Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Free speech vs. the truth

There are times when my uncompromising support of the right to free speech runs head-first into my uncompromising commitment to the truth.

The topic comes up because once a week, I volunteer as a book sorter for the Tompkins County (Ithaca, New York) Friends of the Library Used Book Sale.  This event, which occurs twice a year (May and October), is one of the biggest used book sales in the United States; we sort, shelve, and sell around a half a million used books yearly.

Besides my desire to help the very worthwhile cause of supporting our local library system, I also volunteer for a purely selfish reason; if I put in thirty hours, I get to go to the volunteers' presale and have first crack at the books.  The fall presale is coming up on October 1, and I still haven't gotten through all the books I bought at the spring sale.  

This fact, of course, won't slow me down a bit.

The problem with being a sorter, though, is that sometimes we have to sort (and therefore offer for sale) books that are kind of... out there.  And I don't mean weird.  Weird is fine.  This week, for example, I put in the "Physical Sciences" section a three-volume hardcover set called The Biochemistry of Collagen.  I mean, I know collagen is important, but three volumes' worth?  (Other good examples I saw recently are Fancy Coffins to Make Yourself, The Official Spam Recipe Book, and Successful Muskrat Farming.)

So bizarre isn't problematic.  What bothers me is how to handle books that are, to put not too fine a point on it, bullshit.  For example, what to do with the book I ended up with this week -- Hyemeyohsts Storm's infamous Seven Arrows.  Storm claimed to be Cheyenne, but actually is of German ancestry.  His book is supposedly about Cheyenne history and tribal beliefs, but is a mishmash of maybe five percent facts and the other ninety-five percent made-up gobbledygook.  When his book came out, naturally someone asked the Cheyenne Tribal Authority about him, and they said they'd never heard of him -- and it turned out that Storm (his actual name is Arthur Charles) had presented a falsified tribal enrollment to his publisher to convince them he actually is Native.  As far as his book, the Cheyenne consider it "blasphemous, exploitative, disrespectful, stereotypical, and racist."

So, where do I sort Seven Arrows?  Anthropology?  It isn't.  Religion?  Maybe what Storm wrote reflects his own religious beliefs; and given the popularity of the book with New Age types, evidently he's convinced quite a few folks to join in.  Fiction?  Much like Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan books, he didn't publish it as fiction.  Both men (well, for Castaneda, until his death in 1998) acted as if what they'd written was nothing more than the literal truth, which makes the books the absolute worst sort of cultural appropriation -- attractive lies dressed up as a real, if esoteric, indigenous belief system.

And there are loads of people who do think it's all factual.  Apparently both Storm's book and Castaneda's multiple volumes are still used as teaching texts in college anthropology and ethnology courses, which I find absolutely appalling given how thoroughly both authors have been debunked.

Anyhow, when the actual book was in my hands, I was really troubled about what to do with it.  I'm not allowed to do what I wanted, which was to drop it in the trash where it belongs.  I eventually decided to put it in "Religion" because it seemed the closest, but honestly, I felt guilty even doing that.  I don't want anyone reading this book and having even the slightest inclination to believe it.

What about Laurel Rose Willson's book Satan's Underground, supposedly a true account about her being subjected to ritual abuse as a child in a Satanic cult, but later proven to be a complete fabrication?  (Willson herself later switched gears and wrote a different book, under an assumed name, claiming -- also falsely -- that she was a Holocaust survivor.)  Or The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa (actual name: Cyril Henry Hoskin) which purported to be the real experiences of someone growing up in a Tibetan monastery -- when the real Rampa/Hoskin was actually an unemployed plumber from Plympton, England who had never been to Tibet in his life?

What about books on homeopathy, claiming you can treat your illnesses using "remedies" that have been diluted past Avogadro's Limit?  Or ones claiming you can fix your health if you consume lots of vinegar -- or only foods that are alkaline?  (Presumably not at the same time.)  Or pretty much anything by Joseph Mercola, Mike "The Health Ranger" Adams, or Dr. Oz?

And that's not even getting into the political stuff.

I know that the principle of caveat emptor applies here; if people are ignorant or self-deluded enough to believe this nonsense, especially given how much information there is online debunking it, then they deserve to be bamboozled.  As P. T. Barnum said, "There's a sucker born every minute," and the unspoken corollary was that suckers deserve everything they get.  And the principle of free speech should also apply, right?


I don't want to be part of it, you know?  I don't want people reading Seven Arrows and the Don Juan books and Satan's Underground, at least not without knowing what the real story is.  (I actually own the first four Don Juan books -- but next to them on the bookshelf are Richard de Mille's The Don Juan Papers and Castaneda's Journey, the most comprehensive takedown of Castaneda's fraud I've seen.)

But at the same time, how is surreptitiously throwing them in the trash when they cross my path at the book sale any different from the book bans and book burnings I've so often railed against?

Gah.  Ethical questions like this are beyond me.  Where's Chidi Anagonye when you need him?

So far, I've been a Good Guy and haven't thrown away a book because I think it's bullshit.  I won't say I haven't been tempted, but as of right now I've sided with free speech and P. T. Barnum, as well as the Friends of the Library rules for volunteers.  I won't say it hasn't been without some pangs to my moral sensibilities, though.

Anyhow, those are the ethical conundrums faced by a book sorter.  Fortunately, most of the books I handle are unproblematic.  Even if The Official Spam Recipe Book makes me gag a little, I have a clear conscience about putting it in "Cookbooks."


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