The Paradox of Self-Censorship

We don’t have much legal censorship in America. You can say and write almost anything without fearing that you’ll be hauled into court. The most powerful kind of censorship, though, is and always has been self-censorship. Do you think officials in Rwanda have to pour through newspapers and blogs looking to delete words critical of Paul Kagame? Do the censors of Egypt and Saudi Arabia work overtime exorcising proposals for political freedoms? No, because people censor themselves. They know there would be severe consequences were they to say the wrong thing.

Even more pervasive is self-censorship based on a fear of being shamed, ostracized or criticized. That’s how we Americans do it. Just recently the US has seen several cases of what I’ll call community or commercial censorship. The founder of a software company was forced to resign because he had opposed gay marriage at one point. The owner of a professional basketball team was barred from his own team’s games because of racially prejudiced comments made (he thought) in private. A maverick cattle rancher fighting the federal government saw his conservative support dry up overnight because of his racist comments. The governor of New Jersey was severely criticized by members of his own party because he congratulated the President (who comes from a different party) on his government’s response to a hurricane. An elite college in the East rescinded its invitation to a graduation speaker because she had severely criticized Islam.

Once I started to list these cases, I realized that I could go on and on. What about the woman targeted by gun-rights advocates because she’s trying to market a pistol that enables its owner to make it non-functional using a radio signal? Apparently she went over some line that I didn’t even know existed. But of course I didn’t. I’m not a gun owner.

Reaction to such cases tends to fall into two extremes. Some see any particular exercise of community censorship as a triumph of morality, responding righteously to evil. Others see it as a case of political correctness, outlawing speech by the standards of some unaccountable elite, and implicitly violating First-Amendment rights.

It’s the same phenomenon, either way you see it. Communities–large ones like the Democratic Party, and small ones like your local church–have limits. There are certain things you can’t say, because they are outside the boundaries of your community. The line is constantly changing, but it’s there. That’s why you haven’t heard a racist joke in a long time. I grew up with them. There were also Armenian jokes (Polish jokes in places other than Fresno) and blonde jokes. In my world these have completely dried up, except very occasionally from some old guy who didn’t get the memo, and then it’s an embarrassment to all. For which I’m glad.

Trouble is, we are all members of several communities, whose boundaries don’t align. Also, the world is changing fast, so what was okay last month may be completely out of bounds today. Thus the same comment can be “evil” and “politically incorrect” at the same time–just to different groups.

The tricky thing, I believe, is to allow sub-groups their own ethos. We don’t have to all be the same. Religious groups, for example, will have their own boundaries. It’s not healthy for them to be browbeaten into conformity with some larger community. They will self-censor certain theological and moral statements. They will allow other statements that would offend people outside their world. That is so of all tight-knit communities. Let them be. There’s value in a moral ecosystem fostered by multiple points of view, held not just by individuals but by communities.

I’m okay with an NBA that punishes racist comments, with a university that rescinds invitations to a speaker whose views are controversial, with a religious school that requires its teachers to teach a certain point of view. There will be cases when I consider community views obnoxious, even harmful. But I’m not going to blast the community’s point of view by advocating that individual freedom of speech must apply. When you join a community, you sacrifice a certain amount of individual freedom. And the existence of diverse communities creates another very important kind of social freedom and diversity.

Most of us are inconsistent in applying our scruples. Liberals who think anybody who doesn’t favor gay marriage deserves to be treated as a bigot are shocked that the Catholic church would silence a theologian. What’s the difference? Conservatives who rally the troops against teachers professing atheism are adamant that schools censuring speech insensitive to gays and lesbians are obsessing over political correctness.

There are points where a community ethos becomes poisonous to others outside the group. Racist comments have been widely seen as such–and I’m glad. Yet it’s very hard to say when a particular line becomes sacrosanct for the whole body politic. In my county, people advocating against childhood vaccines have managed to bring back whooping cough, which endangers all children. That’s pretty harmful speech. Should anti-vaccine advocates be shamed into silence? You could make that case, but you probably won’t persuade until the number of preventable deaths reaches a high number.

No doubt, speech really is dangerous. But so is a world where everybody is hammered into the same shape, never speaking outrageously. And where wacko communities can’t exist. Perversely, the diversity of communities and their diverse points of view depends partly on giving them space to censor and control their members’ speech.

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2 Responses to “The Paradox of Self-Censorship”

  1. Silas Says:

    This reminds me of an xkcd quote I quite like: “defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; youre saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express”

  2. leona smith Says:

    Thank you Tim. This post is most encouraging!

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