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A group of librarians at Boston’s Simmons College are attempting to breathe new life into an old librarian stereotype. An “Anti-Oppression Library Guide” takes library “shushing” behavior to new, socially aware levels, and has excited comment, particularly for its section regarding how to avoid offending Muslims.
The guide identifies phrases supposedly offensive to Muslims (including the dreaded “Merry Christmas”—why have a mere “War on Christmas” when you can have a jihad?) Even from the point of view of sensitive-speech fanatics, however, the guide has a serious blind spot—one that seems common to Westerners of the otherwise culturally sensitive variety.
In the spirit of goodwill, I’d like to expand the anti-oppression librarians’ caution zone.
The guide explains that “Islamomisic Microaggressions are commonplace verbal or behavioral indignities . . . in relation to the beliefs and religious practices of Muslims. . . . They are structurally based and invoke oppressive systems of religious/Christian hierarchy.”
Ah, but you see, unlike those who manage Anti-Oppression Libraries, faithful Muslims acknowledge Jesus Christ as a prophet. His words, holidays commemorating Him, even reverent references to Him, would seem to inflict no unnecessary “indignity” upon a thoughtful Mohammedan who happens to be patronizing one’s library.
On the other hand, feminism and “alternate lifestyles,” the Sons of the Prophet actually do find deeply oppressive and offensive.
The guide, then, certainly should indicate that the use of newly coined pronouns like “xe,” “xir,” and their ilk, are all deeply offensive. Female librarians ought to be careful about their patterns of dress, too, which may be deeply offensive. (They can find books, perhaps with illustrations, showing female dress more acceptable to the Islamic community, somewhere in their local library.)
Since we know that microaggressions can be unintentional and nonverbal, even librarian hairstyles will need to be examined with Muslim sensitivities in mind: those which might seem to reflect masculinity in a female are, at the very least, problematic. And if a Christmas reference or display is a “microaggression”—why, then an International Women’s Day or Women’s History Month display is firmly in the macroaggression category.
What? Are these things not negotiable? Why ever not?
That the librarians would think only of “religious/Christian hierarchy” as offensive to Muslims, without contemplating whether irreligious/post-Christian norms might be even more offensive, is unsurprising—and far from unique to librarians. It’s a fascinating comment on American cultural priorities and perceptions as a whole. For instance, when American military forces deploy to Islamic countries, draconian rules are often imposed on our troops regarding alcohol and pornography (technically banned by Islam). Briefly, during the Gulf War, our Christian and Jewish military chaplains were even divested of their faith-distinctive insignia and redesignated “morale officers,” lest our allies recognize that religious services of other “People of the Book” were occurring in their midst.
Yet the far more offensive and culturally threatening experience to traditional Muslims—that of seeing female U.S. military personnel in masculine garb and in command, in many cases, over male soldiers—has not been negotiable. Apparently, our cultural assumption is that the feminist light must shine, even though our population’s other, older (and perhaps still more widely held) faiths may be concealed under convenient bushel baskets.
A cynical man might even think that to some, cultural sensitivity is less of a good thing in its own right, than simply a welcome opportunity to suppress Christian expression. Even the sensibilities of fundamentalist Islam, it seems, make a good enough stick to beat the Christians with—though under the regimes that reflect those sensibilities, many of the promoters of “cultural sensitivity” would find their own beatings literal, rather than metaphorical. It’s a fair bet that an “Anti-Oppression Guide,” especially one opposed to religious hierarchies, would surely be a banned book in Islamic nations.
Oh, that’s right: one more American library tradition to abolish: Banned Books Week. The implication that there’s anything wrong with banning bad books, is Western, ethnocentric, and oppressive. Better ditch it before the wrong people get offended.
Photo credit: Andersen Ross via Getty Images