Against “Radical Empathy” as a Core Professional Principle: An Open Letter to the ALA Working Group on Intellectual Freedom and Social Justice
The American Library Association is considering replacing the principle of library neutrality with other concepts, like "radical empathy." Why that would be a mistake.
Image: A Carnegie public library repurposed as a city hall in Beardstown, Illinois. Photo by Randy von Liski [flickr]. Made available under a Creative Commons license.
May 3rd, 2022
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association
CC: Johana Emperatriz Orellana Cabrera, Chair, Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE); Dr. Martin L. Garnar, Chair, Intellectual Freedom Committee; Ms. Kiera O'Shea Vargas, Chair, Committee on Diversity; Jennifer Shimada, Chair,
Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Assembly; Rhonda Evans, Chair, Intellectual Freedom Round Table.
Dear Ms Stone, Ms. Cabrera, Mr. Garner, Ms. Vargas, Ms. Shimada and Ms. Evans:
We, the undersigned librarians, are respectfully submitting this letter to express our concerns regarding the proposal now being considered by the American Library Association’s Working Group on Intellectual Freedom and Social Justice to replace officially-endorsed language related to library neutrality (in the Library Bill of Rights, the ALA Code of Ethics, and other statements) with alternative concepts and practices such as radical empathy, trauma-informed response, and cultural humility. Our concerns are not limited to the particular choice of terms, but to the entire premise underlying this project: that library neutrality is an inherently flawed and harmful stance that upholds a socially unjust status quo. We not only believe that this initiative (however well-intentioned) is unwarranted and fundamentally misguided, but that the proposed alternatives – if adopted – will themselves threaten to be the source of considerable harm to library workers and the communities they serve.
As you are aware, on January 25th, 2021 the ALA Council approved its Resolution to Condemn White Supremacy and Fascism as Antithetical to Library Work, asserting that libraries had “passively… upheld” white supremacy through a “misplaced emphasis” on neutrality. This view is derived from the LIS literature, where library neutrality is viewed as “moral relativism” and as an “ethical regime whose standards are defined by transient events” (Good 1993, 144), effectively blinding the profession to social injustice by allowing bigotry and “hate speech” to flourish unchecked (Bales 2018; Ettarh 2019; Gerolami 2020). Despite this negative critical assertion now dominating the professional and scholarly discourses, we argue that these views are fundamentally mistaken: library neutrality is an essential and ethically-informed philosophical position of long-standing professional principle on which coherent policies may be derived for the benefit of a multicultural society regarding collections, services, and matters of controversy, including speakers and challenges to print materials.
We agree with the critical literature insofar as all processes associated with library work are value-laden, from the selection of materials, to the evolving legacy of 19th Century schemes of classification and subject headings, to the location of library buildings themselves. Libraries are not value-free institutions. Yet it is precisely because of this awareness that libraries and library workers must respect the autonomy and goals of library users by not adopting a single political ideology, nor imposing one set of values on our diverse user communities. Neutrality should therefore be understood as an ethically-informed position regarding a commitment to process, not an assertion regarding matters of fact.
By contrast, empathy is an emotional response nested at the level of the individual, upon which no coherent institutional responses may be developed. Professional language based on the primacy of this emotion would only serve to drive reactions to events as they arise on a case-by-case basis – that is, positions “defined by transient events”, not actual mature policies. In other words, this entire endeavor rests on a category error: emotions are neither philosophies nor principles.
Neutrality is a principled, ethical stance which states that the library as an institution – and library workers as representatives of that institution – cannot and will not impose their own values and worldviews on users (consistent with ALA Code of Ethics clause #7). Such an ethic is, in fact, a central pillar of counseling, a profession dedicated to responding compassionately to trauma: the Ethical and Professional Standards of the American Counseling Association state that
Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.
This form of value neutrality then extends providing equal access to all members of the community (stakeholder neutrality), as well as a transparent venue for speakers, dialogue and debate (process neutrality), and the freedom for patrons to use information for their own purposes (goal neutrality) (Dudley & Wright 2022). In multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, and multifaith societies such as those in the West (Sandercock 1998), this can be the only possible ethical institutional position a publicly-funded library can take. There are simply too many diverse stakeholders with their own priorities, values – and most importantly – political causes for the library to adopt a position on any one of them and still hope to be able to provide a welcoming and open environment for all.
Far from constituting passivity or an investment in the “status quo”, these four dimensions of neutrality are difficult work, and essential in any democratic society, but particularly so in times of such stark political polarization.
As for “empathy,” while a nominally admirable trait, it is also fraught with a number of connotations and implications that as the basis for institutional policy would prevent it from achieving the goals intended. First of all, it is itself a form of emotional labor, and library workers have for years spoken out about the extent to which it can lead to burnout; demanding more emotional labor is not only “mission creep” but will tend to worsen this problem (the same might be said of prioritizing trauma-informed response as a principle). More than that however, it is far from clear that an emphasis on “empathy” will result in the benign social interactions the ALA anticipates. As Scott Stirrett noted in his Globe and Mail op-ed The World Needs More Compassion, Not Empathy, empathy may not be desired by the people to whom it is directed, and places expectations on the intended receiver. It can also be strongly associated with bias – that people tend to empathize more with people who are most like them. And if empathy is intended to foster “solidarity” with one stakeholder group in the community, does this not imply that this will be in opposition to another? Or are library workers to express empathy for everyone in the community? There are no conceivable boundaries or limits. If – as is more likely – library workers become so partisan as to take only one side in a matter of controversy, will this not (as Stirrett argues) encourage the tolerance of unethical behavior from those with whom they identify?
Empathy also has the potential to exacerbate political polarization. In their 2022 review, “Empathy Regulation, Prosociality, and Moral Judgment,” C. Daryl Cameron, Paul Conway and Julian A. Scheffer argue that, when combined with moral judgment and ideology, there is a risk of one empathizing only with one’s political in-group, deeming the out-group unworthy of empathy, and deriding and censoring their views. The moral hazards of empathy were further articulated in a 2021 paper by psychologist Jean Decety. In “Why Empathy Is Not a Reliable Source of Information in Moral Decision Making,” Decety observes that, “Empathy can encourage overvaluing some people and ignoring others, and privileging one over many. Reasoning is therefore essential to filter and evaluate emotional responses that guide moral decisions.” He concludes that only through such reasoned argumentation – aided, we should stress, by institutions – can moral progress be made by “broadening sympathy guided by rational thinking and a valuing of universal principles.”
Because empathy on its own has no claim to reason, nor any substantive informational or ideological content, one can conceivably be impelled to empathize with any effective communicator, a tendency which might result in staff overlooking those unable to share their stories. Far more troubling, however, is that political authoritarians around the world have in recent years been successfully appealing to audiences’ emotions – including empathy – with great success. Empathy is then – ironically for present purposes – morally neutral: as Paul Bloom points out in his book Against Empathy, it is just as conceivable to empathize with a good person as it is an evil one.
We must also question the decision to offer radical empathy as a replacement for neutrality. Terri Givens, in her 2020 book Radical Empathy describes it as an explicitly interventionist form of empathy that seeks to “take action” and “create change” in the broader society. Indeed, many critical and radical librarians advocate drastic political, economic, or social transformations. For example, Sam Popowich declares in his 2019 book, Confronting the Democratic Discourse in Librarianship, that it may be necessary for librarians to “intervene explicitly in the intellectual and cultural lives of our fellow citizens” (294) or some other coercive means to “force” those he perceives to be in opposition to social justice goals to “stop [and] fall in line, [which] will require a serious rethinking of democracy and political theory” (298).
We believe it is not only inappropriate on a professional level for librarians to be seeking to implement or guide such rapid changes – having been granted no such warrant by society to do so – but is also fundamentally anti-democratic and illiberal. In a democracy such as the United States, dramatic political, economic, and social shifts – however badly they may be needed – may only be brought about through the consent of the governed, and through existing institutions, including the market. Not even professionals that are charged with implementing social change – like urban planners – can do so outside democratic processes (Dudley & Wright 2022).
To summarize: An officially-adopted principle related to radical empathy
1) provides no institutional guidance or structure for implementation;
2) provides no judgment or context in terms of what (or whom) is to be empathized with;
3) is an abdication of institutional responsibility, and is instead a call to individual action, which invites moral imperatives to overrule long-term planning and consultative processes. This could not only create the conditions for a moral panic, but also cause anxiety on the part of workers;
4) provides no protection or boundaries for library workers, who are put at increased risk of burnout; and
5) seeks to engage library workers in enacting social transformation without reference to democratic processes – to say nothing of being outside of their expertise.
We would concede, however, that truly neutral librarianship would be entirely consistent with and enhanced by cultural humility as a value, as it would encourage awareness of one’s own values and to not seek to impose them on others. On its own, however, cultural humility is a quite insufficient basis for professional ethics.
Before embarking on a project of abandoning a principle of such historic and universal standing, we must ask: What are the costs? The first foreseeable cost – once a public declaration of this decision were to be publicized – would be a loss of trust in the library as an institution that serves all citizens. As Gardner (2022) points out, providing services in a neutral manner “is what librarians are required to do and how they are required to act as recipients and stewards of taxpayer funding”. Trust, once lost, is difficult to rebuild, and it will have a concomitant impact on uptake of (or participation in) library activities. Second, much of the public may come to understand libraries as they understand, say, the mass media or universities: as institutions with an explicitly progressive orientation or agenda. This invites the kind of polarization and partisan wrangling now eroding the public's confidence in teachers and public schools. In turn, the library could be made into a political prop: were public libraries to explicitly and publicly adopt and espouse far Left/progressive political values and positions, it is easy to imagine conservative legislators questioning why they deserve taxpayer funding, or such autonomy, if they’re not going to represent the interests of all citizens. Neutrality has, until now, served as a bulwark against such politicization; publicly turning our back on it could invite serious repercussions.
We would argue that this debate and the risks it entails could have been avoided or at least ameliorated had the ALA actually included the word neutrality in its founding documents and clearly defined it decades ago, rather than just implying it as a goal. As a result, there is a great deal of misapprehension in the LIS literature and among practitioners as to what neutrality means and requires. Rather than replace neutrality, we strongly suggest that the ALA retroactively insert it (with its above-named four dimensions) into the Library Bill of Rights and the Code of Ethics, and define explicitly what it means: that it is a clear ethical aspiration and solemn commitment to respect the autonomy of users and the diversity of the communities we serve by refusing to codify and adopt a single, dominant political ideology, or to impose our values (or those of any stakeholder group) onto others.
None of this is to say of course that libraries and library workers should be insensible to the fact that society is riven by injustices, poverty, racism, inequality, and environmental degradation. These are major crises and urgently require attention. However, we would argue that the best way for the library as an institution to contribute to resolving these challenges – what it is best at, what it was designed to do – is to provide a diverse range of high-quality sources of information and viewpoints about these issues, thus enabling open dialogue and debate about how to best address them.
In closing, we implore the ALA to reconsider this initiative and to instead work on more soundly defining and strengthening the profession’s existing principles.
Michael Dudley, University of Winnipeg
Rob Sica, Colorado State University
John Wright, University of Calgary
Sarah Hartman-Caverly, Penn State University Libraries
Michael Hughes, Trinity University
Brian Erb, Florida State University - Florida Virtual Campus Library Services
Gabriel J. Gardner, California State University, Long Beach
Bridget Wipf, Northern Arizona University
Beth Kraemer, University of Kentucky
Robert Martin, Professor Emeritus, Texas Woman’s University
American Counseling Association. 2014 ACA Code of Ethics. https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics
American Library Association. (2021). Resolution to Condemn White Supremacy and Fascism as Antithetical to Library Work FINAL (ala.org)
Bales, Stephen.(2018). Social Justice and Library Work: A Guide to Theory and Practice.
Cambridge, MA: Chandos Publishing.
Bloom, Paul. (2018). Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Ecco.
Cameron, C. D., Conway, P., & Scheffer, J. A. (2022). Empathy regulation, prosociality, and moral judgment. Current Opinion in Psychology, 44, 188–195. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.09.011
Decety, J. (2021). Why Empathy Is Not a Reliable Source of Information in Moral Decision Making. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 30(5), 425–430. https://doi.org/10.1177/09637214211031943
Dudley, Michael and Wright, John. (2022). “Library Neutrality as Public Service in Liberal Democratic Governance: Theoretical and Practical Understandings from Political Science and Urban Planning.” [Presentation]. HxLibraries (Heterodox Academy), April 21st. Available on YouTube.
Ettarh, Fobazi. “A chronic lack of nuance & a love of the hypothetical: a library story.” https://fobaziettarh.com/2019/10/27/a-chronic-lack-of-nuance-a-love-of-the-hypothetical-a-library-story/
Gardner, G. J. (2022). “Intellectual freedom and alternative priorities in library and information science research: a longitudinal study.” Ifla Journal, (20220111). https://doi.org/10.1177/03400352211061176
Gerolami, N. (2020). No faith in the library: challenging secularism and neutrality in librarianship. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 43(2), 172–191.
Givens, Terri. (2020). Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides. Policy Press.
Popowich, S. (2019). Confronting the democratic discourse of librarianship : a marxist approach. Library Juice Press.
Sandercock, L. (1998). Towards cosmopolis: Planning for multicultural cities. Wiley.
Stirrett, Scott.(202). “The World Needs More Compassion, Not Empathy,” Globe and Mail December 17th, 2021
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