By James LaRue, from On Censorship: A Public Librarian Examines Cancel Culture in the US
Seven Things You Can Do Faced with malice, deception, growing violence, and undercurrents of tyranny, it’s easy to lose heart. But I’d like to end on a happier note. What can you do to build a nation you actually want to live in? I have 7 suggestions.
In the wonderful Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz notes that toddlers—who fall over when they walk, who can’t control their bladders, who get so much wrong—nonetheless laugh, every day, up to a hundred times more often than adults. Maybe they just don’t have the ego investment, the sunk costs of many years of fallacious notions. But we have a right to be wrong, and often, it’s hilarious. Sometimes, as our comedians demonstrated during the Trump administration, laughter can help us put things in perspective, and keep us sane.
2. Talk to your children
I’ve lost count of the parents who want me to prevent their children from reading, seeing, or hearing something the parents don’t approve of. In some cases, they push to require schools or libraries to surveil and report on their children’s investigations.
Here’s an alternative: stop putting the library or school in the middle and talk to your children directly. What are they looking into? Why do they find it interesting? How do they feel about what they’ve learned, and how do you feel about their feelings? Few things have so restored my faith in human beings as talking to my own kids. The development of the human mind is a miraculous thing, with many unexpected and even transformative pathways. Why not explore them together?
3. Read more books and talk about them
During the pandemic, I saw a surprising rise in people joining book clubs. Many tackled the issues also sweeping the nation—Black Lives Matter protests, for instance. The best book clubs include people and works you wouldn’t ordinarily hang out with. Look around and see what kinds of book clubs already exist in your community, and swing by. The local library is a good place to start.
I also recommend family book clubs. I mentioned the importance of talking to your children. Why not read with them, too? If you think some current young adult title your son or daughter wants to read is just too out there for you to be comfortable with, then read it with them, and talk about what you did and didn’t like about it. Then recommend a title you think is more “appropriate.” Read that with your children too, and see what they think of it. Usually, our children start out kind of sharing the values we taught them. But testing those values is part of becoming an adult.
Be prepared to learn how the world has changed since your childhood, and just how insightful your child may be.
4. Support the newspapers
In the period during which many Midwestern libraries were established (roughly 1870-1930), community leaders justified the founding of libraries by emphasizing the importance of “well-informed citizens.” If we want to build nations we actually want to live in, we need to know what’s happening. What are the issues of the day, both urgent and emerging? What’s real and what’s speculation? So I think it is incumbent on Americans to subscribe to and read at least one reputable national newspaper. I worry about local papers. The business model for journalism used to be based on advertising. Now much of that advertising has moved to the internet. Across the nation, journalist staffing has fallen precipitously and many smaller newspapers have shut down. That means there’s no one to monitor town council meetings, county planning committees, school board sessions, or library board discussions.
So it’s vital to support not just the national news, but what may remain of your local newspaper. Whether your basises business or government, we all need to be watched. Most people are ethical. The ones that aren’t can do a lot of damage. We need fearless journalism as much as we need fearless librarianship.
Contribute to the paper, too. I was a newspaper columnist for 25 years, and one of the things I learned was that it is a very small percentage of the public that writes a letter to the editor. Silence is often taken as assent. People in a community may feel that they are far out of step with a prevailing sentiment. But that’s just because a handful of loud voices are taking up all the air. As Eric Hoffer put it, revolutions begin with “men of militant words.” Only later are there “men of action.” Weigh in on the things that matter to you. You may be surprised to discover that many people agreed with you, and were just waiting for someone brave enough to step up and begin to articulate other courses of action.
There has been a lot of research about what leads to happiness. It turns out that one of the best strategies, way better than making a lot of money, is helping others. Whether you’re still in the workaday world or retired, volunteering with some cause that interests you has multiple outcomes. It helps you build a network of human connections. It helps you improve your local environment. It gets you out of your own head. It builds community. It helps blunt censorship at the core by establishing common ground and shared concerns.
6. Attend civic meetings
Usually, the public only shows up to public meetings when they’re mad about something. That often leads to rudeness, incivility, and angry division. Here’s an alternative: show up to city, county, school, and library meetings. Even check out the state legislature. Pay attention to the players and the issues. Ask polite questions. Thank them for their service. It can be hard to feel like you’re making a difference about national or global issues. But you can make a difference in your community. And many of the folks who work in local government put in long hours. They deserve our thanks.
7. Speak up
Finally, speak up. Nobody enjoys being yelled at. But I have learned, despite the occasional tussle over free speech, that most human beings do have that deep thirst for meaningful conversation.
It may be a bit of a risk to utter what you fear may be an unpopular opinion. But you can’t delegate your conscience to others. And we can’t learn and grow if we don’t step outside of the sandbox. We can’t prepare for a future if we can’t move beyond the past.
Another kind of speaking up is voting. The fewer hands that hold the reins of power, the greater the likelihood of oppression and suppression. Register, follow the issues, and show up to cast your vote. Our nation, our world, depends on our thoughtful participation and principled action.