on janice raymond and the value of more speech

On November 30 Vancouver Rape Relief is hosting a Montreal Massacre Memorial program. One of the speakers they’re hosting is Janice Raymond, and she is a controversial figure, due to her past statements about transgender people (including a 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire, which has been called a justification for anti-transsexual prejudice). This event is happening at the Vancouver Public Library.

Tara Robertson, an excellent Vancouver librarian, made a few tweets I personally thought perfectly exemplified how librarians can respond to controversial situations they feel strongly about (as regarding intellectual freedom).

First, the ugh factor. Coming into this issue I didn’t know about Janice Raymond, or about why someone would say ugh about someone coming to talk at an event about violence against women, but Tara expressed her disagreement with the ideas the speaker represents nice and clearly. We librarians aren’t neutral grey blocks of matter. We have values of our own!

What I love about this tweet is the conflict involved. Not that I love conflict, but the whole situation where intellectual freedom principles don’t always work in unison with supporting a librarian’s other values is so true. When I feel disgusted by someone’s stupid/harmful opinions I want them to shut up. But while I can (and should!) have opinions on what we should be talking about and how, that gets tricky for libraries as institutions.

In response to questions about why they were giving this speaker a platform, Vancouver Public Library issued a statement setting out where they were coming from. They stated that they use specific policies, including hate speech laws as their barometer of what they will allow. If it’s not illegal, their adherence to the principles of intellectual freedom mean groups can rent the library’s space. It’s a public space so anyone can use it.

Controversial ideas do not mean someone should be barred from speaking, provided they stay within the bounds of the Criminal Code and the B.C. Human Rights Code.

At VPL, we use the B.C. Human Rights Code and Criminal Code of Canada as our litmus tests for the limits of free speech because we have to make space for all ideas in our community as per the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – even those ideas we personally or institutionally disagree with because, as a society, we are better off when we all have free speech – not just those people who agree with us.

For me, a cis straight white dude, this is all pretty much academic. I can disagree with a speaker but most of the time it’s not going to affect me personally. Looking at the law as some sort of dispassionate arbitrator here works for privileged folks like myself, and I can take the intellectual freedom stuff as my primary value in the discussion. “It’s not illegal so it’s fine!” I could say, dust off my hands and be done with it. For others, who see and feel the effects of speech that is hateful but might not legally be hate speech this might not be just an academic issue, but something more. And that’s why Tara’s third tweet is so important.

To me, this is why we fight for intellectual freedom. If we don’t defend a library allowing space to a person whose views we disagree with, we’re fighting a different kind of battle. It may be a righteous battle. It may be hugely important. But to wage it we need the space (physically and intellectually) to protest and provide alternatives to ideas we find harmful. The rest of our values are supported by intellectual freedom, and to me that’s an important role even when it’s not the point.

So yes, thanks to VPL for giving a space to all sorts of opinions, and thanks Tara for giving permission for me talk about your tweets (and for pointing out the VPL press release I quoted above). I hope lots of librarians show up to listen/talk/shout.

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2 thoughts on “on janice raymond and the value of more speech

  1. Everyone who has read what Janice Raymond said — not what someone else said she said — is entitled to an opinion about what she said.

    Apparently that does not include this librarian. Janice Raymond is not against sexually exploited and prostituted women, or as you euphemistically call them in an attempt to cover up what’s really going on: sex workers. Raymond works to help these women, to increase awareness among the public that what is happening to them is not choice, but abuse. Raymond, and radical feminists, work to move women out of sexual slavery. Why are we so concerned? Because so many of us have been there.

    Sexual exploitation is not “work”. I’d expect better understanding of the use and misuse of language in marketing from a librarian. Changing the name to something more acceptable does not change what is going on.

  2. In her talk at the event, Janice Raymond cited a government study of which she didn’t know who actually conducted it, a law of which she didn’t know the correct name, and figures that were not only derived via a dubious research methodology but which she also managed to confuse.

    The “South Korean Model” is no more a “miracle” than the Swedish Model. The difference between the two is that the former states outright that it criminalises sex workers, while the latter claims it doesn’t.

    For a detailed response to Raymond’s claims, please read Janice Raymond and the South Korean Model. http://wp.me/p294H2-Uf

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