The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas*

I read a thought-provoking post on censorship on Derek’s ALIA Blog this afternoon. I wanted to respond, but the comment I drafted quickly became longer than Derek’s original post. I realise that ideally, all bloggers want comments so they know they’re being read, but I didn’t want to be one of those insensitive commentators who hijack people’s blogs for their own ends. So I’ve moved the discussion over here where any such rants of mine more rightfully belong. But Derek, please consider this a comment on your post!

Derek writes:

‘The Minister [Telecommunications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy] announced that the Government proposed to require all internet service providers to provide “clean feeds” – internet content that is “free of pornography and inappropriate material.” This would be mandatory for all households, schools and libraries.’

I read an article in The Age back in August that I felt completely misrepresented libraries’ attitudes towards internet censorship. Our (admittedly idealistic) belief that information should be freely accessible to all with as few barriers as possible was reduced to this borderline-defamatory (and undeniably inflammatory) remark:

‘Explicit pornography can be viewed in many Victorian public libraries — including the State Library — because some decline to install internet filters on the basis that it imposes overly strict censorship.’

It seems that Derek’s comments as ALIA Vice-President were taken particularly out of context. He stated (perfectly reasonably) that current filtering software is clumsy and often inhibits legitimate research, using the example of breast cancer to indicate how this might be problematic. The Age, however, seems to have translated this to ‘libraries are ambivalent towards protecting children from harmful content, and more worried about complaints from patrons regarding the quality of their net filters’.

Librarians should pride ourselves (and don’t worry, I regularly almost break my arm patting myself on the back) that libraries are one of the last bastions of true democracy. In the United States, librarians would rather go to jail than reveal the borrower records of their patrons. In libraries, we don’t discriminate against people on the basis of their gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, physical or mental capacity, or the colour of their skin. It’s a pity that we don’t always receive the same courtesies in return, but that doesn’t stop us putting our users first. We ask them what they want from our services, and we do our best to accommodate their wishes. Hell, our users said they wanted 24 hour access to the Library, so this year, that’s exactly what they’ve got!

Yet this vitriolic article suggests we librarians should hang our heads in shame. Usually ridiculed in popular culture for our perceived conservatism, librarians are depicted by The Age as sex-crazed, small-L liberals out to warp the minds of little children. One intelligent young woman of my acquaintance was so incensed by The Age‘s article that she wrote a letter to the newspaper criticising it. I wish I’d had the guts to do the same, to defend both my profession and my beliefs, but since I didn’t, I think it’s time I set the record straight.

I am utterly opposed to internet censorship, especially when the government attempts to mandate it. It’s not that I’m likely to be interested in any of the sites that parent groups and government ministers are attempting to block, but in a (so-called) Western democracy we don’t like to think that anything we do is censored (even though deep down, we know it is).

From a purely practical point of view, internet users always find ways to circumvent filters. The prime example of their uselessness is the $80m attempt by the previous government, which managed to defeat an Australian teenager for a grand total of 30 minutes. It made us a laughing stock throughout the world. Knowing this, why do both sides of the political spectrum (if one still believes there’s a difference between federal ALP and Liberal) continue to waste time and money on creating doomed filtering products? Doesn’t our government give us any credit for intelligence?

My parents didn’t often monitor what I read or watched on TV as a child. They taught me to judge for myself – if I saw something I wasn’t comfortable with, I looked away. Many would be horrified by this policy (especially as we had SBS!), but I still believe most of the harmful content on TV and the Web comes from news and current affairs bulletins. I am not a parent (important disclaimer), but I am a daughter, and I know what I value(d) most about my relationship with my parents, both then and now, is trust. The first thing parents lose when they start surreptitiously monitoring their children’s internet usage is that very valued commodity. Without trust and respect, any attempts to shape a child’s morality are ineffective, and frankly hypocritical.

Is it so far-fetched to think that a better use of time and resources is presenting children with a cleaner world, rather than attempting to hide them from the reality of the one we’ve made? Politicians who endorse warfare and commit troops to fight on one hand, cannot with integrity make grand plans to shield children from internet violence on the other. And while advertisements like the extremely degrading Nando’s pole-dancing mother commercial are allowed to remain on television, despite over 300 complaints to the Advertising Standards Board, because it is ‘extremely popular with our target audience, the great majority of whom understand and appreciate Nando’s irreverent sense of humour’, the government has no credibility whatsoever when it argues for compulsory filters to ‘protect children’. It’s a joke.

* ‘Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.’
A. Whitney Griswold, past president of Yale University.

Blogger’s note: Griswold was a smart man.

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5 Responses to The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas*

  1. kimtblogger says:

    Thanks Bec for this rationale response to what I believe is a draconian, paternalistic response by the Government. I was astounded that they would or could endorse/suggest censorship.

    Who are the arbiters of what is appropriate and inappropriate? We all need to learn how to self-censor and decide for ourselves what we should look away from. Parents should be guiding children and taking some responsibility. I don’t want a paternalistic government to do this for me.

    My daughters have had a permissive upbringing by many peoples standards but they are articulate, engaged, politically aware and astute young people. I trust them to know right from wrong and make should ethical decisions about what they see as appropriate. Prohibition and censorship just increases curiosity. I trust them to make their own decisions. I believe that the Government has it wrong.

    Boo hiss!

  2. tony says:

    Thanks Bec, excellent post and I agree completely! And Kim’s comment too!

    And here’s an interesting example… if you check our library’s online journals page you’ll find we have “The Advocate” which is a serious gay and lesbian monthly featuring news and feature articles. It’s in several of our online databases such as EBSCO Academic Search Premier and Gale Academic Onefile . However, if you click the link in EBSCO to go to the publisher’s web site you’ll get an “access denied” message. It gets blocked by ITS.

  3. […] As I already subscribe to more blogs than I can ever possibly read, I didn’t tempt fate by searching Technorati for any more reading material to stash away for retirement. However, I did run a quick search on ‘librarian’, and unexpectedly found this entry, where a blogger who completed an online political ideology quiz notes the similarity of the words ‘libertarian’ and ‘librarian’. I made a brief comment to the effect of their similarity not only being skin deep, however I wouldn’t want anyone to think we’re too libertarian (refer to my earlier post on censorship). […]

  4. […] an earlier post, I discussed my belief that mandatory installation of internet filters has the potential to […]

  5. libodyssey says:

    For those of a political bent, it looks as though Nanny Rudd is turning his attention to binge drinking next
    At least Senator Conroy has backed down on this issue for the moment.

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