How Do We Engage with Ideas that Make Us Uncomfortable?

by Lora Johns

Imagine a patron comes to you at the reference desk. They want to write a term paper, an op-ed, maybe even an amicus brief, and they need research help. The topic is race. Specifically, their thesis is that Black people should not be treated as the equals of Whites. Your patron wants you to help find authority to back up this position.

You could substitute women’s rights, immigration, gun control, or any other issue currently suffering from excessive polarization in this country. Imagine that you’re a Black librarian (or a woman, or an immigrant, or the victim of gun violence).

What do you say?

How much can we be expected to maintain “professional” detachment from ideas that seem less like abstractions and more like aggressions?

We walk an unsteady line when we discuss these topics with our patrons. If it were a field sobriety test, we’d all get locked up for the night. On the one hand, we are trained to keep our minds open when patrons come to us for help. The library is supposed to be a judgment-free zone. On the other, we cannot feign immunity to incendiary comments and ideas.

The idea of the “devil’s advocate” as a salutary figure dates back to the 17th century Roman Catholic Church. Their advocatus diaboli made the case against canonizing new saints, just to make sure that the candidate was truly worthy. Today, we still like the idea of having someone to rigorously test every claim and make sure it stands up to scrutiny.

Yet politics and polarization have made playing the devil’s advocate an emotionally charged game. Students regularly protest campus speakers who espouse ideas they consider racist, Islamophobic, or otherwise dangerous to the wellbeing—some would argue the very lives—of marginalized people.

Especially at law schools, it’s easy to see how increasingly polarized political views can make debating certain ideas feel less like discussing mere abstractions and more like weathering personal attacks. Words can wound—physically as well as psychologically. Stress and trauma measurably affect the body, even when there’s no physical contact involved.

People disagree on the correct remedy to the problem of speech that makes students feel unsafe. A crucial part of the equation is how safe the potentially threatened students feel on the campus in general. Is the environment full of microaggressions, or are there lots of support systems? At law schools, pervasive mental health problems might make tolerating threatening viewpoints harder than it otherwise would be. But at the same time, being a lawyer means learning to persevere even when your opponents are flinging arguments at you—some less civilly than others—with which you vehemently disagree.

Law librarians are not so different from litigators in that respect. We face the problem much less often than if we went to court every day, but it still takes a toll on us to remain positive when faced with opinions that cut against our deepest beliefs and identities.

So when we are faced with a patron whose mind we might desperately want to change, what do we do? We need not (and should not) act as automatons, squelching our own contrary opinions to help the patron find the information they want. But we can’t proselytize against their views, either. Quite apart from being terribly unprofessional, it would make the patron unlikely ever to consult the library again—and even unlikelier to ever change their mind.

What we can do is meet people where they are. If someone is staunchly anti-abortion, exhorting them to read the NARAL Pro-Choice America blog will not help anyone. What will help us all is exposing them to the widest range of high-quality information—scholarly, peer-reviewed literature from many relevant disciplines, by authors from diverse populations with multiple conclusions. We can and should lead our patrons down a research path that does not simply echo their preconceived notions (or ours). The key is to make room for as many ideas as possible, without forcing any agenda or privileging any one viewpoint.

I write from a place of relative privilege. I’m White and middle class. I grew up with sexism, but not racism or poverty. It is fairly easy for me to say that we should engage with repugnant ideas at whatever level we and our patrons can handle. But for many of my colleagues, the emotional labor this requires is enormous—they may be confronted with information requests that threaten or degrade their very existence. It will feel like violence.

The most important thing we can do for ourselves is to reframe our own thinking about ideas—to defang them by uncoupling their existence from our emotional reaction to them. Cognitive behavioral therapy, even self-directed, can dramatically reduce the anxiety we feel around offensive ideas. It is simple, but it is not easy.

The most important thing we can do for our patrons is to meet them where they are, but challenge them to broaden their minds. By engaging with controversial ideas calmly, we can be role models for how not to let hotly contested issues devolve into bullying, finger-pointing, and emotional turmoil. We can lead by example and hope that our patrons will take note and follow suit.

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About lorajohns

Linguist, lawyer, librarian. B.A. in linguistics from Dartmouth College. J.D. from Yale Law School.
This entry was posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Legal Research. Bookmark the permalink.

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