Intellectual Freedom: A path to progess, compassion, protection, and fairness

By Amy Girard, January 2022

Suzanne Nossel’s book “Dare to Speak Defending Free Speech for All” gives some very interesting perspective and draws from her experience, which includes being the CEO of PEN America.

Nossel’s discussion of free speech in the United States is comparable to discussion about the fundamental freedoms protected by Canada’s Canadian Charter of Rights:

  • freedom of conscience and religion;
  • freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  • freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  • freedom of association.

Notably, the Canadian government describes the Charter as “a powerful force for progress, protection, compassion and fairness with the power to influence our society by interpreting laws and policies.”

Progress.  Compassion.  Protection. Fairness.           

To have progress with fairness, people need to have their voices heard which happens by exercising their fundamental freedoms.  If their ideas are not heard they can not be reflected and protected by policies/rules/laws.  By feeling heard, people will be able to let down their guard and be more open to others.  Compassion and understanding results.

Current social norms however, are curtailing people’s ability to feel confident expressing themselves.  People are not only being censored; they are also self-censoring.  The impacts of this are written about by Nossel:

“Only through the give-and-take with opponents can you persuade, in the process honing your own views and arguments to better account for valid points on the other side.  By giving in to the instinct to silence a contestable viewpoint – someone else’s or perhaps even your own – you risk narrowing the field for what opinions can be voiced.”

By discouraging, or worse, closing down debate – the chance for change is lost.

Today we see a centering of organized groups in public discussions.  Each group asserts its right to represent a whole subset of people.  They claim to speak for everyone that fits their umbrella description.  Is there any one group that can speak for everyone they claim to represent? Surely, there is a net effect of silencing people who are said to be part of the group but hold different beliefs and values.

While having groups to represent others is laudable, people need to be able to speak for themselves to represent themselves.  Autonomy is a hallmark of well-being – and I dare to guess that for the majority of people who have experienced discrimination – it is essential to have control over their thoughts and beliefs.  To have the right and ability to pursue the knowledge that will assist them in getting to the other side of whichever dilemma or obstacle they are facing. 

How can someone’s human dignity be preserved when they are treated with the paternalistic attitude: I know what is best for you?

Public libraries have an extra duty of care to protect intellectual freedom.  They are governed by the Charter and they are one of the last public places that bring culturally and economically diverse people together.  Community can not be created without people coming together.  And people can not come together if they are being set apart.

It is not possible to be diverse without diversity.

It is not possible to be tolerant by being intolerant.

It is not possible to be inclusive by excluding.

Tolerating diversity of opinion is inclusive. People may fear losing control over what ideas and opinions are expressed, but they would be cautioned to remember that governments change and historically all major social progress has been enabled due to tolerant laws and rights.

This is reflected when Nossel writes:

“The question we ask is not whether particular speech is worthy of protection but whether we want to afford our government the leeway to restrict it, knowing that once such power is granted, the officials will use it as they see fit. Affording government that authority—even if intended for sparing use only to target avowedly hateful speech–would open the door to the kinds of restraints once used to silence civil rights organizers and feminist activists. We rely instead on taboos, counterspeech, and social and institutional norm enforcement to deter and blunt the damage of speech that is hateful.”

People have the right to demand censorship, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.  The power of the demand for censorship does not lie in granting limitations, it lies in posing the question of censorship so that public discussion and awareness can happen and grow.  This in turn generates new social and institutional norms that reflect society as it changes and keeps everyone from being left behind.

By allowing each person to step forward and speak up, everyone can be included and social cohesion results.

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