In times of difficulty, we tend to become more myopic and it is extremely complicated to make our way through all the complexities that arise around us as huge and shadowing. Afraid of stumbling into saying ‘something wrong’, we may end up saying nothing at all.
The vast majority of people must have found themselves in situations in which they considered it optimal not to speak at all, so as to avoid resulting in saying ‘something wrong’. When surrounded by so many complicated events, it is particularly hard to go along the path of freedom of expression – a path which feels more and more as if it were a minefield – without stumbling and having some mines explode.
Oriana Fallaci in the beginning of her collection of articles titled Saigon e così sia wrote: “Eccolo dunque. Ve lo do ben sapendo che irriterà chi non deve irritare, compiacerà chi non deve compiacere. Ma tale è il destino di chi fa il giornalista, obbedendo alla propria coscienza anziché agli interessi dei più. Cioè, un destino assai scomodo.” [Here it is then. I am giving this to you well acknowledging that it is going to upset who is not meant to, gratify who is not meant to. But such is the destiny of those who are journalists, obeying their own conscience, rather than the interests of the majority. That is, a very inconvenient destiny.]
What if limitations to freedom of speech came from the inside?
Being ‘thoughtful’, ‘sensible’, ‘politically correct’: all of these terms refer to sugar-coating manners of describing the action of censoring one’s words in order to please (or so as not to hurt) someone else. We live in a cause-effect society, desperately stretching out towards finding an answer, filtering our experiences through a binary system of right and wrong.
A partnership between several organisations in the United States – College Pulse, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and RealClear Education – conducted a far-reaching survey of students about free speech on university campuses. Results were quite appalling: a summary of the survey’s statistics enounces that “more than 80% of students report censoring their viewpoints at colleges at least some of the time, with 21% saying they censor themselves often”.
Certain levels of self-censorship may be accepted in day-to-day activities – at times it may even be required in specific situations; for instance, students are expected to carefully ponder their language when talking to a professor, or children often tone down certain events when speaking with a parent and tone up others. A study by LSE recognises how there can be two kinds of self-censorship: public and private; while the former concerns cases in which individuals “restrain their expressive attitudes in response to public censors”, the latter conceives situations in which “the roles of censor and censee are fulfilled by the same agent”. Nonetheless, censorship can entail perils that go beyond the scaled-down version of our thoughts.
We (implicitly) delegate the duty of gathering information to be presented to us to journalists, reporters, and media agencies; then what if they are the first to feel upon them the pressures imposed by societal censorship? A study conducted by the Council of Europe in 2017, underlining how ‘freedom of expression is one of the basic conditions for the progress of society’, was able to highlight how journalists were under threat in Europe due to different forms of violence; following all these critical aspects attached to freedom of expression, it results in little complication to assess the amount of self-censorship in which potentially everyone can engage.
Is this due to cancel culture, i.e., “a way of behaving […], especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you”? According to this point of view, self-censorship can be understood as a way to prevent one from being cancelled.
We might reason on how certain people who cover important positions could be led to self-censor themselves as a precaution, due to the fear of being cancelled. Then how can we trust reports, opinions, and considerations that deal with important matters? Are they all going to be rounded off?
While many may reckon cancel culture to be a quite recent phenomenon, history provides us with a different answer: just looking up Nero’s damnatio memoriae we can assess the extremely robust connection between actions and consequences. We are the result of centuries (rather, millennia) of people being cancelled because of one (relevant) mistake. One gets to wonder whether this is fair or not: do we only get one shot at having it all figured out?
Short-circuiting civic sense
As much as we would like to believe that we are sensible citizens, we often end up being not. We are accustomed to an intermittent sense of civic duty just as if we had a switch to turn it on, then off, then on again depending on the issue we are addressing. When we see an obscure veil falling upon us, when everything becomes blurred and we cannot clearly distinguish our path anymore it turns out to be extremely hard to extricate ourselves inside the forest that freedom of expression evolves into.
Some have mentioned how there should be a repositioning toward a culture of compassion as opposed to cancel culture. Perhaps it would go in the direction of having mistake-makers understand the weight of their error and the importance of change, rather than having them simply pay for the blunder they have made. Rehabilitation instead of reimbursement.
It is about time we crossed that bridge: the whole societal structure drives us towards engaging in actions to please others rather than to understand what higher purposes and principles we should answer to. And, unfortunately, the issues on which we tend to self-censor ourselves the most often result to be the one which ought to be addressed more.
An article by the New York Times underlines how “our universities are failing at the task of educating students in the habits of a free mind”. Perhaps if we had less fear of being cancelled and found more interest in expressing our ideas respecting others we could end up communicating in a fairer, more polite, and more effective way.