It’s been a hell of a week and as we move towards Friday I can’t say I’ll be sorry to see the back of it. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia have shocked people around the world as they rightly should. The reaction of the American President has been a travesty and only the most morally bankrupt people see his remarks as anything other than a failure of leadership, empathy and ethics. But before I go any further I want to talk about Heather Heyer because her name seems to be getting lost in much of the coverage of the events in Charlottesville.
Heyer along with two members of the Charlottesville Police died on Saturday. The officers died when their helicopter crashed as they were monitoring the protests. Heyer however was killed, murdered really, when right-wing Terrorist (Please don’t call him a “sympathizer” or “the driver of the vehicle”) James Field drove his car into a group of anti-racism protesters. I don’t know anything about Heyer and I’ve heard precious little about her on the news other than information about her death. However, what I have heard and what you should listen to is the eulogy delivered by Heyer’s mother at a Memorial Service in Charlottesville.
Heather Heyer’s Mother, Susan Bo, speaking at her daughter’s Memroial Service.
If that is Heather Heyer’s mother I can only imagine the force of nature Heyer herself must have been. We need people like that! We need “Smart”, we need “strong”, we need “stick-to-itive” because there are lots more problems in the world to fix. We lost one of those smart, strong, sticky people on Saturday to Right-wing Terrorism.
And while we’re thinking about Heather Heyer and her mother, lets compare them with the Leader of the Free World, Donald Trump and his fellow travellers. Men refusing to acknowledge the problem of the White Supremacy Movement, refusing to acknowledge the anti-Semitism, the Racism and the Homophobia of these hate groups that cluster around NeoNazis and the “alt-right”.
The stark contrast is so sharp and bright it hurts to think about it. Trump is a man who can only be described as the personification of white, straight, European male entitlement. The only problem I have with that description is that I know many straight, white, European males who are decent, kind, smart, honest caring people… (some of my best friends in fact!). So it is difficult for me to articulate how profoundly Trump disgusts me. If I harboured any doubts about my feelings regarding the man they were dispelled on Tuesday when he doubled down on comments he made two days earlier, asserting that the responsibility for the violence in Charlottesville lay with both sets of demonstrators and accusing the anti-racism protesters of provoking the attack which killed Heyer.
But this blog isn’t about bouncing off the walls in suppressed fury or screaming at a computer screen. It’s about how professionals deliver a valuable public service in a rapidly changing institution.
Last week I talked about the patron coming into a library with a need and how that made them vulnerable. Well, librarians as the stewards of knowledge and I hope the shepherds of information provide solutions. But we serve not only individuals but communities. One of the challenges of information is that’s it is contextual. This means the same information can have different implications for different people. Within the context of Racism and Sexism in our communities that means information accepted as true in a “normal” situation is actually designed for people within a specific context and anyone outside that context is deemed an exception. This can be as mundane as a website which doesn’t recognize addresses outside of North America or it could be as serious as drug testing which doesn’t account for differences in reactions between men and woman. Thus information is by its nature not “objective”. It is only by acknowledging this and by seeking to understand those differences that we can help our communities to identify the commonalities and differences which help to build identity. And it is only by But it is only by discussing the problems which arise from those identities that we can challenge our assumptions and find solutions to common problems.
Libraries create and promote safe spaces which are foundations for the development and sustainability of civil society. It is by sharing information and experiences that we learn to appreciate how our communities can have different impacts and outcomes for different people. These spaces build empathy and they build capacity for collective action which is truly democratic and community based in its nature.
What we saw last weekend in Charlottesville was a failure to engage with people which had accelerated over years so that by the time it reached the American city it was almost impossible to stop. The alt-right is a nihilistic and self destructive ideology which appeals to people who are afraid. A group hug in Charlottesville is not the solution I am suggesting. The safe space librarians create isn’t supposed to result in a unity of thought and spirit. We aren’t all going to come together and agree and it isn’t healthy if we do. We are going to have some hard discussions but if we create safe spaces for our patrons, for the members of our communities we learn to talk and to keep talking, so that over time channels of communication and relationships are built and sustained. Without those points of contact and tough challenging discussion it is easy to believe a political opponent is an animal or an existential threat. And that makes it easy to point a gun at someone or aim a car at a crowd and step on the accelerator.
I have never had the good fortune to run a “Human Library” but it is the perfect tool for starting and sustaining discussions within a community. Human Library events were quite trendy a few years ago but seem to be garnering less attention these days. They can be about topics as mundane or challenging as you want but the point here is they bring together people who might not normally know each other or ordinarily meet. Civil society breaks down when people stop talking to each other.
Librarians as the Shepards of information have the resources to facilitate serious and constructive discussions for the welfare of our patrons and the safety of our communities. I think it is an idea Heather Heyer would have endorsed.