Library Newsletter: Flags, Free Speech, and Conversation

I was surprised and relieved back in August, when I read a Front Porch Forum message expressing a neighbor’s feelings of being offended by two flags flown on private property in Vergennes. I, too, had noticed the flags a day or two earlier, been struck by a turmoil of offense, confusion, and wonder at why a neighbor would choose to fly symbols that connote offensive beliefs. What, if anything, should be done about offensive expressions?

Libraries stand against censorship, are institutions that stand for inclusion, tolerance, and curiosity, in particular for those views different from your own. The type of safeguarding libraries do–protecting the right to information, to community and to discourse–is essential to a functioning democracy.

That admirable first post on Front Porch Forum asked a neighbor to remove an offensive symbol while explaining how and why it was offensive and while allowing the space for that person to clarify their message without assuming that the content of that message was intended to be offensive. It modeled respectful, tolerant conversation worthy of democracy, exactly what libraries aspire to support.

A request to stop expressing hateful and offensive messages is not an infringement of rights. Such a request is vastly different than the passing of a law that prohibits such expression. This distinction can be infuriating, and it is the difference between living responsibly and participating in a community or utilizing an oppressive government to enforce conformity to your own views.

You have the right to free speech, and anyone who might be offended by your speech has the right to respond and call you out on your inaccuracies, bigotry, and the lack of logic in your communication. To suggest that they ignore what offends them because you have the right to free speech, that they shouldn’t communicate with you because you are “just exercising your right to free speech” is in fact an attempt to abolish and to deny the right to free speech of anyone who might object to your views.

If you’ve read any of the books that have come out recently discussing class, race, and even our political affiliations (see Hillbilly Elegy, or White Working Class, either of which you can find at Bixby Library or even David Wong’s article in Cracked), you’ll be aware of the rural vs. urban divide behind our current surge of populism, but that awareness may not ease your sense of foreboding. You might be even more driven to read books like Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny or Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele (both available at Bixby) to gather ideas on how to make the world a more tolerant place.

Communities are not homogeneous collections of people who will reinforce your worldview, they shouldn’t be, and it is often at a community’s library where you can see this truth and where you can gather information and ideas that will help you understand those who are different from you.

The right to offend someone is not an obligation to do so. Nor is the right to point out offense a call to be intolerant yourself. We should aspire to frank, open, civilized and reasoned discussions of the issues of our day. And I hope the library will continue to be a central support of these aspirations.