Sunday, September 6, 2009

Eating My Words: Or How the Radicals Radicalize Me

I don't "eat my own words," very often, but I'm going to do just that here and now. The process of examining the West Bend library debate has significantly changed my thinking in one particular area, and it's only fair to admit it. I didn't think that was likely when I started this, but I've definitely learned something.

I have tried in my posts on this blog to draw a distinction between intended censorship and censorship in practice. I've allowed that, at least in a hypothetical situation, just re-shelving books, without ANY other controls, might not amount to censorship in practice. I've tended to think that the most important question is whether or not the library HAS a particular item, and that WHERE the item was shelved was secondary, provided there were no restrictions within the library itself. In part, I was putting some effort into being fair to the other side, so I tended to think that their inability or unwillingness to state clear criteria for re-classifying books, or to state plainly what they want the library to do in terms of other controls, was just a failure to think the practicalities through.

I think my reasoning was sound. But is was also far too theoretical. The hypothetical universe in which a book can be moved to a different shelf location because somebody objects, but without any other controls in place, just doesn't exist in the real world.

My change of thinking on this results from a co-incidence of timing, one in which I've been faced with the inexorable "mission creep" of the would-be censors. We have SafeLibraries' recent post, in which he claims that neither labeling nor re-shelving amount to censorship, but a few sentences later reveals his true colors by writing about the need to "keep such material from children." We have the amazing self-deception, and deception of others, by Ginny Maziarka in her WBKV radio interview, where she denies being interested in "banning" books, then just two minutes later mentions there are three books she wants to "remove." Listening to Maria Hanrahan's interview on WBKV radio a few days later, I was amazed at how quickly some of the callers expanded the scope of materials they wanted controlled, from supposedly "pornographic" books, to materials "inappropriate" for minors, to any book that mentioned (just mentioned) criminal activity. We have the radio host's own denial that re-shelving amounted to censorship, even as he repeatedly changed his position as to whether a child could check a book out independently, or with a parent present, or only the parent could check a book out on behalf of the child. And none of this is unique to West Bend, as the Leesburg, Fla., case shows. The book-challengers there say they are all for open access, but then want arbitrarily to excluded certain books from that openness.

I am constructing a slippery-slope argument here, an argument that says we shouldn't do A, because even if A is neutral it will lead to B, and B will definitely lead to negative consequences. A slippery-slope argument CAN be a rhetorical fallacy, but isn't an automatic fallacy: it depends on the real likelihood of sliding down the slope, of how likely it is that A will really lead to B. And that's the key point that has changed for me. Based on what the would-be censors have said (and said, and said), I now feel there is no way to avoid sliding down that slope.

So I conclude that re-Shelving is censorship. Labeling is censorship. One, the other, or both are censorship. Not because those things interfere with access to ideas by themselves, but exactly because they don't ever and won't ever occur in a vacuum. You're lucky if your local would-be censor tells you flat out that they want to prevent children from checking out or reading certain books: at least those are being honest. But those are also few, as the deluge of self-contradictions in the rhetoric of the more deceptive censors of West Bend reveals.

If you let them re-shelve now, next year they'll want a turnstile to keep children in the Children's section and out of the General shelves. If you let them apply a rating sticker now, next year they'll want the library data base to keep track of patrons' ages and disallow checkouts based on book content. That's a slippery-slope argument, and it's a valid one. Their own words indict them. They're not interested in "protecting children." Their goal is to control public discourse and control young minds.


  1. Quote 1:

    "We have SafeLibraries' recent post, in which he claims that neither labeling nor re-shelving amount to censorship, but a few sentences later reveals his true colors by writing about the need to 'keep such material from children.'"

    Response 1:

    "The interest in protecting young library users from material inappropriate for minors is legitimate, and even compelling, as all Members of the Court appear to agree."

    Quote 2:

    "They're not interested in 'protecting children.' Their goal is to control public discourse and control young minds."

    Response 2:

    "Children's Internet Protection Act"

    Quote 3, emphasis in original:

    "I am constructing a slippery-slope argument here...."

    Response 3:

    "Slippery Slopes Okay for Gays, But Not Kids, Not National Security, According to the American Library Association"

  2. Oh, come on, SafeLibraries! You've got to do better than this. All you done here is neatly prove my point.

    This post is about re-shelving and labeling. That means its about BOOKS. Your fist two responses are about the CIPA and US v. ALA, which were NEVER ABOUT BOOKS. They're about internet filters, and ONLY about internet filters. Neither of them ever said anything about BOOKS. Neither of them can be reasonably construed as saying anything about BOOKS.

    And what you've shown here is exactly why people like you can't be trusted with policies like re-shelving and labeling. Because if we give you an inch, even just a millimeter, you'll take a mile. You twist the words of the Supreme Court and take them horribly out of context to make them say what you WANT them to say, and you'll do the same with any agreement we make with you on library policies. You'll push the envelope until you have what you want. You're doing exactly what I predicted in my post -- that re-shelving and labeling DON'T happen in a vacuum, that there's always going to some other kind of control added in.

    As to the third response, it has no applicability to the question at hand. As I pointed out in the post, a slippery slope argument has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, depending on how likely it is that you'll slide down the slope. You just gave us evidence that you're standing at the top of hill trying to push us over the edge. The only thing you've shown here is that my analysis is correct,that the slide down the slope into censorship is inevitable, if we give in to you in any way, shape or form.

  3. Here's Dan again, running amuck. His usual case law citation is old, old, old - and eisegetical in nature. It would be interesting to see if he could argue a case like this before the Supreme Court. Highly unlikely. Thanks, Non-Censor, for your clear, concise thought processes. YOU most certainly could argue a case before the SC - credentialed or not!

  4. I cannot tell you Censorship-Free Libraries how much I enjoy your breath-of-fresh-air blog among all the hyperventilated hyperbole found just about everywhere else on the issue of books, libraries and unfettered access to ideas.


  6. I just want to state for the record that the site mentioned in the immediately preceding anonymous comment was not my idea and not my work.