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Intellectual Freedom

September 22, 2008

If you were one of the extraterrestrial aliens among us (and perhaps you are), you could be forgiven for thinking that the most pernicious evils on this planet are ideas.

Parents and governments fear them and often seek to suppress them. Ideas are hard to suppress, though, and so the usual approach is to stifle their exchange or expression. This takes an enormous amount of energy and vigilance and hardly seems worth the effort.

In his book, “The new inquisition,” librarian James LaRue made a comforting point. While discussing a complaint about his library’s collection, someone trapped him with: “Then you would agree that if good books make you better, then bad books make you worse.”

A semantic trap. As LaRue explains, “Good books don’t make you better anymore than looking at an apple makes you healthier. A book has to be selected and digested. Its content must not just be read but chosen.”

He continues: “In fact, much of what we read or view has little effect on us at all. Reading requires conscious effort. Adding something to your belief system doesn’t happen automatically.”

Reading is also a skill requiring practice, and so a decline in the reading habits of young people is cause for concern. But reading is not the mere sponging up by our brains of words and ideas as they pass before our eyes.

Not even with the Bible. People spend their entire lives reading and understanding the Bible.

Thus, many millions of children enjoyed Harry Potter without the desire to practice witchcraft. Many people read bad books—badly written, in which bad things happen, in which bad things are glorified—without a collapse of their moral fiber.

In fact, the very point of murder mysteries is typically the explication of evil in often shocking detail followed by triumph of justice and good. It is a redemptive journey. The Bible is full of bad things, too, as are fairy tales.

Many parents feel it is their duty to prepare their children for the bad things in the world, and well they should. How and when is up to them.

Leaving aside fiction for other intellectual inquiry, it seems particularly odd to suppress the discussion of anything, since discussion is how we sort out good from bad ideas.

Intellectual freedom is not something to fear, unless you fear a better idea than yours. If you have primacy but not the greatest idea, you might be tempted to suppress.

I like Carl Sagan’s way of saying it: “The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.”

Not all ideas are expressed in text. Freedom of speech implies a freedom to read, to hear, to view. A related implication is the freedom not to. It’s easy not to read. Sometimes, it’s harder not to hear or see.

Thus, we tolerate content in text that we won’t in images. It’s why we accept content in novels that we forbid on the public Internet computers. It’s in the nature of images (actually, in the nature of us).

It also has to do with the threshold between public and private. We have doors on the rest rooms. We require minimal clothing in public. You may not make love in the city parks, at least not during the day.

And you may not view lewd material on the library’s Internet computers. We have filters that take care of blatant pornography but it’s a never-ending battle that we fight for the sake of civility. Some things are private; the library is public.

Thanks for listening … just sorting some thoughts on intellectual freedom.

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