Due to the psychological mechanisms of self-censorship, a single account blocked, a single video deleted, or a book banned can result in a broad chilling of speech. Important policy debates don’t occur, news story ideas aren’t pitched to editors, and books aren’t accepted for publishing, or written to begin with.
In some cases, it appears the censors employ the psychological tricks on purpose, achieving maximum suppression with minimal responsibility. These methods aren’t new—in fact, they have long been employed by totalitarian regimes.
The principle of self-censorship is that people, just to be on the safe side, refrain from saying even things that aren’t outright banned by some applicable rules.
An example is the effect of the Johnson Amendment, a law that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits, including religious organizations, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Even though the law doesn’t prohibit discussion of political topics and stands virtually unenforced, opponents have long argued that pastors have avoided political topics in their sermons just to be sure they can’t be accused of running afoul of the law.
Here are a number of methods used to enhance self-censorship.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the world’s most notorious censor of free speech, has for decades used the method of making its policies intentionally vague. During its past political campaigns, for example, the central leadership would issue a decree that “rightists” and “counterrevolutionaries” were to be punished. The next lower rung of Party officials wouldn’t be told what exactly makes one a “rightist” or a “counterrevolutionary” and perhaps not even what the punishment should be. No official, however, would want to be seen as too lenient—that would carry the risk of being labeled oneself. As such, each successive level of bureaucracy would intensify its interpretation of the policy, leading to ever more extreme results. In some periods, the hysteria went far beyond self-censorship, as even refraining from political speech wasn’t enough.
“During the Cultural Revolution, … people couldn’t buy food in canteens if they didn’t recite a quotation or make a greeting to Mao [Zedong]. When shopping, riding the bus, or even making a phone call, one had to recite one of Mao’s quotations, even if it was totally irrelevant. In these rituals of worship, people were either fanatical or cynical,” the “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party” states.
In contemporary China, dissidents are often targeted for “subverting the state” or “spreading rumors.” The regime has proven that virtually any political statement can be subsumed under one of these charges.
The method appears to now be in play in contemporary America.
Amazon recently updated its policies to ban books that contain “hate speech,” without explaining what it considers as such. Since Amazon controls more than 80 percent of the book retail market, publishers are left to guess whether a book may get the “hate speech” label and thus be much less profitable to publish.
Roger Kimball, the publisher of Encounter Books and an Epoch Times contributor, said he so far hasn’t considered avoiding titles that may be targeted by Amazon, but he called it “a very worrisome harbinger.”
“It is possible that other publishers will do that,” he told The Epoch Times. “Certainly, I think that the atmosphere for opinion is much narrower now than it was in the past.”
He gave the example of Simon & Schuster, a publishing powerhouse that recently canceled its publishing of the book of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) due to Hawley’s questioning the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.
If publishers bow to Amazon, authors may go even further, altogether avoiding topics that may spook the publishers.
Other tech platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter usually provide some definition of hate speech and other content rules, but have acknowledged that they intentionally keep at least part of their policies secret to prevent people from circumventing them. The effect is that users try to guess the boundaries of censorship themselves.
Those who invested great efforts to build their online followings are likely to adopt especially stringent self-censorship, as they have the most to lose. YouTube, for example, bans any content that says the 2020 election result was affected by fraud. The policy seems relatively clear, yet it appears to have nudged YouTube personalities to avoid the topic of election integrity altogether, just to be on the safe side.
Perception of Random Targeting
Another method to induce self-censorship is selective enforcement. During the CCP’s past political campaigns, it would pick targets for persecution seemingly at random. Even the targets wouldn’t necessarily know what exactly had brought the Party’s wrath upon them. In response, people would scramble to make sense of the situation, drawing red lines of self-censorship based on guesswork.
Elements of this method can be seen in various settings in the West.
When Amazon recently banned a book that criticizes transgender ideology, published by Encounter Books in 2018, it didn’t explain why. Instead, Amazon quietly updated its book policies on hate speech. It then left it to the public to connect the dots and label the book as hate speech themselves.
Similarly, other tech platforms commonly refuse to comment on specific cases of censorship or even tell the accused what exactly they did wrong.
This method can also work through changes and exceptions to the rules. The CCP has been notorious for constantly changing its policies. Allies of the revolution of yesterday found themselves enemies of the Party today, but could expect to be called upon to cooperate with the Party tomorrow. Hence came the saying, “Party policy is like the moon, it changes every 15 days.” People have found themselves in a position of constantly trying to figure out how to be in alignment with what the Party is currently saying and even anticipating what the Party might say next and preemptively avoid saying anything that might be deemed problematic in the future.
The tech platforms of today openly acknowledge that their content policies are a work in progress. Over the years, new rules have been repeatedly added and are usually applied retrospectively. Thus, content that was acceptable yesterday may get banned and removed today. More restrictions can be expected tomorrow, or the companies may reverse themselves on some issues.
Rules can also be bent for political convenience. Facebook, for example, considers verbal attacks on people based on their race, sex, or sexual proclivities to be hate speech. But its contracted moderators were informed in 2018 that for a period of time, attacks on straight white males would be exempted as long as they were “intended to raise awareness for Pride/LGBTQ,” an internal memo said.
Guilt by Denial
Another method is using denial or resistance as evidence of guilt.
In current progressive ideologies, denying that one is racist or has “white privilege” counts as a confirmation of the charges. In fact, any resistance to the ideology and its labels is often labeled as “white fragility” or “internalized oppression” and thus illegitimate. Leaving no room for rightful criticism, the ideology discourages debate. Rather than deal with the grief of being pejoratively labeled, many keep their objections to themselves.
Jodi Shaw, a former student support coordinator at Smith College, an elite women’s college, recently left her job over what she described as a “dehumanizing” environment.
In 2018, the liberal arts institution put in place a number of initiatives to fight “systemic racism” at the school. Yet the efforts didn’t sit right with her, Shaw told The Epoch Times in a phone call.
She was instructed to treat people differently based on their race and sex, which in practice meant projecting onto people one’s own stereotypes, she said.
She said it felt fake.
“There’s a script for white people and a script for people who aren’t white. And it felt like you kind of had to stay on the script,” she said.
It was clear to her that there was no room for disagreement or even doubt.
“You just cannot talk about it out loud,” she said. “You can’t express your doubt out loud.”
A staunch liberal, she tried to get along with the program, telling herself it’s just being done “to help.”
When the doubts persevered, she even questioned her own morality.
“Does that mean I’m racist?” she asked herself.
“I think a lot of people on the left have this issue where they feel a little confused. They feel like something doesn’t feel right, but I’m not supposed to think that something’s not right,” she said.
The staffers in her department were “true believers,” she said, but she talked to seven or eight people from other departments who privately shared her concerns.
“Whispers, you know, in hallways and stuff, alone, they’re like, ‘Yeah, this is just like, something’s really messed up about this,’” she said.
Ultimately, she concluded that there was no “inner racist” talking, it was her conscience, and the ideology was just messing with her psyche.
“It’s how this ideology works. It gets into your head, and I think it’s damaging,” she said.
Guilt by Association
Another way to impose self-censorship is extending blame beyond the target to anybody even tenuously associated with it.
Totalitarian regimes have long used this tactic, punishing family, friends, colleagues, supervisors, and other associates of dissidents.
Examples of guilt by association are common today. Media, universities, and other institutions willing to host speakers from another political camp are criticized for “giving a platform” to “hate” or some other pejorative. Anybody uttering a word of support for one of the censored figures can expect to be targeted next.
When Shaw started to talk about her concerns publicly, she found that the Smith staffers who privately agreed with her suddenly became unavailable.
“The fear of guilt by association is so terrifying that people—they won’t even text me,” she said.
That not only induces self-censorship in one’s circle but also further isolates the target.
“You get isolated, and you’re not able to talk it through with somebody else and determine that, yes, indeed there’s something wrong,” Shaw said.
Kari Lake, former news anchor at Fox 10 in Arizona, faced criticism for merely setting up an account on alternative social media sites Parler and Gab. The critics argued that she was guilty by association, since Parler and Gab had been labeled as a favorite platform of “Nazis.”
While the attacks never made Lake question her beliefs, it did prompt her to self-censor, she told The Epoch Times in a phone call.
“I actually find myself not posting stories that are just factual because I’m like: ‘Oh, just posting that, even though it’s true, might anger some people. It might just get the left mad and I don’t want to, you know, kick the hornet’s nest,’” she said.
It’s been especially disheartening for Lake to see censorship endorsed by many fellow journalists.
“They’re just fine with it, and it saddens me,” she said.
She’d like to see more diversity of viewpoints among journalists, estimating that most in the profession lean left. Even the few conservative ones she knows are “very, very closeted about it.”
“The people I know might even act or pitch stories that might appear left-leaning to kind of show people, ‘look, I’m not conservative,’” she said.
A few weeks ago, Lake quit her job.
“I realized, well, I’m part of that. I’m part of this system. I’m part of the media, and if I don’t like it and I can’t do anything to change it, then I need to get out,” she said.
Censorship in America is peculiar in its form as it’s largely not the doing of the government. It’s not even necessarily the result of government pressure, though that now seems to be underway as well. Rather, it’s based on actors both in and out of government across the American society aligning with an ideology that’s totalitarian at its root.
Yet it may be that government measures wouldn’t offer a solution as long as a significant share of the population still subscribes to the ideology or is willing to go along with it.
As Judge Learned Hand said in his 1944 speech “The Spirit of Liberty”:
“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.”
It appears Americans’ stand is now to rekindle that spark of liberty in the hearts of their peers.Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab