On self-censorship

For a few years during the 80s, Modern Talking was one of the most well known pop bands in Germany. But although their first single “You’re my heart, you’re my soul” was sold over eight million times, no one admitted to having bought it. Luckily, my dislike of their music was authentic, so I never had to suffer that particular embarrassment. Yet, imagine all these people alone in their homes, listening to their favourite tune but never daring to acknowledge it openly. Enjoying kitsch of any sort brings the whole drama of self-censorship to the fore. You might be moved deeply, but the loss of face is more unbearable than remaining in hiding. What’s going on here? Depending on what precisely is at stake, people feel very differently about this phenomenon. Some will say that self-censorship just maintains an acceptable level of decency or tact; others will say that it reflects political oppression or, ahem, correctness. At some point, however, you might let go of all shame. Perhaps you’ve got tenure and start blogging or something like that … While some people think it’s a feature of the current “cancel culture”, left or right, I think it’s more important to see the different kinds of reasons behind self-censorship. In some cases, there really is oppression at work; in other cases, it’s peer pressure. Neither is fun. In any case, it’s in the nature of this phenomenon that it is hard to track in a methodologically sound way. So rather than draw a general conclusion, it might be better to go through some very different stories.

Bad thoughts. – Do you remember how you, as a child, entertained the idea that your thoughts might have horrible consequences? My memory is faint, but I still remember assuming that thinking of swear words might entail my parents having an accident. So I felt guilty for thinking these words, and tried to break the curse by uttering them to my parents. But somehow I failed to convince them of the actual function of my utterance, and so they thought I was just calling them names. Today, I know that this is something that happens to occur in children, sometimes even pathologically strong and thus known as “intrusive thoughts” within an “obsessive compulsory disorder”. Whatever the psychological assessment, my experience was that of “forbidden” thoughts and, simultaneously, the inability to explain myself properly. Luckily, it didn’t haunt me, but I can imagine it becoming problematic.

One emergence of the free speech debate. – When I was between 7 and 10 years old (thus in the 1970s), I sometimes visited a lonely elderly woman. She was an acquaintance of my mother, well in her 70s and happy to receive some help. When no one else was around she often explained her political views to me. She was a great admirer of Franz Josef Strauß whom she described to me as a “small Hitler – something that Germany really needs again”. She hastened to explain that, of course, the real Hitler would be too much, but a “small” one would be quite alright. She then praised how, back in the day, women could still go for walks after dark etc. Listening to other people of that generation, I got the impression that many people in Germany shared these ideas. In 2007, the news presenter Eva Herman explicitly praised the family values of Nazi Germany and was dismissed from her position. The current rise of fascism in Germany strikes me as continuous with the sentiments I found around me early on. And if I’m not mistaken these sentiments date back at least to the 1930s and 1940s. In my experience, Nazism was never just an abstract political view. Early on did I realise that otherwise seemingly “decent” people could be taken by it. But this concrete personal dimension made the sweaty and simplistic attitude to other people all the more repulsive. In any case, I personally found that people in the vicinity of that ideology are the most vocal people who like to portray themselves as “victims” of censorship, though they are certainly not censoring themselves. (When it comes to questions of free speech, I am always surprised that whistleblowers such as Snowden are not mentioned.)

Peer pressure and classism. – I recently hosted a guest post on being a first generation student that really made me want to write about this issue myself. But often when I think about this topic, I still feel uncomfortable writing about it. In some ways, it’s all quite undramatic in that the transition to academia was made very easy by my friends. For what shouldn’t be forgotten is that it’s not only your parents and teachers who educate you. In my case at least, I tacitly picked up many of the relevant habits from my friends and glided into being a new persona. Although I hold no personal grudges, I know that “clothes make people” or “the man” as Gottfried Keller’s story is sometimes translated. What I noticed most is that people from other backgrounds often have a different kind of confidence being around academics. Whether that is an advantage across the board I don’t know. What I do know is that I took great care to keep my own background hidden from most colleagues, at least before getting a tenured job.

Opportunism and tenure. – Personally, I believe that I wouldn’t dare publishing this very post or indeed any of my posts, had I not obtained a tenured position. Saying this, I don’t want to impart advice. All I want to say is that getting this kind of job is what personally freed me to speak openly about certain things. But the existential weight of this fact makes me think that the greatest problem about self-censorship lies in the different socio-economic status that people find themselves in. This is just my experience, but perhaps it’s worth sharing. So what is it about, you might wonder? There is no particular truth that I would not have told before but would tell now. It’s not a matter of any particular opinion, be it left or right. Rather, it affects just about everything I say. The fact that I feel free to talk about my tastes, about the kitsch I adore, about the music I dislike, about the artworks I find dull, alongside the political inclinations I have – talking about all of this openly, not just politics, is affected by the fact that I cannot be fired just so and that I do not have to impress anyone I don’t want to impress. It is this freedom that I think does not only allow us to speak but also requires us to speak up when others will remain silent out of fear.

The myth of authenticity. – The fact that many of us feel they have to withhold something creates the idea that there might be a vast amount of unspoken truths under the surface. “Yes”, you might be inclined to ask, “but what do you really think?” This reminds me of the assumption that, in our hearts, we speak a private language that we cannot make intelligible to others. Or of the questions immigrants get to hear when people inquire where they really come from. It doesn’t really make sense. While it is likely that many people do not say what they would say if their situation were different, I don’t think it’s right to construe this as a situation of hidden truths or lies. (Some people construe the fact that we might hide conceal our opinions as lies. But I doubt that’s a pertinent description.) For better or worse, the world we live in is all we have when it comes to questions of authenticity. If you choose to remain silent, there is no hidden truth left unspoken. It just is what it is: you’re not speaking up and you might be in agony about that. You might conceal what you think. But then it is the concealing that shapes the world and yourself, not the stuff left unspoken. Put differently, there are no truths, no hidden selves, authentic or not, that persist without some relation to interlocutors.

***

Speaking of which, I want to finish this post with a word of thanks. It’s now two years ago that I started this blog. By now I have written 118 posts. If I include the guest posts, it adds up to 131. Besides having the pleasure of hosting great guest authors, I feel enormously privileged to write for you openly. On the one hand, this is enabled by the relatively comfortable situation that I am in. On the other hand, none of this would add up to anything if it weren’t for you, dear interlocutors.

3 thoughts on “On self-censorship

  1. I too worry about self-censorship, but also just can’t assess how much of it is due to what Mill called “social tyranny,” the illegitimate exercise of power by citizens on fellow citizens (rather than by the government). And of that, how much is due to “political correctness” or “cancel culture” and how much to plain peer pressure or embarrassment?

    While I think that any particular case of self-censorship can have several explanations — even in play simultaneously — it’s still the case, I suspect, that there is such a thing as self-censorship due to fear of backlash for “saying the politically wrong thing.”

    But regardless of the reasons for self-censorship, I think it’s important to note the damage wrought by it.

    Self-censorship is, as Mill noted, one of the indirect consequences of social tyranny, which can be “more formidable” than political tyranny simply because it “leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.” Feeling unfree to express oneself — or being unfree; the two probably come to the same thing in this kind of case — damages the soul of the human being. In Mill’s memorable phrase, it creates “pinched and hidebound natures.”

    This kind of damage to the human soul is not often talked about in discussions about freedom of speech, which often focus on “correcting error” and “collating perspectives” (Mill’s words again) on topics of which no one person or group has the whole picture. But avoiding soul-damage is part of the rationale behind freedom of expression generally (freedom of lifestyle, religion, association). (And, arguably, given Mill’s biography, it’s the kind of damage that weighed most heavily on his mind.)

    But even when it is noted, it’s the “hidebound” aspect that gets paid the most attention. Hidebound: dogmatic, rigid, incurious, intolerant. To be hidebound is to have a fixed view. The soul should not be petrified, encrusted, brittle.

    What you say here, though — “there is no particular truth that I would not have told before but would tell now;” “if you choose to remain silent, there is no hidden truth left unspoken” — edges up to (what I believe is) the specific damage Mill refers to with “pinched.” You may not have intended it, but I see you drawing attention to the fact that human expression — in speech, in lifestyle, etc. — is not necessarily the expression of some prior, fully formed opinion, commitment, or sentiment. One of the most important functions of expression is to bring opinions, commitments, or sentiments to their completion. To express is, often, to bring form to the hitherto formless. We express ourselves, that is, not only to communicate what we think and value but to figure out what we think and value — nay, simply to think and to value. Self-censorship constricts us — pinches us — by frustrating a condition for the possibility of our having and enjoying any kind of inner life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! This is so beautifully put that I just quote it: “… human expression — in speech, in lifestyle, etc. — is not necessarily the expression of some prior, fully formed opinion, commitment, or sentiment. One of the most important functions of expression is to bring opinions, commitments, or sentiments to their completion. To express is, often, to bring form to the hitherto formless. We express ourselves, that is, not only to communicate what we think and value but to figure out what we think and value — nay, simply to think and to value. Self-censorship constricts us — pinches us — by frustrating a condition for the possibility of our having and enjoying any kind of inner life.”

      Yes, and I think the reason is that thinking happens not so much inside of people but between them. Put as a hermeutic principle, I often say that philosophy doesn’t happen in texts, but between them. Therefore, if speech (or more precisely: dialogue) is stifled, thought is stifled too.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s