In last month’s column (Censorship: A Tool of Tyrants), we examined the ways in which large corporations are currently working to silence opposition through the use of censorship. While this behavior is concerning, private organizations maintain the right to conduct business however they so choose as long as they are keeping within the existing regulatory framework.
We can speak out against speech suppression, but in order to maintain intellectual integrity we cannot cite a violation of the law as justification for our opposition to it. Without legal recourse, we must remain vigilant in resisting censorship in whatever ways are possible given our circumstances, and we must be aware of a particularly harmful form of censorship that is occurring with alarming frequency: self-censorship.
George Orwell, in the introduction to his anti-Soviet allegory Animal Farm, described the way in which his book was rejected by publishers for fear of repercussions from the political establishment and a culture that clung to a dominant set of beliefs about the USSR. He states, “the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI (Britain’s Ministry of Information) or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.” People of courage recognize that in order to have a free-thinking society, we must continue to share ideas that challenge the orthodoxy of public opinion.
A July 2020 national survey conducted by the Cato Institute discovered that 62% of Americans self-censor when it comes to expressing beliefs that others might find offensive, a finding that persisted without respect to political party affiliation. The same survey found that 32% of employed Americans are personally worried that their career opportunities or current job may be jeopardized if their political opinions become known. It is likely that many of us can identify ways in which we ourselves have felt the urge to speak out on an issue, and yet refused to do so for fear of “stirring the pot” and paying the price for it.
Naturally we can agree that good judgement is prudent, and just because one has the right to share an opinion does not mean it is useful or kind. But self-censorship is a form of self-restraint that goes far beyond common courtesy. Self-censorship inevitably leads to shift in consciousness that influences our beliefs on a fundamental level, and it may even influence our ability to have unique beliefs at all. When we choose not to share out of fear the ideas that we believe to be true, we begin to stop believing them. University of Toronto psychology professor and author Jordan B. Peterson explained, after being asked why his right to free speech trumped other people’s right not to feel offended, that “in order to think, you have to risk being offensive.” The fear of social retribution robs us of our desire to think independently and leads to homogenous group-think and even deeper ideological divisions as people seek to ally with only like-minded individuals. Without great diversity of thought, how can we possibly progress into the future or parse out the truth of the weighty matters we face today?
Throughout history, many brave souls have devoted their lives to speaking uncomfortable truths in the face of public disapproval. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was one such soul; he worked tirelessly to shed light on the horrors of marxism with the hope of one day seeing his Russian homeland restored to its former glory. In the face of mounting public backlash, removal from his country’s Writer’s Union and having his manuscripts confiscated by the KGB, Solzhenitsyn remained dedicated to developing and sharing his work. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, he exhorted writers of the whole world to go to war against falsehood by wielding their most powerful weapon: their art. He concluded his lecture with an old Russian proverb: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” Writers or not, we all have the moral responsibility to exercise our God-given right to think and to bring our thoughts, our most precious art, into the world. We must be men and women of courage who are able to count the cost and recognize that the cost of remaining silent is too great to bear. We must stand up to societal pressures and partisan backlash if we wish to preserve not only our nation’s fundamental values, but our own personal values as well.