As a kid, I kept my trap shut. A stutter will do that to you. You have something to say but dare not risk the embarrassment of those words not making it past your lips. Thankfully speech impediments fade, but they do leave their mark. The remnants are a visceral understanding of the frustration that comes with an inability to express yourself freely. And a knowledge that life is much better when you can.
In recent years, I’ve noticed the opinion corridor narrow. Corporate media and Big Tech prevent some topics from being reported or discussed. It’s a free speech impediment. And I sense an uneasiness when I keep quiet to avoid confrontation, say things for reputational reasons, or repeat the socially accepted narrative without thinking it through.
Opinion polls suggest I am not alone. People feel less free to speak their minds. Public and often private discourse has reached the point where name-calling has become an argument winning tactic. The tried and tested; bigot, homophobe and racist, have been joined by; conspiracy-theorist, deplorable, mansplainer, Karen, gammon, Covidiot and anti-vaxxer. Each is a jibe intended to keep us out of conversations or control what we say in them.
To some extent, seeking to preserve our reputations is natural. Group safety was the key to our survival as a species, and those instincts are not easy to override. Self-censorship is on the rise. But, as a self-preservation strategy, it’s one for the short term. Longer-term, sacrificing authenticity can be detrimental to our mental health, relationships, and society.
The pandemic has stoked things up. In her book, A State Of Fear, Laura Dodsworth investigates the UK government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And how their behavioural scientists at SPI-B recommended using fear to elevate personal threat levels and social disapproval to shame the non-compliant into adhering to restrictive measures. The alarmist ad campaign with slogans like, “Don’t kill granny” and “Don’t let a coffee cost lives” made self-censorship inevitable.
This ethically dubious approach continued into the vaccine rollout. The hesitant, upon finding their stance was socially unacceptable, kept quiet. It’s a recipe for an unhealthy public square. Factual counterarguments are not shared, and we miss the opportunity to hone ideas. Author and free speech advocate Ayishat Akanbi puts it this way, “it’s one thing to fear speaking because you could be saying something wrong, but it’s agonising to self-censor because you fear you might be saying something right that is not allowed.”
Dr Jordan Peterson elaborates on that idea, “when you have something to say, silence is a lie.” The clinical psychologist doesn’t stop there. When you fail to articulate who and what you are, you lose the opportunity to know yourself better. And not knowing yourself impacts your ability to navigate life’s challenges. The upshot is that you will be hurt more than you need to be.
A repeated reluctance to not say what we believe to be true can disconnect us from true ourselves and lower moral self-regard. Do this for long enough, and we may become judgemental and critical of others to make ourselves feel important. The lack of integrity may lead to a discomfort in our own skin. As our self-awareness drops, we are less able to know our needs, fears and desires. Wise decisions escape us.
People noticing our insecurities may avoid robust conversation and mirror our dishonesty by telling us what we want to hear. This lack of openness and an unwillingness to be vulnerable makes friendships and family ties weaker.
But is there a case for censoring yourself? Yes, this is not a call for radical honesty or contrarianism. People often hold back their true thoughts and feelings when it would be socially inappropriate or unprofessional to share them. And these reasons vary across cultures and generations. Ultimately, it’s a personal matter and about finding balance. Only we can judge our level of authenticity and the degree to which we self-censor. The gauge is our mental wellbeing.
That said, we should also realise self-censorship doesn’t just impact the individual. There are implications for group situations too. The result of a reluctance to raise objections is laid out in the Abilene paradox – a phenomenon that occurs when people are so considerate of others in a group they ignore their own needs, second guess the desires of others and refuse to risk upsetting anyone. They decide on a course of action none of them wants.
Magnify this distorted thinking more broadly, and it starts to impact organisational strategy, public policy and the global agenda. History has some extreme examples. Group silence at critical moments allows authoritarianism to take hold and makes genocide possible. In the case of Nazism and communism, a small number of people were able to spread their murderous ideologies partly because those observing danger at the beginning did not speak up. Our words are more powerful than the powerful would have us believe. By being brave enough to speak our minds, we orient ourselves towards truth and put reality on our side. The alternative is not a good place to be.
Having interviewed dictators and spent time with those living under oppressive regimes, Christopher Hitchens knew where things could lead. It’s nearly a decade since we lost the fearless and eloquent critical thinker, but his advice on this matter still rings true, “don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus.” Hitch also encouraged us to “take the risk of thinking for ourselves, “much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom” will await us if we do.
Being genuine, and accepting the consequences, is a positive and liberating experience. It’s a sentiment familiar to the Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown. With songs and statements on topics from the monarchy to lockdowns, Ian has never been afraid to contradict the socially accepted narrative. As if to exemplify this point, he teamed up with friend and fashion designer Kazuki Kuraishi to create the clothing brand, “Own Brain” – an anagram of his name and title of a song on the album, My Way.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Ian Brown’s solo release, “F.E.A.R.” The iconic tune from 2001 contains the line, “Free Expression As Revolution.” In a world where efforts to enforce conformity of thought have become the norm. Could those words be any more relevant than right now?