The perils of self-censorship

April 24, 2024 22:28

The subject of censorship is one that is both thorny and intricate. It is thorny, in the sense that few ever explicitly discuss it in places where it is most prevalent; it is intricate, in that censorship is rarely enforced in practice, save from in the most austere and totalitarian of states – where to think and to critique freely is akin to anathema to the state’s sensibilities. A vast majority of censorship comes from the Self – an encumbered, embedded, and innately communally situated Being, one whose utterances and utterance-triggering thoughts are constantly surveilled by other Beings with whom the Self shares the privilege of being in a Panopticon. Self-censorship, not state censorship, is the real issue in our world today.

A friend of mine texted me the other day. They were a practising Jew who had recently graduated from college, and had felt that their campus was increasingly foreign to them. They cited the chants and anti-Semitic slurs, the rabid and vindictive conflation of criticisms of the Israeli state (of which my friend had aplenty – as someone who opposes the ongoing war in Gaza) with groundless stereotyping of Jewish individuals. There was no sense of fear on their part – after all, a vast majority of these protests were peaceful and occurred far from where he worked in New York; yet in place of fear came a sense of void, null ennui – a sense of déjà vu for a history that was never lived, a past chapter that was never properly closed in the diasporic consciousness.

Another acquaintance relayed his fears to me, as a Muslim man on the streets of Europe. They felt that his pro-Palestinian and pro-civilian views could be misconstrued by opportunists – especially far-right elements in the country where he resided – as signs of their support for terrorism. And thus, whilst they had time and time again deliberated over whether to speak up and out at their workplace, in his community, he ultimately decided against it. For at the end of the day, the costs of so doing would by far outweigh the seeming upsides and benefits – and, indeed, their moral obligations towards speaking up for what they take to be right.

Self-censorship refers to cases where individuals alter – and deliberately suppress – parts of their testimonies and public statements, in order to avoid particular undesirable outcomes. There are times when it takes place innocuously – which renders it almost innocent and benign in a sense: consider, for instance, not breaking a devastating piece of news to someone who has just undergone a severe mental breakdown (not a lie, but certainly a case of information withholding), or appreciating that it is deeply inappropriate to comment on the appearance of one’s boss over a work meeting.

Yet there are times when it becomes more nefarious. For instance, there are instances of what I dub state-sanctioned self-censorship – which is where governmental institutions, such as those in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Pinochet’s Chile, Franco’s Spain, or Park’s South Korea (conveniently propped up by the US during the Cold War), opted to stifle discourse by propagating the myth: that to speak up would come with a price, and that to “speak up” could be interpreted as anything ranging from a critique of governmental policies to a repudiation of its leadership. These states did not always enforce censorship – not all critics were rounded up and imprisoned; yet, through the word of mouth and the general fear of the Big Unknown (the radical uncertainty associated with juridico-legal aspects of the state), their people learned to “be better”, and “do better”.

Then there are times when it is in fact the kangaroo court of public opinion that fosters such self-censorship. In the West, we have witnessed the rise of ‘Cancel Culture’ and indiscriminate tendencies within the Progressive Left calling for ‘No Platforming’, but also Far Right elements hounding and harassing left-wing academics for their purportedly ‘anti-Establishment’ and hence ostensibly ‘non-qualified’ viewpoints. Political polarisation has given rise to real stakes, high stakes, for those who dare detract from the increasingly ‘consensus’ that there is no consensus to be sought in this concocted binary. It does not help, of course, that the study of other countries has also become a field that is hotly contested and politicised.

Some of my friends working on China research in the US have lamented that every column (thankfully not academic paper, just yet) they put out must be caveated with the classic, “This came at the cost of…” or “But let’s not forget that China also [insert generic criticism]”. These days, in American policy and political circles, one cannot get away with praising China substantively. Every constructive comment must be caveated with some disclaimer, some preamble, some throat-clearing to signal that “I am not actually pro-China”! How could this possibly be what rigorous public engagement and intellectual service looks like?

Self-censorship is deeply pernicious. Not only does it feed off our fundamental preference to be risk-averse and prioritise minimising the costs of our speech over the possible gains or our commitment to the Real and the True – it also reinforces our perception of the truth. A society where no criticism is advanced because prospective critics are far too concerned and preoccupied with dodging the bullets that fly in the event that they speak up, is one where the public grasp on facts and reality becomes increasingly diminished. It is also one that does not lend itself to intellectual and academic openness.

So: what’s the way out? The key rests with 3Cs – constructive, critical, and courageous. We must be constructive in the way we speak, critical in how we prepare what we say, and courageous in standing firm by our principles. Speak up and be counted.

Assistant Professor, HKU