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The Rise of Self-Censorship

If you're feeling increasingly anxious saying what you think, you’re not alone.

Key points

  • Self-censorship is on the rise among those on both the right and left in the U.S., regardless of how moderate or extreme their views are.
  • The impacts of self-censorship are mixed, but too much can contribute to multiple problems, such as mental and physical health issues.
  • Self-censorship can have harmful impacts on conflicts and on problem-solving in workplaces and other settings.

Olivia Remes, an expert on anxiety disorders, says, “People with anxiety often edit what they’re about to say in their minds because they don’t want to offend anyone; they try to find the perfect moment to bring up something; and they worry about the impact that they have on other people. In general, they tend to assume the worst and worry about all the things that might go wrong.”

Have you ever felt this way? If so, you’re not alone. Self-censorship is on the rise, at least in the U.S.

Anete Lusina/Pexels
Source: Anete Lusina/Pexels

A paper by two political scientists notes that from the 1950s (the height of McCarthyism in the U.S.) to 2019, self-censorship actually tripled. The paper provides several interesting insights into this trend.

Why self-censorship is on the rise

Fear of government repression for speaking one’s mind is not a major factor leading people in the U.S. to self-censor. Rather, it’s fear that expressing an unpopular view will result in being isolated or alienated from family or friends.

Self-censorship may be a survival strategy of sorts in a culture that a new book calls “toxically polarized,” in which different camps see themselves as aggressively divided on an increasingly broad range of issues. Say the wrong thing, and you risk identifying yourself as part of an “enemy” camp on any issue in the news, such as COVID-19.

It might sound incredible that people are self-censoring in an era of so many extreme and polarized views being expressed all the time: Just look at your Twitter feed. But platforms like Twitter disproportionately show us content from a small percentage of the overall users, often the ones who say the most outrageous things.

So while it can feel like just about everyone is confidently proclaiming their views to whoever will listen, about 4 in 10 people in the U.S. report going through their days carefully avoiding sharing their true political opinions.

Who is more likely to self-censor?

Fascinatingly, there was no obvious connection among those surveyed between how intense their views were and their decision to keep silent about them. People with moderate views, more extreme views, those on the left, and those on the right were all about equally likely to self-censor.

What was a good predictor of self-censorship then? Education. Specifically, those with more formal education self-censor at much higher rates. This suggests that one thing they learned in college was to avoid saying the wrong thing.

What are the impacts of this trend of increased self-censorship? That’s a complicated question, and we can’t say that the trend is simply negative or positive.

Worry about negative responses likely makes some folks more prosocial and thoughtful about what they say. And social norms that marginalize harmful or hateful views so that people who hold them self-censor might be largely positive, although those views still persist and haven’t actually been addressed or changed. (This also raises the surprisingly tough question of how societies decide what views are harmful.)

On the other hand, too much self-criticism and rumination on the imperfections in our words or actions, or on the possibility of losing standing in our social group, can worsen our mental and physical health.

Not being able to share our political opinions and other aspects of our inner lives honestly may also become stressful and isolating. Psychologist Jill Suttie explains that “sharing our emotions reduces our stress while making us feel closer to others we share with and providing a sense of belonging.”

Worrying about seeming foolish or being shunned for saying what we actually think can also be detrimental in our workplaces. In their book Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson and colleagues share the story of a woman who went to the hospital to have her tonsils removed and wound up having part of her foot amputated instead. How did such a massive and life-altering mistake happen? “In this case, no less than seven people wondered why the surgeon was working on the foot but said nothing. Meaning didn’t flow freely because people were afraid to speak up.”

When we don’t have access to the information that others hold—because they’re censoring themselves and not sharing it—we all lose out on naming problems and finding better-quality solutions.

Solutions to self-censorship

Depending on the issue, a good option may be to create conditions where workers feel less threatened in expressing what they’re thinking. It’s not always the right time or setting for a difficult conversation, and power imbalances need to be taken into careful consideration when approaching them. But ultimately, conversations do need to happen for problems to be addressed. This means helping people to feel that, within reason, it’s safe not to self-censor. And when they do express their ideas, workers need to be truly heard.

Patterson and colleagues note that “if you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything, and people will listen... People rarely become defensive simply because of what you’re saying. They only become defensive when they no longer feel safe. The problem is not the content of your message, but the condition of the conversation.”

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