Self-censorship and the society of mind

The idea of self-censorship is rooted in a tangled mess of assumptions. On the surface it just refers to times when you prevent yourself from saying or doing something purely out of fear of negative social consequence. You’re worried that you’ll get beaten up by school bullies, so you hide that you are gay. You’re worried that your classmates will mock you and ostracize you, so you hide that you are a Flat Earther. Whatever the case may be. It’s different from political censorship: if you live in Germany, you may choose not to perform the Nazi salute because you know you could be put in prison. You are not “self-censoring” because the consequence is governmental, rather than just social. It is also different from just plain-old common sense survival instinct: you may choose not to perform the YouTube Salt and Ice Challenge because you know it will harm you physically. You are not “self-censoring”, you are just not a total moron.

In some sense, the key to self-censorship is the underlying assumption that the only thing holding you back from doing or saying something is other people’s attitudes, feelings or beliefs. If only the people at your school were less hateful in their attitudes toward gay people, you would not choose to hide your sexuality. If only the people in your class were less condescending about people who believe the earth is flat, you could come clean to them about your views. But you are worried that you will be disliked, possibly bullied, so although no censorial laws compel you, you censor yourself.

What are you censoring?

You probably think it’s weird that the two concrete examples I chose were “being gay” and “being a Flat Earther”. To be fair: I think it’s weird, too.

I did it because I’m trying to fight against one of the deeper subtext assumptions that is very strong in American culture, and is present in Western culture more generally: the assumption that a person who is self-censoring is always a righteous, noble victim who is being oppressed by “the system.” We think of people who want to display their solidarity in the fight against police violence against African-Americans by taking a knee during the National Anthem, but who don’t do it for fear of being fired. We think of the stories of women who stayed silent for years after being sexually harassed or abused by people in power, because they understood the onslaught of personal attacks or even professional threats that might follow. In these examples, we want to cheer on the people who are censoring themselves and say: “Hey, I know it’s hard, but don’t self-censor! Speak up! It’s the only way to change the world for the better!”

In the United States, self-censorship is the antagonist to freedom of speech. And everyone knows freedom of speech is good, right? (Well… we will get back to that in a minute.) Now we have dipped out toes into a wide ocean of American ideals: individualism, the authentic self, the strength to face off against those who disagree. It’s part of the version of the mythology of capitalism that is popular in the United States: to be the successful entrepreneur you have to disagree with people and suffer the short-term consequences, but if you stick it out and work hard then you will get your reward!

How many times have you heard the saying: “If everyone is angry at you, then you must be doing something right.”

Our culture glorifies not just freedom of speech, but divergence and antagonism. The American mythology promises: that is how you succeed!

So for many people our default is to feel a pang of sympathy for the person who has been put into the place where they are self-censoring. “Oh no,” you think, “Things would be better for you if you could resist and break free and be your authentic self!”

That is why I included the Flat Earther in my example, as kind of a test: do you feel the same way about him?

Perhaps the more important question is: should you feel the same way?

Your authentic self

Marvin Minsky’s book Society of Mind summarizes a theory of what the mind is and how it works that he had been developing since the 1970’s. According to Minsky, what seems like a single coherent “self” driven by analysis or decisions by some kind of centralized “processing system” is actually the emergent result of the interaction of large number of small, independent modules that all follow their own simple rules and patterns. Although the behavior we see from the outside looks like the product of some kind of complicated but logical program, we operate more like a swarm of instincts and intentions battling for final control over behavior.

At least in a general sense, this picture has been affirmed in experimental psychology and in neuroscience in the decades since. Different regions of the brain are responsible for different functions: some of them are reflexes, some are responsible for our goals, plans and intentions. You can actually see, in ERP and PET scan studies, a competition going on between these different modules that all try to govern behavior. The same general view of the mind also underlies Kahnemann’s book Thinking Fast And Slow. In that book, Kahnemann emphasizes the difference between fast processes (things we do automatically, either because they are innate reflexes or well-practiced habits) and slow processes (the conscious and deliberate actions we take to carry out specific plans or achieve certain goals). He points out that our ability to do things quickly and accurately depends on the ability of our slow (conscious, deliberate) processes to overpower any competing fast (instinctive, reflex) processes that might be trying to get us to do something different.

It is part of our day-to-day experiences. You have been taught to be aware that the modules in your mind will pull you in different directions, and that sometimes you need to fight against that.

Steer into the skid.

Don’t run if you catch on fire, instead stop, drop and roll.

You hear someone say: “Part of me wants to go to the party, but if I don’t finish this assignment I’ll fail the class.”

“Part of me wants…” Even in our colloquial language, we recognize that our minds are not whole.

Is this self-censorship? In the case of the skidding car or the fire, perhaps not: it’s just tips for survival. But not going to a party for fear of failing a class (a social consequence, not a legal or physical one) fits the definition of self-censorship perfectly.  You are not doing something, solely on the basis of fear of negative social consequences.

Does this mean you’re being oppressed?

Does this mean you’re not being your authentic self?

If your mind has two competing modules:

Module A says: “ooooh to the the party it will be fun you will feel great maybe you’ll get laid yaaaaas!”

Module B says: “if you fail this class because you went to this party you will have so much bullshit you need to go through with your parents and maybe re-taking the class, it’s totally not worth it.”

Which one is your “authentic self”? Is the “self” embodied by one of those modules or the other?

Or is your self, as Marvin Minsky proposed, the emergent outcome of the system of both modules interacting with one another, and coming to whichever conclusion ends up winning?

You don’t have to be an asshole to be genuine (…even if you are an asshole)

Certain subcultures within American conservatism today take delight in being nasty. I’m not insulting or casting aspersions by saying so: they admit it themselves. They wear “fuck your feelings” t-shirts to Trump rallies, and mock and malign anyone who has the audacity to criticize their language as insulting, derogatory or bullying. Many of them admit that the main reason they voted for Trump was that they enjoy “triggering liberals.” And when they are cornered into answer the question, “Hey, what’s so terrible about being polite to people?” the answer will often invoke (or imply) the idea of self-censorship.

Why should I watch what I say?

Why should I hide what I feel?

Why should I alter the words that come out of my mouth just to make sure you don’t feel bad… you are responsible for your own feelings!

This is how, consciously or unconsciously, these conservative factions justify being nasty and hateful by invoking all-American ideas of “freedom of speech” and the “authentic self”.

Moreover, liberals tend to fall for it. We allow the conversation to then be pushed into those ideological territories. Now, we are discussing nuances of the possible limits of free speech, and a cost-benefit analysis that weighs freedom of speech against justice and violence, and other equally yawn-worthy conversations.

Instead of all that, I’d like to ask them this:  Have you ever decided to not go to the party?

The supposed “free speech” argument for saying bigoted, crass or insulting things invariable boils down to this:


“I should be able to say _________ without consequence, because it was the first thing that popped into my head, and therefore reflects the real me!”


It is face-value a bad argument.  It is the equivalent of saying, “If I catch on fire, the best thing for me to do is to run screaming through the hallway, because that is the first thing that pops into my head!”

It’s the equivalent of saying: “I shouldn’t suffer any consequences from going to the party instead of studying, because that was what the real me wanted to do!”

Sometimes, it’s better to think slow instead of fast. Sometimes, it’s better to use the controlled process rather than the automatic one.

Sometimes it’s better to listen to the voice that says, “Wait, will doing this really achieve my goals and be best for everyone involved?”

After all: that voice is just as genuine, just as much a part of the “authentic you,” as any other.