My blog last week was a clear case of self-censorship. Or rather, not the blog itself was, but I had self-censured the photo: I had uploaded another photo than I actually wanted to do, because I feared that it would be removed by some social media because it showed a nude female body. Or to be more exact, it showed a nude female shop-window dummy (placed as trash in the street). My fear that this would happen was not without reason, for I know that a photo of a 40,000 years old (!) rather abstract female figurine had been removed by Facebook simply for the reason that it was nude. And a museum in Antwerp, Belgium, warns that pictures with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) taken in the museum and uploaded to Facebook may be removed because they show nude women. Since I wanted to share my blog on several social media and since then automatically the photo of the blog is shown, I decided to change the image for this blog, even though the new photo was “more awful” than the original one. By doing so I self-censured my blog.
When we talk about censorship, we probably think in the first place of journalists and writers who are not allowed to publish their articles and books in dictatorial or authoritarian countries. However, a by far more common phenomenon is self-censorship. Here I’ll ignore psychological forms of self-censure, which involve that people don’t freely express their opinions because of the possible negative reactions of others, even if they are their equals. I have rather a kind of self-censorship in mind in a more or less institutionalized setting, like worded in this definition: “[T]he act of censoring yourself because you fear that governments, firms or institutions will find something you want to say objectionable, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient. It applies to person communications, news, social media, art, literature, film and entertainment. Self censorship may create an environment of fear that suppresses economic activity, culture, political freedom and social processes.” (https://simplicable.com/new/self-censorship) Now it is so that in my case I didn’t fear the social media. I changed the photo, since it would have no sense to announce my new blog, if this announcement would soon be deleted. But what difference does it make? The effect is the same: I censured myself.Now you can say: “Okay, that may be true, but often we need to restrain ourselves in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts.” That’s right, but it’s different when values like freedom of speech and expression are at stake and that’s often the case when we censure ourselves because we fear the reactions of governments, firms and institutions, even in democratic countries. Then self-censorship becomes dangerous, because it undermines the values we value and should defend. We see this already somewhat in democratic societies but the mechanism is explicitly used in authoritarian and dictatorial states where what citizens do is controlled by fear. In order to demonstrate that the ban to say what is displeasing to the authorities and the ban to express yourself in the way you like must be taken serious, examples are set. People who allegedly don’t comply with the rules are arrested, sentenced, executed or murdered (sometimes under a pretext) or they simply disappear and are never again heard of. Think of the recent murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. Social media like Facebook can exclude people from their websites, if they don’t follow their rules, even if their rules are not the generally accepted rules; or at least they remove displeasing content, which restrains people to express what they want to express (see the examples above). Since most people want to avoid the nasty consequences if they don’t follow the rules, the result is self-censorship. You can say, of course, why should I need Facebook and other social media? The problem is that in the present world you need them, for otherwise – for instance – nobody will find your personal website. Then you are free to express yourself, but nobody knows. As a result, self-censorship becomes a kind of thought police, for it doesn’t only limit the expression of certain thoughts but in the end it makes that certain thoughts don’t pop up at all. Just as it is the function of the police not only to catch criminals but also to make that crime doesn’t happen. This is well expressed by a certain psychoanalyst in Montevideo, who had lived during the years of repression and dictatorship in Uruguay in the 1970s and early 1980s. During these years he and his wife kept silent and they were never detained or imprisoned, but “[o]ur own lives became increasingly constricted. The process of self-censorship was incredibly insidious: It wasn’t just that you stopped talking about certain things with other people — you stopped thinking them yourself. Your internal dialogue just dried up.” (https://newrepublic.com/article/140458/beware-self-censorship) Although the consequences of the restrictions of the social media are not that dramatic, any imposed limitation of thinking, by others or by yourself, kills thinking a little bit, anyhow.