For a nation that prides itself on its freedom of speech, we are banning books, firing intellectuals, censuring lawmakers, and terrorizing communities on both sides of the aisle for expressing opinions and disseminating facts that make some of us uncomfortable.
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We live in the new “Information Age,” which in its infancy has been marked by the historically unprecedented availability of qualitative and quantitative data at our fingertips. But it is not only the availability of information that makes our time remarkable; it is our amazing potential to act on our new access to that information. And the most incredible, important thing we can do with the vast repository of nearly unlimited knowledge we now have access to is to use it not just to learn new ideas, but to unlearn old ones.
I say “nearly unlimited” deliberately because there are powerful forces working to obfuscate, silence, and censor the new and rewritten histories and stories, both ancient and modern, that facilitate the mass unlearning in progress around white supremacy, misogyny, queerphobia, xenophobia, and ableism, to name a few. Last month, the Scholastic publishing behemoth—Scholastic!—had to be publicly shamed to change its new policy that allowed bigots to opt out of providing a “collection of diverse books at its book fairs” lest the sheer presence of work for and by BIPOC and queer authors and audiences (and everyone else!) offend the thin- (and white)-skinned. Literally 11 people—11!— are responsible for ongoing, often successful efforts in the U.S. to ban books about humans’ diverse racial, sexual, and economic experiences and identities not only from school library shelves, but from public libraries writ large. Bans on teaching critical race theory not only in K-12 public schools but to college students—adults, talking to other adults!—are live questions across the country.
Throughout human history, whenever and wherever there have been seismic shifts in communication technologies, there has been a backlash from establishment gatekeepers, entities frustrated (often violently so) with their inability to hoard knowledge in the face of (take your pick), the unwashed masses having access to writing, to the printing press, to photography, to video, to the internet. But time and time again, these gatekeepers run up against a gate-crashing inevitability: the insatiable human need that drives these seismic shifts in communication, to wit, the need that we have to simply know ourselves and each other. There has never been a political or economic or militaristic force greater than people’s unwillingness to relinquish these technologies once they are in our hands. And now, in the Information Age, more data than ever is literally in our hands. It’s still mediated, but it is less mediated than it has ever been.
Nevertheless, and perhaps because of the sheer lower-case-d democratic potential of new technologies, the backlash usually comes with the full force of real and often deadly consequences, most of all for the marginalized peoples who stand to raise themselves up as the result of mass unlearnings of oppressive hegemonies.
We’re seeing this play out most immediately in the wake of Hamas’s heinous October 7th terrorist attack on Israeli civilians and the group’s subsequent kidnappings of hundreds of Israelis who remain captive, and the state of Israel’s openly genocidal response, which aims to treat all Palestinians in Gaza (and elsewhere) as “human animals.” So far, more than 10,000 Palestinians, including thousands of children, have been killed, in addition to dozens of journalists and humanitarian workers in Gaza, the West Bank, and environs.
Supporters of a free Palestine, anti-Zionists, and otherwise peace-minded activists, scholars, students, journalists, artists, and their many allies and advocates have, in the month since, been silenced, deplatformed, threatened, and even fired for speaking their minds and making good-faith calls for education, engagement, and nuanced conversations around Israel and Palestine. And this is happening in time when such conversations are more than urgent: They are necessary to combat the dangerous, anti-Semitic conflation between Jews and Zionism, especially here in America, where we are supposed to provide ourselves on our free press and a free and fair exchange of ideas.
But there can be no such exchange when, as a result of the push to prioritize pro-Israel propaganda and drown out humanitarian calls for a cease fire, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic violence is on the rise in the U.S. and around the world. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported a 182 percent increase in incidents ranging from “verbal harassment to physical violence” nationwide. In Chicago, 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume was killed, and his mother Hanaan Shahin wounded, in an awful domestic attack perpetrated by a man radicalized by right-wing hate. And American Jews, who rightly worry that Israel’s actions put them in further danger here with anti-Semites—have already, particularly since the rise of Donald Trump—been targets of deadly right-wing violence, threats, and intimidation.
Last week, Jewish students at Cornell University went on lockdown following violently anti-Semitic threats made online, while “kidnapped” posters showing the names and faces of Israeli hostages have been cruelly vandalized and torn down in cities and on college campuses around the country. In California, a 69-year-old Jewish man is dead after being struck in the head at a protest in Ventura County. Synagogues and Jewish community and cultural centers from coast to coast continue to be the targets of hate speech and horrific threats, even as progressive and anti-Zionist Jewish leaders face arrests for declaring, again: “Not in our name.”
Now is the time to amplify, not silence, conversations around freedom, colonization, and the right of people anywhere to govern themselves. As intersectional feminist, anti-racist writer Ijeoma Oluo recently put it, attempts to silence these essential conversations—especially to convince us that we are not ready, and can never be ready, to have them—are pure gaslighting, meant to serve the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. In the words of author Fariha Róisín, we must “always challenge anyone who wants to silence a call for liberation.” And as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wrote in a deeply moving essay on peace, parenting, and empathy: “We must keep the fires of the liberatory imagination burning.”
People around the world are taking up that call in record numbers, a testament to the unprecedented unlearning power of the early Information Age, and of the persistence of true political dissent and a refusal to capitulate to fascistic demands for silence and compliance. Americans have heard those demands before, and very recently—from NRA-backed politicians who told us now is not the time to talk about gun control, from cops and cronies who told us now is not the time to talk about police violence and Black lives, and from book-banners and bigots who told us now is not the time for diverse stories.
The fascists are afraid not just of what we might learn, but what we might unlearn, when we are able to speak freely with each other. And they should be.
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