Some thoughts on self-censorship

2024.02.10 22:50 PST / 06:50 UTC

This post is a response to Jason’s post on self-censorship.

I appreciate Jason writing out a clear and succinct post. I’m afraid I wasn’t as capable or restrained.

I think self-censorship is a real problem. I think there has to exist a fourth category (see Jason’s post for context), a super important category imho, of thoughts that when shared result in “having a pretty bad time”. But before I get there, we have to define what we mean when we say “censorship”.

I’ll use “free speech” as an analogy. “Free speech” has a legal interpretation and a practical one. Legally it’s codified in the First Amendment; it’s about what laws Congress can or can’t pass when it comes to expression, that’s it.1 Like people who like to mock others who invoke the idea of free speech online often say, the First Amendment says nothing about what private companies allow or prohibit on their networks/premises. But the practical meaning is about the spirit, the behavior of society in the main, practical consequences, the behavior of the mob (where mob is not used pejoratively, but to mean the behavior of a cohesive group that is unchecked in the current arena), and I think that’s a meaning that matters just as much as the legal one. To make the point with an extreme/straw-manny example, so what if the government won’t put you in jail if you say something if you become ostracized by your professional and personal tribes, shunned into a life of solitude? Is that a community where free speech thrives?

As with free speech, I think the “censorship” in – reasonable invocations of – “self-censorship” doesn’t refer to legal proceedings or redaction of speech. It refers to choosing silence to avoid not just “lots of people disagreeing with them”, but a collective mass of negative consequences that is disproportionate to the expression of a minority offensive opinion, even if it doesn’t mean jail or physically removing your speech from all publication. And that’s reasonable. If it means an employer might fire you, if it means people protest at your home or your job, if it means they harass your family, that still passes the threshold to me.

Okay, back to the presence of a fourth category. I think there surely is a fourth type of opinion not covered by Jason’s post that people share that results in “having a pretty bad time”, which is an opinion that is objectively or morally correct, but is considered blasphemous or corrupt or immoral by the current large majority. That’s the type of opinion that, once upon a time, claiming the Earth was round, denying the existence of a monotheistic god, and thinking gay people should be able to get married belonged to. All of those were opinions that when shared resulted in “having a pretty bad time” at a particular time. Now we think differently, but people had to die.

I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m splitting hairs here, because I think that fourth category is everything. It’s so important to our growth. And we have grown, in that in the West we no longer think anyone should die for saying something. That’s the legal side mostly solved. But – most? – people who complain about free speech or (self) censorship refer to the second meaning, a very real meaning. How do we as a society balance condemning abhorrent views while allowing for whatever today’s equivalent of “the Earth is round” to be said without drowning its sayer? How do we differentiate between when it’s right to think someone should be fired for saying something and when we should disagree – hotly if necessary – but as the quote goes, defend to death their right to say it?

All to say, I think self-censorship might be an idea invoked disingenuously by some, but is still real, and still worth thinking about.

  1. yes yes, this is US-centric. 

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