of people think my kinky sex radical ways are toxic. We are all human.

So instead of silencing ideas we disagree with we need to nurture what we want to see in the world. Instead of promoting fear as a default against extreme or hateful ideas, let's give everyone tools to incorporate ideas into their ethics: that the media we consume and our ideas and thoughts are a part of our philosophy for life, how we treat others and the way we interact with our world.

I could do without a lot of the sexuality books on the shelf in my public library right now. But that's why I read and review sex books, so I can add books I think are great, and promote visibility of books that give people more views and options.

Instead of banning books, add to the collection. Instead of spending all your time arguing with people on the internet, put some original content out there for others to find, to think about, to consider, to HELP THEM. If we can get people to pick up a book and think “Wow, these ideas are hateful and unfounded” that is so much more powerful than banning ideas. And those people will go on to live that philosophy out in the real world.


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In conclusion, a final anecdote.

Half of my family is ultra liberal and the other half is ultra conservative. The “kids” in my family (me and my cousins in our generation, we are now late 20’s/early 30’s) have all landed in a happy middle where our views are moderate. Both liberals and conservatives have issues with us. But we consider consent, communication, and compassion to be more important things in our relationships and interactions with other people than particular ideologies. I’m not certain our parents are impressed. They would rather have more foot soldiers in their legions of Left and Right. But it's too late now. We arrived to our conclusions after escaping the iron fists of ideology set forth by our parents. We kept the good things our parents taught us and left behind the toxic or destructive ideas. And if we can do it, I have a lot of hope for the generations that follow us, if they will be given the same rights and intellectual freedom protections as we had. Thanks for reading.

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