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In Practice: Civility

by on May 22, 2018

In other blog posts I have expressed my belief that especially in today’s world, civility is imperative.  I have also expressed a belief that librarians have a responsibility to lead tolerance.  In response to these expressed beliefs some have challenged that civility is a silencing tool of oppression and that tolerance is an unacceptable dodge of acceptance. I believe these responses indicate experiences in which civility or tolerance have not been practiced.

It is important to make clear, civility is about presentation, not about content or disagreement. Likewise, leading tolerance is about accepting people, not their bad, hurtful or harmful behaviors.

My perspective that such terms are not being applied appropriately was reinforced recently upon hearing and reading of several librarians providing concrete examples of institutions and administrators giving lip service to diversity, while engaging in institutionalized racism, discrimination, and intolerance.  Sadly, I strongly suspect that these institutions and administrators are not even aware that they engaging in problematic practices.

As an administrator myself, this has sparked me to truly evaluate practice. Specifically to ask, while being civil how do we engage in leading tolerance and move beyond the labeling of diversity to action?

The first issue immediately visible to me is communication. Civility may require an avoidance of personal attack, but not avoidance of personal expression. One may argue, disagree, challenge, and in a manner express strong feelings and still be civil. Synonyms of civility include respect and politeness, not acquiesce. For librarians to move beyond a cursory acknowledgement of diversity to diversity in practice we must be able to talk about what we are doing right and wrong, what is being perceived and what we are attempting, what are extraneous limitations and what we can control.

This conversation is not easy.  If we want to lead tolerance and expand beyond multicultural collections and social issue displays, we must be willing to talk directly about uncomfortable issues. We may mistake discomfort and directness as impolite. This needs to change.

I recently heard a librarian telling of raising an issue with his director about a particular art work on the library wall that he found problematic. He asked that the picture be removed and reported that the director, while sounding sympathetic, did not remove the picture. From what I heard, the librarian described this art work as offensive, reminding him of an abusive and racist historical past. His lament was that it did not appear that the administration recognized the hurt he felt directly when he looked at the picture.

Unfortunately I did not get to ask this librarian what exactly was said to his administration, and I believe this makes a grave difference in the evaluation of this specific case.  But this serves as a solid example of a situation when an uncomfortable discussion is warranted.  While civility does dictate that the librarian not approach the administrator with elevated voice, belligerent tones, or personal accusations, it would be perfectly civil for the librarian to express the degree of upset and the nature of the upset, in this case the picture, causes. Wording matters — the strength of a word is important, for example ‘discomfort’ is not as strong as ‘offensive’  though both are civil.  Stating specifics should not be avoided, for example, ‘this painting invokes painful impressions of slavery for me.’

Many may believe that raising the issue of racism, slavery, or possibly pointing out that one person’s experience of something because of their demographic can be very different than another’s is being impolite. I would say, no, it is necessary. As an administrator, this is what I need to hear to understand the severity and impact of the situation that is not my experience.

While there is no assurance that approaching issues with such directness will facilitate change, I believe it is where we must begin. As librarians we are good at explaining why some resources are better than others, discussing why a patron’s behavior should shift, and the rationale behind our policies.  We do all of this while engaging in civil discourse with patrons that are not reciprocating.  Why then can we not apply the same rules of engagement and argument among these far more important issues?

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