By: Alex Falck
Do you do it? Do you… y’know… self-censor?
Conservatives who decry the evils of political correctness often attack it for demanding self-censorship. Donald Trump’s supporters applaud him for “telling it like it is,” regardless of how far he strays from the truth. Freedom of speech, after all, must include unpopular and offensive speech, or else it is meaningless. In response, progressives argue that they’re just asking for civil discourse, not enforcing self-censorship.
So, who’s right?
Given the broad definition of the term, it’s safe to say we all engage in self-censorship on a frequent basis. Oxford is representative of most dictionaries when it says that self-censorship is, “The exercising of control over what one says and does, especially to avoid castigation.” How simply benign! Why, Miss Manners and my grandmother must be the greatest enforcers of self-censorship in this century.
And yet the connotation of self-censorship — the pit of defensive anger that forms in your stomach upon hearing that phrase — is anything but benign. That’s because self-censorship is dominated by censorship, a word that calls to mind repressive political regimes and the Newspeak of Orwell’s 1984. Combine this strongly negative, political connotation with the broad definition above, and you get something like a linguistic shotgun: imprecise but potentially deadly.
We aren’t wrong to be wary of self-censorship.
Even in its most mild forms, self-censorship means not saying what you want to out of fear. Fear of being scolded by a parent or teacher, fear of being rude, fear of being seen as stuck-up or stupid or any number of things. As a society, we recognize the value of self-censorship, even if we don’t think of it that way. We call it “manners,” “code-switching,” or “following the style guide,” and generally accept that different situations call for different forms of speech. Maintaining a civil society requires a little self-censorship to grease the wheels of communication. Even the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer requires that writers follow certain standards when crafting genocidal screeds (not to avoid legal hassle, but to give violent bigotry an inviting facade).
Fear of saying the wrong thing may be part of the social fabric, but the fear associated with self-censorship is a different beast. This is the fear of actual censorship and the fate of those who were censored. It is — as Corey Robin writes in New Republic — political fear, intended “not to quell one individual, but to make an example of her, to send a message to everyone else that they should be careful, or they might be next.” In this way, self-censorship is inextricably linked to censorship.
Self-censorship, in its connotative sense, occurs when the threat of censorship is real and the consequences are dire.
For example, consider the situation in Mexico. In the last five years, 14 journalists have been murdered because of their work, and many others tortured or terrorized. On a state-by-state basis, they may be in more danger from the government or cartels, but in either case the threat is horrifically real.
Slightly more subtle is the method preferred by Putin’s regime, where vaguely worded laws and inconsistent enforcement create an atmosphere of uncertainty. A 2016 report by free speech organization PEN America describes the situation in Russia, where
One of the government’s key tools for controlling information is the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) … Roskomnadzor has the power to impose crippling fines or remove from publication works deemed inconsistent with Russian law. Since Roskomnadzor does not have the resources to read and analyze every publication within the scope of the law, enforcement is necessarily selective and open to political influence…. The selectivity and, at times, arbitrariness of Roskomnadzor’s enforcement protocols create significant uncertainty for writers, publishers, broadcasters, websites and other media producers, often resulting in self-censorship as a way to avoid uncertain rules and arbitrary enforcement. (p. 9)
Here in the U.S., it is worrisome that 26 journalists were physically attacked and 30 were arrested while covering last year’s protests. Attackers included the police, as well as both right- and left-wing protesters. This will almost certainly have a chilling effect on reporters’ willingness to cover future protests; one journalist has already left the profession due to targeted attacks.
Having considered various forms of self-censorship, when then shall we make of the argument that political correctness is self-censorship?
Definitionally, of course, it’s correct, but it relies on the dreadful connotation of self-censorship to create an emotional response in the reader. In this view, the rise of political correctness is cause for alarm; it’s an attack on freedom of expression.
When we look at how political correctness is enforced, though, it looks significantly different than the examples above. Unlike the reprisals journalists fear in Mexico and Russia, the threats behind political correctness are attacks on a person’s reputation and character, damage to personal and/or professional relationships, and in a handful of cases, protests of one’s speech. These are social pressures. Social opprobrium is not to be underestimated, but it notably requires a critical mass of people who agree that someone violated acceptable norms. It is not enacted from on high, nor is it physically violent.
Many articles about political correctness as self-censorship are almost laughable in their fearmongering: a nonsensical argument that not painting all Muslims as terrorists encourages terrorist attacks; hyperbolic slippery slopes that read too much into the political connotation of self-censorship; old comedians upset that the phrase “just joking” doesn’t give them a free pass. “We don’t live in a society where we can say what we’re thinking, where we can be who we are without feeling that we will not be accepted or we will be punished,” says Howie Mandel, a cis het white man with a long and successful career, while promoting a documentary about a gay man who didn’t come out of the closet until he was 95 years old. I’m sure that the way gay people were discussed for the vast majority of life had nothing to do with that.
These articles don’t hold up to logical scrutiny because their arguments rely on the strong negative connotations of the phrase self-censorship and ignore its benign or beneficial applications.
To be fair to the alarmists, some people are eager to get a hit of self-righteousness by attacking others. The internet encourages snap judgement and showy condemnation of people we have no connection to. Even progressives complain about vicious infighting over ideological purity. It’s unpleasant and undesirable, but perhaps unavoidable.
Our society is in the process of revising our manners. Many of us are saying that the old lines around socially acceptable speech and behavior need to change. In order to draw the new lines, we have to determine where they should go, and the only way to do that is by arguing over the boundaries until some new standards take hold.
When people are upbraided for mocking or denigrating those who used to be fair game, that creates social fear, and social fear creates self-censorship, and that creates a more respectful environment for the mocked and denigrated. In the 1980s, blockbuster comedies made jokes of women being raped; now we’re in the midst of #MeToo. Maybe in another couple decades, male rape won’t be treated as a joke, either. Thanks, self-censorship!
Alex Falck is a teen services librarian at the Chicago Public Library and volunteer librarian at Brave Space Alliance, an organization focused on the needs of trans people of color. Alex is particularly interested in hearing and amplifying the voices of historically silenced people, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Alex listens to lots of podcasts, and blogs at teenlib.tumblr.com. Find them on Twitter @AlexandriaFalck.