“Impostor syndrome” – a product of indoctrination?


Edited image c/o Tom Woodward on Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

Ever since #radlib15, I’ve been considering“impostor syndrome” and some of the issues that emerge as a result of its existence (read Andrew Preater’s more thoughtful take if you want to skip to the end of this). First, I want to begin by challenging and reframing the term, because it raises issues around the notion of it being a “syndrome” that, by extension, can be treated. I think the reality is that rather than a “syndrome” it could equally be considered as a form of indoctrination and perhaps should be more appropriately termed “impostor indoctrination”. Indoctrination, because I would argue this is a feeling that is imposed upon us we are supposed to have, rather than something that emerges due to an irrational thought process. It is a constructed state of mind, rather than the naturalised one that the term “syndrome” implies.

During #radlib15 I identified my own personal experience of this feeling. I come from a working class background, was educated in Kent (a county which still has selection at 11), I didn’t go to the grammar school and instead went to the state comprehensive – because, effectively, I “wasn’t good enough” to go to the local grammar school (it was argued in a tribunal that I would probably “struggle” at the grammar school, whereas I would perform well at the state comprehensive). This was followed by average grades at school, followed by below average university (for my chosen field) and several years of working in retail. I then had the fortune to meet my partner, who is a trained medical professional. Through her financial support, I was able to partake in postgraduate study, get my LIS qualification and, now, practice as a professionally qualified librarian.

The manifestations of “impostor syndrome”

My feeling that has emerged from this experience is one of “I do not belong here”. I come from what I consider to be a working class background, and yet I find myself in a professional that appears to be dominated by the middle class. No matter how my career develops from now on, I will always have that sense that I don’t belong here, because I was led to believe from the age of 11 that this is not for me. I’ll come back to this point later.

What was particularly interesting for me in this session is the perspective of someone who self-identified as middle class in the same session. Their sense was not that they didn’t belong, more that they didn’t measure up to some idealised version of a library professional. Their “indoctrination”, if you like, emerged from some marketised ideal of what a professional should do and behave like. The impostor indoctrination had imposed an ideal. You should be here, and now you are, here is the standard you should attain. I should add at this point that this feeling is not restricted to librarianship, it affects all manifestations of labour.

I think this feeling and how it manifests itself varies according to class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality etc. How I as a white male of working class origin interprets this feeling is perhaps different from a white middle class woman and, likewise, a black working class man. There is no single definition of what this feeling is or how it manifests itself. This is also why I feel unifying such different and varying experiences and feelings as a “syndrome” is not quite an accurate representation of the sense that one is an “impostor”.

The Ideological State Apparatus

I would argue that the feeling is part of an indoctrination process, an effort to control and ensure discipline amongst a broad base. Indeed, I think that Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) theory could be used as a framework for understanding how this emerges. Althusser argued in 1970 that the ISA operated as a way to disseminate ideology amongst the general populace. ISAs exist in all aspects of society, but Althusser argues that the education ISA is the predominant one. Althusser argues:

“It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’, squeezed between the Family State Apparatus and the Educational State Apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected ‘into production’: these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the ‘intellectuals of the collective labourer’, the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’).”

Which begs the question, if you are expected to have been one of those “ejected” at 16, ie sent down a particular path which made an alternative outcome less likely (eg to become of the petit bourgeois or a “professional ideologist”), would that not instil a sense of being an “impostor” once you emerge as a member of the petit bourgeois or “professional ideologists”? After all, you were identified as not being suitable material for such a position, so to arrive there regardless of the barriers placed in your way must surely create a sense of unease that you had somehow cheated the system and are at risk of being found out?

Althusser goes on to argue:

Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society: the role of the exploited (with a ‘highly-developed’ ‘professional’, ‘ethical’, ‘civic’, ‘national’ and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: ‘human relations’), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience ‘without discussion’, or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader’s rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousnesses with the respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence’, of the Nation, of France’s World Role, etc.).

The education ISA is fundamental in schooling individuals in the dominant ideology but also in providing them with the ideology that suits the role they have to fulfil in society. If we then find ourselves in a position that we were not destined to fulfil, ie we were put on a path that pre-supposes you were more likely to be ejected “into production”, that would surely create a tension – a tension that ultimately emerges as a rejection of the indoctrination process thus it becomes a feeling of being out of place that emerges from a condition of indoctrination?

Likewise, there are those for whom  arrival at “the summit” is planned and expected. For this group, certain ideological expectations are placed upon them. They are expected and destined to exist at the summit, to act as “agents of exploitation”, “repression” and “professional ideologists”. Those that reject or do not exhibit the expected behavioural norms of the position, or who do not feel that they measure up to these expectations, are then also subjected to a sense that they are in the wrong place, because they do not feel they can measure up to that standard. Rather than feeling “I do not belong”, there is a sense that they are not fulfilling the expectations of those at “the summit”.

Ultimately, this tension is a desired effect of the educational ISA and ISAs in general. Indeed, this state of tension, of anxiety, the feeling of being an “impostor” is desired because it is a disciplinary technique. So long as people worry about whether they are in the right place or whether they are worrying about the standard/expectations that the educational ISA has inculcated within them, they will not challenge or upset the status quo. A precarious, anxious class is easier to control than one that is confident and assured. They will not challenge the status quo because their concerns are focused on development, on eradicating that feeling of being an “impostor”.

Precarity and anxiety

This feeling, as previously stated, affects us all. A feeling of insecurity is necessary, if not vital, to ensure discipline and maintain the status quo. As Richard Seymour puts it:

“For precarity is something that isn’t reserved for a small, specialised group of people – “the precariat” or whoever. It spreads. It affects us all. The whip of insecurity disciplines even those who were recently comfortable.”

The impostor indoctrination affects all of us, it ensures a widespread sense of insecurity in a variety of manifestation, all of which ensure discipline and help to maintain the status quo. Late capitalism has made us all “the precariat”, not just in the sense of creating a sense that our jobs our vulnerable, but also in creating a permanent sense of doubt about our capabilities, about our skills and knowledge. This unease, emerging from the indoctrination process through the educational ISA that either sets up an unobtainable ideal or that creates anxiety in those that have somehow cheated the system, ensures order and equilibrium in the system are maintained.

This creation of anxiety to maintain order has been a strategy throughout the history of capitalism. As Esme Choonara notes in “Is there a precariat?”:

“Over a hundred years ago Karl Marx explained how bosses use the threat of a ‘reserve army’ of unemployed workers to attempt to discipline those in work.”

To maintain order and compliance, one merely needs to create anxiety. Anxious labour is compliant labour. Compliant labour is, in the eyes of the elite, productive labour. Labour that is confident and engaged is ultimately a threat to the established order, because confident labour will seek to influence and challenge the established order. Better to create anxiety and unease than to risk disrupting the status quo which benefits the elite. Throughout history we find examples of regimes that use anxiety and fear to assert their authority and to ensure labour produces that which the leaders require.

This feeling, impostor indoctrination/syndrome however you wish to define it, is not only widespread, it’s also part of a deliberate tactic to ensure that the dominant ideology is not only maintained, but reinforced. Inward looking anxieties ensure control and discipline. If we are concerned about the precarity of our jobs, or focused on concerns around with whether we should be in a certain place, or whether we are measuring up to a standard that has been defined for us, we are distracted from the structures we exist within. For if we do not believe we are where we should be, or that we measure up to some standard, how can we hope to challenge and change the system? We cannot, and that is exactly what the system is designed to do.


Reflections on radical librarianship and #radlib15


Image c/o Travis Gray on Flickr.

The Radical Librarian Collective has come a long way since it first started to emerge back in 2013. Back then I think it is fair to say that many of us involved in getting it off the ground had no idea two years later the third RLC gathering would have drawn to a close. Back then it was a bunch of like-minded people who felt that there was a need to bring radical politics into the discourse and had a vague idea that others might wish to engage in challenging some of the drift that had taken place in recent years.

Since those heady days of 2013, a lot has happened. As mentioned above, there have now been three gatherings of like-minded folk, an OA journal has emerged, there’s now a mailing list to encourage discussion across the library and information sector and there was the creation of an Open Access declaration to encourage a commitment to producing content that is free from copyright restrictions. Much has been achieved with much more still to do. As I always argue, the key to development is infrastructure building which must be progressed quickly to ensure momentum and avoid co-option (which emerged but currently appears to have been seen off).

What has been particularly notable has been the way RLC has been received. Initially there was a somewhat dismissive response (something that occurs when people build infrastructure that challenges accepted narratives), if not openly mocking. It’s noticeable in the last two years how that has declined as barely noticeable now. Partly, I think, this is due to a growing belief in the values and ideas behind radical librarianship. I’ve certainly noticed a growing radical rhetoric within the profession, particularly in the United States where a number of influential and highly respected individuals have been taking clear radical stances on key issues affecting our practice. Perhaps the highlights being Barbara Fister’s keynote at Lilac [pdf] and The Nation‘s coverage of Alison Macrina’s work in the United States (taking radical librarianship to the front page of a well-respected left-wing publication). We are still at early stages, but the movement has gathered momentum and asserting confidence, which perhaps explains the decline of the dismissals.

But what of #radlib15?

Once more the day was filled with interesting discussion and a political take on some of the issues that we face. In terms of my input, I ran or co-ran two sessions on the day. The first, with Sarah Arkle, focused upon the creation of small RLC regional groups. This is, for me,of utmost importance.ive had several discussions with other RLC folks in recent weeks about how RLC can push forward as a thing. For me, the building of small groups is crucial. Ultimately, I believe, small distributed groups that are part of a larger national network is where we should be. The annual national gatherings should then be about pulling together these small regional groups to share actions, discuss activities and work together to strengthen all that underpins the radical librarianship movement. I think issues are best resolved locally rather than nationally, and where there are resolutions, they can be shared and incorporated across all groups, spreading throughout the network.

At the end of the day, we encouraged people to pull themselves together geographically and exchange contact details and, ultimately, organise. There was some talk about building local radical networks, so I’m pretty optimistic that this will start developing and I’m excited about the potential of it doing so. (You can find notes from the session here and here [pdf].)

The other session I proposed was on Althusser and Ideological State Apparatuses. I won’t get into this too much here as its something I would like to explore further in a long form piece of writing, exploring the theory and its relationship with our practice. The theory itself is something I stumbled upon last year and has been whirling around my head ever since I read the piece. I’ve always been interested in how ideologies are spread and disseminated throughout a populace and it’s something that I feel has a strong relationship with our work practice as facilitators of access to information.

In terms of the session itself, I felt that a discussion around this theory would be interesting because there are a number of points of discussion that could be brought into it. I’ve often remarked in discussion with people that specifics in relation to theory is my weak point. Whilst my entire first year on the English Literature aspect of my undergrad was literary theory (which, by the way, I think looking back was vital in developing my critical thinking skills – Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory being the only text we really devoured for a year), I have never been good with specific theories. Indeed, the history aspect of my degree has had a much greater influence on the way in which I understand the world around me from a political perspective. Essentially. I like to learn from the deeds of others rather than the thoughts of others.

In terms of the Althusser piece, I think there is some interesting theory for the theorists to get stuck into, but there are also ideas that are very easy to relate to our practice and how we operate. It was for this reason I thought it would be a good point of discussion and certainly I got the impression that similarly non-theory minded folk got as much out of it as the theory orientated ones. One thing that I think did help with this session, was the 15mins of silent reading to begin with. Whilst I had posted the extract online before the event, I figured it would be good to just ensure we were all at the same starting point and just quietly read to ourselves within the group. Something about this seemed both somewhat radical (in an “unconference” that is all about talking and sharing ideas) but also calming coming as it did at the end of the day. Should I run a session like this again in the future, I will definitely try to incorporate that silent reading aspect once more. (You can find notes from the discussion here [pdf].)*

I took a lot from the other sessions on the day, but I won’t go into my feelings about every session here. There was, however, an interesting discussion about imposter “syndrome” (which was recognised as a problematic term due to the connotations around clinicalising the feeling) that got me thinking a lot about class and the marketisation of our role. This arose as a result of a couple of blog posts by Elly O’Brien and Laura Woods. My take on this as a thing is entirely personal, but having grown up in a working class household in Kent (where we have selection whereby at age 11 you are either sent to a grammar school with supposedly higher standards of learning or a state comprehensive) I can identify with the notions of being somewhat of a fraud. What was interesting was hearing how this feeling manifests itself in those from a middle class background. I’d roughly characterise this as:

“I shouldn’t be here” (working class) vs “I’m not measuring up to the expected professional norm” (middle class)

That’s a rough approximation (obviously nothing is as binary as that), I’d be interested in how others view the distinction.

It was also interesting to consider the disconnect between a marketised version of ourselves and the ‘real’. The trauma of this disconnect thus provoking stress and anxiety which feeds into a feeling of being an “imposter”. It’s an interesting area of discussion when taking into account class issues as well as the neoliberal construct and the extent to which this provokes a trauma related to an unattainable ideal.

As always, I took a lot away from the day and it will take me some time to process things fully. What I have identified, however, is that sense that these discussions are becoming accepted and there have been efforts to try to incorporate them more widely in the discourse (see the recent CILIP Conference). As I have argued before though, this is a dangerous moment for those of a radical persuasion. The more ideas are incorporated into mainstream discourse, the further away they move from their radical roots. In essence: be aware of co-option. The ideas and concerns that lay behind RLC are radical in nature and sit outside mainstream discourse – that should not be forgotten.

My attention was drawn yesterday to a Schopenhauer mis-attributed quote (to Schopenhauer) I wish I had been aware of when I wrote about the journey of radical language a little while back:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

I think this is something I can certainly identify with as things have developed over the past two years.

I feel very fortunate to have been involved in two entities that have had at least some influence on general discourse relating to our practice. Both Voices for the Library and RLC have been (and continue to be) things I feel fortunate to be associated with. Not only because of what they represent and what they have achieved, but also because they have enabled me to collaborate with people I hold in high regard and have a huge amount of respect for. Whilst I do reflect on what they have achieved thus far with a certain degree of “how on earth did this grow into something?”, my focus is always on the process of building and pushing things forward. So I look forward to the continual construction of infrastructure with fellow radicals in order that we can continue to build solidarity and mutual support in the face of an ideology to which we are united in opposition.

* Further to this, I am looking at establishing (alongside fellow like-minds) a radical library chat with the first one being a discussion of Althusser’s ideas. I hope to get this up and running within the next two weeks so keep an eye on RLC for details.

What is a radical librarian?


Photo credit: ijclark cc-by.

I’ve considered and then abandoned writing about radical librarianship before for many reasons. In some respects, I felt it was too introspective and expending too much time and energy on something that is really a fringe concern (I’d rather concentrate on doing stuff than getting into a drawn out cycle of discussion about language etc). But it keeps cropping up as a point of discussion so I thought I’d put my thoughts down, not least to ensure that in future I can just point to a URL rather than repeat the same perspective ad nauseum.

I would like to add that these are my personal views and my personal interpretation of the terminology. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any organisation I am affiliated to (I want to make that clear in case people assume that the definition I use for the term “radical” is the definition everyone involved in RLC subscribes to) and I accept that there will be those who hold to very different interpretations of the term than that which I subscribe to. I obviously don’t believe that the following is definitive, and I would certainly very much value other perspectives on this, not least to more fully inform my thinking.

The first thing I think is important to clarify is that, for me, radical doesn’t mean smashing up windows or engaging in illegal and violent activity. You know, the kind of radical that the media likes to present to us. Radicalism for me doesn’t mean violence or even law-breaking*. I think those who have difficulties with the word “radical” break down broadly into two groups: those who think it represents a violent/law-breaking attitude and those who think the term itself is a bit, well, teenage. Being a radical (in whatever form) does not mean that one is either violent or a law-breaker. There is, clearly, a difference between a criminal and a radical.

Last year I wrote a post explaining how librarians enable neoliberalism with particular reference to Althusser’s “Ideological State Apparatuses” (such as education, which is obviously an area where librarians play a key role). Althusser argued that the dominant ideology is reinforced by these ISAs. That the dominant ideology relies on these state apparatuses to ensure it can consolidate its influence, reinforcing its dominance. This notion of the dominant ideology (ie capitalism) is, principally, where I draw my definition of the term radical.

For me, what is radical is to offer something that stands in opposition to the dominant ideology.  Rather than accept the capitalist environment within which we operate, a radical position would be to not only oppose it, but to advocate something that runs counter to it. Because for me, to be radical in the current environment is to reject the language and ideology of capitalism and to work towards something different, something that runs counter to the orthodoxy.

As the position of the radical is determined by the dominant ideology, I would argue that a radical now is not necessarily a radical “then”. In other words, with respect to librarians, the roots of our profession are tied up with certain professional ethics. These ethics, in a neoliberal society, are attacked and, if we are not careful, severely diminished. But remaining true to these ethical roots is by nature radical. Should we, despite the best efforts to erode and corrupt our values, remain true to our ethical foundation, then by definition we are remaining defiant to the dominant ideology. Navigating through a neoliberal, extreme capitalist environment whilst holding onto our core values, is a radical act, because the conditions are designed to weaken and corrupt our resolve.

Basically, for me, a radical librarian is someone who remains true to the core ethical foundations of our profession…in fact, not even stays true, has it at the core of everything they do. But it is also about rejecting the dominant ideology and about seeking to find ways to undermine this ideology. For me, undermining it could be allowing a space for these ideas to be discussed and built upon. It could be in creating a journal, in building a physical event whereby like-minds can share ideas and plan actions, in seeking to explore alternative structures/approaches to those that currently exist within the profession. It does not mean engaging in violent activity, in militancy. You are a radical, in my view, merely in challenging that dominant ideology.

I’m not sure how much all of that even makes sense and I’m certainly not sure if I have even clarified how I define what it is to be “radical”. I’d obviously like to hear more about how others define it. Whether you agree with how I interpret it or not. Ultimately, the hippy that I am, I would like to see if there is some consensus in how we interpret what it is to be “radical”. Not least because the above doesn’t even really satisfy me, even as an entirely personal interpretation.

Update 6/5/15

* I should have added here that whilst radicalism ≠ violence or law-breaking, some may wish to express their radicalism in these ways. What I am getting at here is that being a radical is not necessarily expressed through violence or law-breaking.

How librarians enable neoliberalism and inequality, and what we can do to resist it

Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange, by David Edwards on Flickr

We live in an era dominated by the corrosive ideology of neoliberalism. Since the abandonment of the postwar settlement just over forty years ago, neoliberalism has become the dominant socio-economic ideology. The notion that an unconstrained private sector (via the profit motive and supposed greater efficiency) is best placed to deliver public service has been broadly accepted by the political establishment. Its successful dominance of political thought was confirmed with the arrival of Tony Blair and his embrace of a liberal economic agenda, casting aside the virtues upon which the Labour Party had been founded in favour of the market. But how has this ideology come to dominate? There is no single solitary component that has enabled its acceptance, rather a series of complex and varied factors that have been complicit in its dominance.

Neoliberalism disenfranchises citizens, converting individuals from citizens to consumers. No longer does the individual have ‘rights’ as citizens, rather they have the gift of “choice”. Choice in so far as the capitalist economic system permits. As Doreen Massey argues in Vocabularies of the economy [PDF]:

“It is one of the ghastly ironies of the present neoliberal age that we are told (as we saw at the outset of this argument) that much of our power and our pleasure, and our very self-identification, lies in our ability to choose (and we are indeed bombarded every day by ‘choices’, many of them meaningless, others we wish we didn’t have to make), while at the level that really matters – what kind of society we’d like to live in, what kind of future we’d like to build – we are told, implacably, that, give or take a few minor variations, there is no alternative – no choice at all.”

Image c/o Alex Proimos on Flickr.

The shift away from citizenry to a consumerist culture is one that particularly benefits those with the financial means with which to engage in such a culture (enabling access to the best healthcare, the best education and so on). It follows, therefore, that such a culture penalises those who lack the financial means with which to make the choices available to those who do. This, obviously and inevitably, breeds inequality. Neoliberalism is, essentially, a system that creates and entrenches inequality (and, arguably, inefficiency as a result) – see Piketty’s much reported (if little read) analysis.

Of course, neoliberalism needs a foundation upon which to grow and thrive. Arguably, no system would be able to do so without certain institutions of power enabling its spread. Without the enabling of such institutions, neoliberalism as an ideology would barely sprout roots. It needs the nourishment that only vital, trusted, public institutions can provide.

In Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser argues that dominant ideologies are enabled primarily through the non-violent operation of “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs). Chief amongst the ISAs referred to is the “educational apparatus”. Althusser argues that:

“…behind the scenes of its political Ideological State Apparatus, which occupies the front of the stage, what the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant Ideological State Apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant Ideological State Apparatus, the Church.”

Althusser argues the educational apparatus is key to consolidating the influence of the dominant ideology, and drawing on Gramsci’s (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1971) concept of cultural hegemony, that it plays a role in ensuring that the establishment worldview is accepted as a cultural norm, as universally valid. Education is not the sole enabler of a neoliberal, consumerised society, but it plays a key and fundamental role in ensuring it remains dominant. When the language becomes embedded within an educational apparatus that is perceived to be apolitical in nature, the dominant ideology is strengthened. As Althusser goes on to argue:

“The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology…”

This lends itself to the defence utilised when employing neoliberal language: the terms are harmless as they are used in a neutral context, purged of ideology. We can employ these terms because we are not political and we’ve stripped away all political context.

In their article, The Counterhegemonic Academic Librarian: A Call to Action (Progressive Librarian #40), Stephen E Bales and Lea Susan Engle contend that higher education institutions are well positioned to perform this indoctrination considering their “place of high authority in western society”. They go on to argue that the academic library is a “necessary and inseparable component of the educational ISA, reproducing the political milieu through its collections and library staff or faculties”. The effect of this normalisation is a student class that is “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production”. As David Sweeney, director for research, innovations and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, recently argued, the UK has:

“…comprehensively failed to get away from the social elite in higher education…Do we want people like us leaving universities? Do we want our graduates to be engaged with society or part of an elite? Would it not be good to act as models for people who will tackle the big global challenges?”

Our system of higher education does not produce students who challenge the status quo, rather it produces graduates that will protect it, perpetuating and reinforcing the over-arching ideology of the political establishment. The educational ISA is a powerful tool in perpetuating the dominant ideology, ensuring its dominance and primacy. Any attempt to breakdown this dominant ideology, therefore, relies on challenging the status quo in our education system. Only by weeding this ideology out of our education system can we hope to breakdown the structures that create division and inequality.

Image c/o Pierre Metivier on Flickr.

This causes a number of problems in terms of the role of the librarian within the educational ISA. Our position as “neutral” figures of professional standing is a fallacy. Whilst we may strive to be “neutral” our actions are anything but. For example, as Bales and Eagle argue, the ALA “Code of Ethics” can be interpreted to mean that librarians must take a neutral stance on social justice issues, giving equal access to items that preserve the status quo and those that promote the advancement of marginalised groups (this is also reflected in point 7 of CILIP’s Ethical Principles – that we should remain “impartial” and avoid “bias”). The logical conclusion of such equal weighting, appearing to remain impartial, is to create a kind of equilibrium whereby to maintain inequality is as valid as to challenge it. When explored to its logical conclusion, is maintaining neutrality truly fitting with our ethical values? By giving an equal platform to materials that entrench social division, are we not taking a political position? In doing so are we not also undermining the very values we espouse?

Bales and Engle go on to argue that our position should not be of neutrality as imagined by the ALA “Code of Ethics”, but rather it should be:

“…one of social and moral responsibility to challenge the academic library as an ISA, to contribute to the creation of authentic knowledge and history, not simply the reiteration of canonical indoctrination.”

One of the key ways in which we can challenge the academic libraries as an ISA is through awareness of the language we utilise. The growing adoption of neoliberal language, normalises and legitimises it, reinforcing the consumerist culture. Through this use of language we endorse the use of words that are neoliberal by nature and have meaning that is contrary to our ethical values. Endorsement leads to acceptance of the terms as normal modes of language, as orthodox terminology. Using terms such as “customer”, “brand” etc imply an acceptance of the neoliberal driven transformation of citizens into consumers. This is, of course, problematic on a number of levels, not least because this normalisation embeds the discourse of the market in the minds of those who will join the ranks of the social elites, ensuring the consolidation of the dominant ideology. It also causes problems in terms of both our professional ethics and the future of the profession in general. As John Buschman argued in an address at Rider University in 2004, as such “business buzzwords” become ubiquitous:

“Thus does a privatized and economic vision of the library come to dominate discussions and assumptions about its future and define its purposes.”

The transformation of citizens into consumers results in the corruption and, ultimately, the destruction of publicly funded higher education (which has been privatised “further and faster than anywhere else“) and our public services. This transformation results in the adoption of market strategies, gradually eroding the notion that we are entitled to free education, healthcare etc.; instead convincing us that we are consumers without rights, only choice. For a profession steeped in the values of free and unimpeded access to information without discrimination, such an ideology presents a serious threat. A move towards marketisation means a move away from a service provided free and without discrimination, and towards a service for the few. We cannot tolerate a situation whereby we discriminate against those without the means to access the services we provide. Aping the language of business will not, as Buschman concludes:

“…save libraries, it transforms them into something else. We’re a profession and an institution in crisis because we have a structural contradiction between our purposes and practices as they’ve historically evolved and our adaptation to the current environment.”

Without challenging the use of the language of the dominant elite, we essentially become agents of the ruling bourgeois elites. The neutral academic librarian becomes, effectively, an agent ensuring that the dominant ideology is reinforced. As Massey points out [PDF]:

“The vocabulary we use, to talk about the economy in particular, has been crucial to the establishment of neoliberal hegemony.”

In Education Under Siege, Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux (quoted in Bales and Engle) described academics that work passively in the service of the controlling interests of society as “accommodating intellectuals” (expanding on Gramsci’s distinction between “organic” and “traditional” intellectuals). These “accommodating intellectuals” stand:

“…firm within an ideological posture and set of material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups. Such intellectuals are generally not aware of this process that they do not define themselves as self-conscious agents of the status quo, even though their politics further the interests of the dominant classes.”

Image c/o Daniel Horande on Flickr.

Such “accommodating intellectuals” are essentially, unaware that their posture reinforces and strengthens the status quo. They would not recognise, Aronowitz and Giroux argue, that that is what their actions enable, but they are working passively and, perhaps, unwittingly in the service of the elites, employing their language and ideology within the dominant ISA. The same might be said of the neutral academic librarian who through their passivity reinforces the ideology of the dominant classes. Whilst they might consider their passivity “neutral” it is, on the contrary, overtly political. They take a political position through the adoption of “material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups”. The normalisation of the language of the dominant class legitimises it, that process of legitimising is a political act because it validates language that is a key part of the political agenda. By utilising their language, the librarian demonstrates acceptance of the ideology of a political movement that wishes to transform citizens into consumers. They have, effectively, become active enablers, reinforcing the dominant ideology and ensuring its normalisation.

So, if the neutral academic librarian, or “accommodating intellectual”, is an agent of the dominant classes, what is the alternative? The alternative must surely be to position ourselves as, what Aronowitz and Giroux describe as “transformative intellectuals”? According to their definition, “transformative intellectuals” are those who:

“…earn a living within institutions that play a fundamental role in producing the dominant culture… [but] define their political terrain by offering to students forms of alternative discourse and critical social practices whose interests are often at odds with the overall hegemonic role of the school and the society it supports.”

In order to be consistent with our professional values and to work to create the conditions for an alternative to the dominant ideology that asserts information as a commodity, we must surely become “transformative librarians”? Rather than adopting the language and strategies of the dominant class, we should be challenging or rejecting it. The language of the market has become the dominant discourse within our profession, our libraries and higher education in general. We are too accommodating of neoliberal ideologies that are at odds with our ethical values. Remaining “neutral” is no longer an option. “Neutrality” makes us both accommodating intellectuals and enablers of the dominant ideology. Why should we enable an ideology that is in conflict with our values?

Neoliberalism is a corrosive, destructive ideology. It leads to an unequal society that transforms, without consent, citizens into consumers. Adopting the language of this dominant ideology legitimises and normalises it, ensuring a steady flow into the establishment of graduates “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production” [Bales and Engle, PDF]. Rather than passively and uncritically accepting the use of terminology that is alien to our professional values, we should challenge its use and instead of accepting the language of the dominant ideology, we should offer students forms of alternative discourse that reject and challenge it. The prevalence of what Buschman terms as “business buzzwords” legitimise this dominant discourse and therefore cannot be considered neutral, but purely political. It is up to us to refuse to act as passive agents that reinforce the power of the dominant classes and to reject the legitimisation of language that act as tools of inequality. When neutrality reinforces a dominant ideology that runs counter to our values, we are no longer neutral. There is a choice before us: we either act as enablers or we act as transformative agents.