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The Dangers of Unfree Speech

Personal Perspective: A crisis in mental health and self-government.

Key points

  • People increasingly fear saying what's truly on their minds.
  • Without free speech, discussions are futile and a meeting of minds is impossible.
  • Art is a cultural canary in a coal mine.
  • The loss of free speech undermines our mental health, our culture, and democracy.

As I write this, Los Angeles is in an uproar. Three members of the City Council, plus the President of the County Federation of Labor, were secretly recorded discussing ways to increase Latino power at the expense of Blacks. Their conversation, which contained numerous casually-uttered racial slurs, has led to two resignations and great pressure on the other two councilmen to quit.

Elected officials, as U.S. citizens, have a constitutional right to free speech. If, though, that speech shows them to be other than what voters believed, they should be held accountable. Still, the eruptions of horror and disbelief roused by this incident remind me of the scene in Casablanca where police captain Renault exclaims, “I’m shocked, shocked!” that gambling goes on in the café where he gambles every day.

I’m not surprised that people—office-holders or not—plot in private and use slurs. The surprise, for me, is that someone managed to record and leak this particular conversation, reinforcing, as an unintended consequence, the growing national sense that speaking, or even thinking, freely may lead to punishment and disgrace.

As a writer, professor, and retired psychotherapist, I hold free speech sacrosanct. U.S. courts have designated situations in which it can be curtailed. Yet I believe that, in general, it should be defended, even when reprehensible. The dangers of curbing speech far outweigh the dangers of allowing it.

One big danger is the limiting of information. For democracy to work, voters must be well-informed. Disinformation is a problem, no question, but who determines what that is? Democracy rests on the belief that individuals can and should decide.

On the psychological front, too, limiting speech means big problems. Freud showed that repressed thoughts and feelings can cause mental illness. Jung warned that the “shadow,” denied, can rise up in disturbing and sometimes violent ways.

Simply voicing banished feelings and thoughts can be healing. But to voice them isn’t easy. Anything repressed or suppressed must, by definition, be thought unacceptable. To express such thoughts will always involve risk—the more risk, the more disincentive to speak, and the less chance to heal.

Laws requiring psychotherapists to break confidentiality have already limited free speech in therapy. I’ve seen patients shut down completely on being warned that if they spoke of certain things, I would be legally required to tell the police. If you can’t speak openly to your therapist, to whom—besides your attorney or priest—can you speak openly?

It’s well-known that friends are essential for mental health. To be close, though, friends must be able to speak freely. The more on guard people feel they have to be, the less friendly they become, and the more alienated. How can we relax with others and learn to understand and empathize with them if they fear speaking candidly?

Unfree speech can devastate romantic relationships, subverting intimacy and trust. Law in the U.S. recognizes this, protecting—with exceptions—one spouse from having to testify against the other.

Good relationships between family members depend on being able to “speak one’s mind.” Pavlik Morozov, a boy who turned his father in to Soviet authorities, was seen as a hero in the USSR (though not by his family, who killed him). Zhang Hongbing, who denounced his mother for criticizing Chairman Mao and was lionized by The People’s Republic, is still trying to make amends.

Curtailing free speech, in public or private, degrades the quality of thought and limits innovation. How can problems be addressed effectively when discussants fear to state their ideas?

Even in the privacy of our own minds, self-censoring can become habitual. I tell my writing students that suppression in one area—sexuality, say, or anger—will spread to other areas and shut down creativity.

Art, like a cultural canary in a coal mine, alerts us to the perils of unfree speech. Film directors such as Scorcese, Peckinpah, De Palma, and Kubrick flowered in the ’70s when, metaphorically, they could get away with murder.

The idea of cancel culture has been attacked as right-wing paranoia, but artists from all political camps are being affected. Whether the cancellation is external rejection or censure, or internalized fear leading to self-censorship, the result is inferior art. When comedians face pressure to bowdlerize their shows, and writers feel obliged to hire “sensitivity consultants” to make sure their work doesn’t offend, the work will suffer, guaranteed.

More and more people, it seems, look to the arts mainly to reaffirm their own real or feigned moral and political stance. I can’t help wondering if what I write today will trip some readers’ inner wires. Dubious ideas may become part of people’s identities. Even questioning these ideas may provoke not simply disagreement but furious moral condemnation, loss of employment, ostracization, and even the ultimate cancellation, death: a fate barely avoided by the recently stabbed novelist Salman Rushdie. To falsify one’s positions, though, is to turn speech into dissimulation and make any true meeting of minds impossible.

People seem increasingly willing to sacrifice free speech for some supposed public good. Some want to silence opponents, believing them to be not simply wrong but evil and depraved. Some want to protect others’ feelings by shielding them from words and ideas that their psyches, it’s assumed, are too weak to bear. Both kinds of suppression result in feeble psyches, gelded discourse, and impotent thought.

George Orwell proves prescient, again. A modern Thought Police have risen, determined to punish speech they don’t like. Unchecked, this spells doom for mental health and effective self-government. We must either recommit to free speech, even when it offends, or risk becoming a nation of neurotics ruled by Pavliks and Hongbings.

I, for one, don’t want to live that way.


Orwell, George (2022). 1984. Istanbul, Turkey: E-Kitap Projesi & Cheapest Book.

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