For some time now, more and more people feel anxious to speak their minds. They experience the need to apologize in advance for saying something sensible. They fear that they will be excluded for not adhering to the common narrative. That the others misunderstand their words and mark them for life. That they will be blacklisted from the enemies of any minority group convinced that the world must revolve around them.
As a result, self-censorship grows like weeds.
However, self-censorship and extreme political correctness often take the form of “oppressive righteousness.” Oppressive justice occurs when we perceive that we cannot share our perspective because it defies the principles in vogue at the time. Thus we end up measuring each word to the millimeter before uttering it, evaluating it from all possible angles to turn the act of communicating into a juggling exercise on a tightrope, robbing it of all authenticity.
What is self-censorship in Psychology?
More and more people mentally “edit” what they are going to say because they are afraid of offending someone – although there will always be someone who ends up offended – they try to find the perfect moment to say something and worry too much about how others will interpret their words. They feel anxious at the prospect of speaking their minds and feel the need to apologize in advance for their opinions. They generally assume the worst and worry about everything that could go wrong. Those people end up trapped in a mechanism of self-censorship.
Self-censorship is a mechanism by which we become extremely careful about what we say or do in order to avoid negative attention. It’s that voice in your head that tells you “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t”. You cannot express your opinion, you must not show what you feel, you cannot dissent, you must not go against the current. In short, it is the voice that tells you that you cannot be who you are.
Interestingly, self-censorship is on the rise regardless of how moderate or extreme the views of society are. Researchers from the universities of Washington and Columbia found that self-censorship has tripled from the 1950s to date in the United States. That phenomenon is so widespread that in 2019 four out of ten Americans admitted to self-censoring, a trend more common among those with higher education.
These political scientists believe that self-censorship occurs primarily due to the fear of expressing an unpopular opinion that ends up isolating us from family, friends and acquaintances. Therefore, it may be a mere survival strategy in a toxic polarized culture, in which different groups see themselves as hopelessly divided on an ever-widening range of issues.
In such a rigid context in which only opposites are perceived and there is no space for sensible intermediate points, saying the wrong thing implies running the risk that others identify you as part of the “enemy” group in absolutely any matter, from the vaccines to war, gender theory or flying tomatoes. To avoid confrontation, stigma, or exclusion, many people simply choose to self-censor.
The long and dangerous tentacles of self-censorship
In 2009, nearly a century after the Armenian holocaust in Turkey, at that time part of the formerly known as the Ottoman Empire, historian Nazan Maksudyan analyzed how much of the historical narrative of those events could effectively reach present-day Turkish readers and filter into the ongoing social debate occurring in the country.
After analyzing Turkish translations of history books, she found that most modern writers, translators, and publishers manipulated and distorted some of the data, blocking free access to information. What is interesting is that many of them censored themselves when dealing with the genocide of the Armenians during the First World War to avoid public censure or gain the approval of the dominant sector in society.
This is not the first time something like this has happened, nor will it be the last. Svetlana Broz, who provided her services as a doctor in war-torn Bosnia, discovered that many people helped Muslims but kept it secret to avoid negative sanctions from their own group. However, they felt a great need to share their stories.
Obviously, self-censorship is usually exercised on those issues that society considers “delicate”. Regardless of the reasons for self-censorship, the truth is that when we do not have access to the information that others have because they censor themselves and do not share it, we all lose the opportunity to identify the problems and find the best possible solution. That which is not spoken of becomes an “elephant in the room” that generates frictions and conflicts, but without possibilities of solution.
Self-censorship largely stems from “groupthink,” which involves thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages individual creativity or responsibility. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when the desire for harmony or conformity is irrational or dysfunctional. Basically, we censor ourselves to avoid criticism and negative attention. And in many cases it may even seem like common sense.
However, the self-censorship that throws us into the arms of political correctness robs us of authenticity while preventing us from directly addressing the issues that concern us or even the stereotypes that act as barriers to progress. And it is that many times behind the label “sensitive issues” what is really hidden is a lack of social maturity to be able to debate openly and an inability to recognize one’s own limitations.
As psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal wrote: “Self-censorship has the potential to become a plague that not only prevents building a better world, but also robs those who exercise it of courage and integrity.”
Of course, the concern for the negative reactions of the others that leads us to censor ourselves is not completely negative. It can help us think twice before speaking. However, social norms that marginalize unwanted viewpoints by causing people to self-censor may facilitate coexistence to some extent, but those views will continue to exist because they have not been properly channeled or changed, they have only been repressed. And when something is repressed for a long time, it ends up exerting an opposing force that often leads to a regression in society and ways of thinking.
Stop self-censoring without becoming an outcast
Assuming an overly self-critical attitude, acting as relentless censors over our thoughts, words or feelings for fear of losing the approval of our social group can worsen our physical and mental health.
Not being able to honestly share our opinions and other aspects of our inner lives can also be a particularly stressful experience, creating a deep sense of isolation. In fact, self-censorship contains a paradox: we censor ourselves to fit in with the group, but at the same time we feel more and more misunderstood and isolated in that group.
In fact, it has been seen that people with low self-esteem, who are more timid and have fewer arguments are the ones who tend to censor themselves the most and are more politically correct. However, it has also been found that these people tend to experience fewer positive emotions.
Instead, expressing our emotions reduces stress and brings us closer to the people with whom we share values, providing us with a sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to our well-being.
In order to avoid the harmful consequences of self-censorship while also not becoming outcasts, we must find a balance between the need to express ourselves authentically and the need to fit in with a group or social environment. It’s not always the right time or place to have a difficult conversation, but ultimately it is essential that there is space to address the sensitive issues that concern us and the others.
This also means contributing to the best of our ability and within our scope of action to create a climate of tolerance for different opinions, without falling into the temptation of labeling the others, so that everyone can feel more comfortable expressing their ideas. If we are not able to create and protect these spaces for dialogue without people perceiving themselves as enemies on a battlefield, we will simply go backwards, because good ideas or right causes are not imposed by silencing those who think differently, they are dialogued.
Gibson, L. & Sutherland, J. L. (2020) Keeping Your Mouth Shut: Spiraling Self-Censorship in the United States. SSRN; 10.2139.
Bar-Tal, D. (2017) Self-Censorship as a Socio-Political-Psychological Phenomenon: Conception and Research. Political Psychology; 38(S1): 37-65,
Maksudyan, N. (2009). Walls of silence: Translating the Armenian genocide into Turkish and self-censorship. Critique; 37(4): 635–649.
Hayes, A. F. et. Al. (2005) Willingness to Self-Censor: A Construct and Measurement Tool for Public Opinion Research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research; 17(3): 298–323.
Broz, S. (2004). Good people in evil times. Portraits of complicity and resistance in the Bosnian War. New York, NY: Other Press.