August 10, 2020 Reading Time: 13 minutes
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The political atmosphere in the United States today is one of the most divisive and polarized in a very long time. In my lifetime, the only period with which I can compare it is the 1960s and early 1970s during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, when there were demonstrations on the streets of many cities throughout the country and episodes of destructive violence, along with calls for radical change. One difference between then and now is the increasing degree nowadays of self-censorship concerning politics and social issues. 

Recently, the Cato Institute (July 22, 2020) released the results of a detailed survey on how people across the political spectrum are more and more fearful of sharing their political beliefs with others. Whether the respondents labelled themselves as “strongly liberal” or “liberal” or “moderate” or “conservative” or “strongly conservative,” noticeable numbers of them replied that they withheld telling about their political views for fear of “offending” someone and getting into some type of trouble, and therefore practicing forms of self-censorship.

Of those categorizing themselves as “strongly liberal,” which in the American political lexicon really means someone who views themselves as or sympathetic to “progressivism” or “democratic” socialism, 42 percent said they self-censor their political ideas in various public arenas; 64 percent of political “moderates” said they censor themselves; while 77 percent of those considering themselves as “conservatives” or “strong conservatives” said they feared to publicly express their political opinions for fear of negative consequences. 

At the same time, the Cato Institute reported that among those classified as “strongly liberal,” 50 percent said that they would support the firing of anyone who was a Trump supporter, while 36 percent of those labelling themselves as “strongly conservative” would be happy to see Biden supporters let go from their job. Both of these groups clearly believe in punishing those who hold political views and support candidates they disagree with, with the weapon of taking away their means of earning a livelihood. 

The survey says that upwards of 60 percent of Republicans, especially those with higher educations, are especially fearful of losing their jobs because of their politics, while about 25 percent of Democrats have these concerns. These concerns were expressed in all working age groups, though not evenly among the demographic groupings. 

Common Courtesy Self-Censorship as a Decent Person

Of course, all of us practice forms of self-censorship all the time in our verbal and written interactions with others. We usually avoid intentionally saying something rude, crude and offensive in our exchanges with others. It’s part of good manners, polite behavior, and common courtesy. While we all have, unfortunately, breached these at various times, we all know that it is “just not the right thing” to say or do something that will offend, hurt, shame or humiliate someone. 

When I was a small boy, one would often hear, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” This is, of course, true in the literal sense. The nasty and cruel speaker who goes out of his way to belittle or embarrass or psychologically abuse someone else shows more about himself than the person to whom he is addressing his remarks. It used to be said that such a person was “vulgar,” or showing that his “mind is in the gutter,” or demonstrating that he has “a filthy mouth” and had clearly grown up without being taught “good manners.”  

And, so, the person who was the target of such verbal or written treatment was expected to “rise above” those who would resort to such means and methods of criticizing or trying to ill-treat another. “You don’t sink to that level and you remember its source.” “It’s not worth allowing it to get under your skin.” These were common rebuttals to the words of the boorish insulter.  

It became a laughable joke at one point if someone said, “Your mother wears army boots,” meaning that she might not have the fashion sense or the financial means to buy a proper pair of shoes, as a put down about “where you came from.” However, we all know that words can and do hurt. It is hard not to take it personally when it touches something important to ourselves, including and especially our own sense of self-worth, our deepest beliefs and values, or those who we love and care about. 

It is interesting and amusing to peruse books written in the 19th and early 20th centuries for the edification of young adults on the development and cultivating of good manners. A proper conduct and choice of words was always considered the mark of a polite and ethical person. For instance, in one of the more widely used such volumes in America, first published in 1844, Gentle Manners, A Guide to Good Morals, the young were told:

“If we should be abused by anyone, our courage should prompt us to act the manly part, and prefer to be called cowardly, rather than to disgrace ourselves by a quarrel. We must resign ourselves to this course, to be thoroughly civil and honorable. 

“This discipline will perfect the habit of self-government, and render us strong under trials, and master of our nervous energies and passions. We will in the turmoil of life, present such a character; nor will madness or uncivil language ruffle our serene, peaceful deportment. Such a spirit will be sure to be seen and appreciated, even by those who, for want of reflection, have not at first rewarded and honored it. If we are cultivating true civility, we shall never be meanly inquisitive respecting the concerns of others. This honorable spirit will ever prompt us to attend strictly to our own business . . .

“Avoid the use of vulgar language, and slang phrases. Such manner of speech is the distinguishing mark of a bad education. We should study to speak and to write in the best language we can command, that we may not be forced to blush at our own crudeness, when we are in company.” (pp. 22 & 28)

Slipping Benchmarks Did Enable Taboo Subjects to be Discussed

Of course, such rules of good manners and polite language have rarely ever been fully followed. But it was considered the benchmark on the basis of which one should judge one’s own words and deeds as well as those of others. Insulting and denigrating language was used widely enough. But it was not sanctioned in “polite company” and in the general community, and was supposed to be a reproach against oneself. 

In the midst of those earlier crises of the 1960s, decorum in language began to fall by the wayside, symbolized by the “Free Speech” movement centered on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, in which all words, phrases, and verbal depictions of persons, events, and things were equally legitimate no matter how offense or disturbing to others. The response was “If you are offended by anything I say or do, well, man, that’s ‘your hang-up,’ not mine.” 

Freedom of the mind and action, while offensive to some and even too many at the time, did enable “forbidden” subjects to be discussed and expressed openly, including human sexuality, race relations, and personal desires. Leonard E. Read, founder and longtime first president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) was certainly not considered a cultural revolutionary, but he captured some of the better aspects of “anything goes” with the title of his 1964 volume, Anything That’s Peaceful

A large majority of Americans, in principle, have considered it “fair game” in a free society for a near absolute freedom of speech and the press when it concerns political, economic, and many if not all social and religious matters. How else could a free people be self-governing over their own life and in their participation in the political processes of the country if there cannot be a free exchange of ideas among the citizenry?

Were there attempts and successes in suppressing forms and topics of speech in American history? Yes. But they always went against the grain of the founding principles of the country and the idea of personal liberty in the Bill of Rights, so sooner or later such stumbling blocks to the free exchange of practically any idea was removed from the arena of freedom of speech. Unlike far too many other parts of the world in the past and in the present, American custom, culture and the courts have persistently tended to secure the right of free people to freely speak their minds, even when the words and the ideas expressed by them offered degrees of offense to some or even many.  

New Tyrants of the Mind Wanting to Banish Certain Ideas

In today’s America, however, a new movement has arisen that is working hard to discard and delegitimize such freedom of speech. This movement now increasingly dominates the American “left” made up of those who often label themselves as “progressives” or “democratic” socialists, or simply “liberals” in the American sense of the term. It is not simply their call for a Green New Deal that would impose a system of government central planning in the name of fighting “climate change” and impose tribalist conceptions of race, gender and “social” justice on the country. 

The problem is that if their vision were to prevail, no corner of life would be left free from the intrusive and paternalistic hands of those in political authority determining how we all shall live, work, interact, speak, and write. We are told by the cancel culture and identity politics warriors that our employments and incomes must be redistributed, our minds just be washed clean of racist and sexist thoughts (as the “politically correct” define them), and our behavior will have to be monitored, surveilled and corrected to assure the needed homogeneity in our thinking and actions so the new notions of human diversity through ideological conformity may produce their desired results of a collectivist future to come. 

In a free society, virtually all policy issues are open for debate and are fair game in the arena of deliberation and disagreement. But there is more to their agenda. What they are propagandizing and pushing for is a new totalitarian straitjacket that already confines many thoughts, words, and deeds that are part of the intellectual life of America’s colleges and universities; it increasingly fills the curriculum of K-12 public (government-mandated) education; and it permeates much of the news and social media, while also dominating the world of entertainment. 

These would-be tyrants of the mind insist that the use of certain words or particular phrases, the espousal of entire sets of ideas, and the defense of certain institutions or meanings of liberty are to be considered outside of and banished from political and social debate. To even raise them, support them, or argue for the reasonableness of discussing them, immediately brands you as a “racist,” a “sexist,” an “enemy of the people,” or a “fascist.” Since any idea or person labelled as such is unfit for consideration, since they are inherently “hurtful” and “hateful,” they must be banned under any and all circumstances. The very use of the word, the idea, or the person’s name must be erased from society. (See my articles, “Tyrants of the Mind and the New Collectivism” and “The New Totalitarians” and “Save America from Cancel Culture” and “Systemic Racism Theory is the New Political Tribalism”.)

The Long Liberal Campaign for Freedom of the Mind

It must be recalled again and again that such a view is what most friends of liberty rejected and opposed in the 1700s and 1800s, when for centuries speech was oppressed by kings and churches that possessed the political power to punish those who attempted to speak their minds against those in authority. Heretics were burned at the stake, blasphemers had their tongues cut out, and enemies of absolute monarchies could be tortured and imprisoned in wretched conditions for the remainder of their lives. 

The classical liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries fought to free the human mind from such governmental and social restraints and punishments. For instance, the French liberal, Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) in, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments (1815):

“To confer the management of Enlightenment on government, one must suppose either that men cannot from their own resources arrive at truths the knowledge of which is salutary to them, or that there are certain truths whose discovery would be dangerous and that consequently there are certain errors which it is useful to maintain . . .

“Very well someone will say, since error is always fatal, government must keep men from it and lead them to truth. But what means has government for finding it? But . . . those who govern are as prone to error as the governed . . . The natural road to truth is via reasoning, comparison, analysis . . . The abnegation of our intelligence will have rendered us wretchedly passive creatures. Our mental resilience will be broken . . . 

“Government mistakes are a serious nuisance in three ways. First of all, they create positive ill just by their wrongness in principle. In the second place, however, men, being forced to resign themselves to them, adjust their interests and behavior to them. Then, when the error is recognized, it is almost as dangerous to destroy it as to let it continue . . . Finally, when the erroneous policy collapses, new troubles result from the upset of people’s calculations and the slighting of their practices . . .

“The right I guard most jealously, said some philosopher or other, is to be wrong. He spoke truly. If men let governments take this right away, they will no longer have any individual freedom, and this sacrifice will not protect them from mistakes, since government will merely substitute its own for those of individuals.” (pp. 55-56 & 301-302)

John Stuart Mill and the Tyranny of the Few or the Many

The culmination of the liberal idea of a freedom of the human mind to think, reason, speak, write and debate in the 19th century was, of course, in John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) Essay on Liberty (1859). Mill defended freedom of thought on several grounds. First, we should accept the fact that none of us can claim an infallibility of knowledge or a final and definite insight into ultimate truth. Thus, we should value and defend liberty of thought and argument because a dissenter or a critic of conventional and generally accepted views may offer reasons for disagreeing that correct our own errors of knowledge and mistakes in judgment about the truth of things. 

Second, sometimes the truth about things exists as half-truths held by different people, and through controversy the truth in the parts can be made into a great unified truth of the whole. 

And, third, even if we are really certain that we have the truth and a correct understanding of things, unless we are open to challenging and rethinking that which we take for granted, our ideas and beliefs can easily become atrophied dogmas. The people in each generation must be taught to think and reason for themselves. If ideas and beliefs are to remain living and meaningful, people must arrive at their own conclusions through reflection and thought. 

This, then, brought Mill to the issue of what can stifle or prevent an individual from exercising his personal freedom in the manner he wants. Mill argued that there were, historically, three forms of tyranny that have endangered liberty through the ages. 

The oldest was the tyranny of the one or the few over the many. A single dictator or an oligarchy imposed prohibitions on or commands for certain forms of behavior over the majority of the society. The spontaneous individualism and individuality of each person is denied. The one or the few determine how others may live and what they might say and do and, therefore, in what forms their human potential would be allowed to develop. 

The newer form of tyranny, Mill said, was the rule of the many over the one. The revolt against the tyranny of the one or the few resulted in the growing idea that the people should rule themselves. And since the people, surely, could not tyrannize themselves, the unrestrained will of the people became the ideal of those who advocated unlimited democracy. 

But in practice this inevitably became the rule of the majority over the minority. Individual freedom was denied purely on the basis of numbers; that is, on the basis of which group or coalition of groups formed that larger number of people dominating the political process. Their ideas, ideals, and values were to be imposed on all those representing less than 50 percent of the electorate. 

But whether it was the tyranny of the few over the many or the many over the few, the source of their tyrannical power was the control and use of political coercion. State power is what enabled some to deny liberty to others. The threat or the use of force by government is what enabled freedom to be taken away from individuals who believed in ideas, ideals, or values different from those holding the reins of political power.

The Tyranny of Custom and Tradition

Mill also said that there was a third source of tyranny over the individual in society, and this was the tyranny of custom and tradition. He argued: 

“The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than the customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement…. Custom is there, in all things, the final appeal; justice and right mean conformity to custom…. All deviations … come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature.” 

Mill argued with great passion that societal customs and traditions could, indeed, very often be the worst tyranny of all. They were binding rules on conduct and belief that owed their force not to coercion but to their being the shared ideas of the right and proper held by the vast majority in the society. They represent what the ancient Greek Pericles referred to as “that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.” 

Customs and traditions weigh down on the individual, they stifle his sense and desire to be different, to experiment with the new, to creatively design ways of doing things that have not been tried before, and to break out of the confinement of conformity. Custom and tradition can be the straitjacket that restricts a person’s cry for his peaceful and nonviolent individuality. 

But while customs and traditions may hold such power over men, because of their fear of disgrace and ostracism by family, friends, and neighbors, they are still not coercion. No matter how strong a hold custom and tradition may have over men’s minds and therefore their conduct in society, an individual can still choose to go his own way and be the eccentric and outcast, if he is willing to pay the price in terms of the disapproval of others in his community. Political force is not the weapon that ensures obedience. The power of custom and tradition comes from social and psychological pressure and the human desire to avoid being shunned by those whose association is wanted. 

The New Conformity of Race and Gender Consciousness

What our new totalitarians of the mind have been doing – successfully – is to use their vocal and physical “activism” to impose social pressures on education, the workplace, and the general institutions of civil society to create a uniformity of thought and action. Social intimidations press the individual to keep his dissenting views to himself, to be shamed and threatened in the various arenas of social life to confess his thought and action “crimes” due to his maleness, or the whiteness of his skin, or the “invisible privileges” he receives at the expense of others that he has not deserved and which he must beg to be taken away. 

This is matched by a social indoctrination that if you are a woman you must be a victim, if you are a “person of color” you are inescapably oppressed, if you are in a lower socio-economic category you are being exploited by the white, male, wealthy “one-percent.” It does not matter how you think about yourself, or manage and direct your own life, you are the bearer of unjust burdens that a new political order must lift from your shoulders because you are not an individual but a member of a tribal group. An enlightened government will give you what you really deserve, whether you want it or not. 

Anyone who has had to sit through and participate in one of those “consciousness raising” sessions in which you are told that you are the beneficiary or victim of “systemic racism,” gender bias, or social inequity, knows the atmosphere of unspoken self-censorship. To disagree or speak out, while most others may remain silent, makes you the protruding nail to be hammered down. 

You are implicitly “noticed” for “denying” the racism or sexism that you are either too misguided to really understand, or which you wish to “defend” to preserve the “privileges” you want at others’ expense. You are the “problem” rather than the “solution.” And problems, at some point, need to be gotten rid of. 

Right now, it is still predominantly the force of social pressures that the cancel culture and identity politics warriors are successfully using in the arenas of education, the arts and entertainment, the media, and industry. But the next logical step will be to move from social pressures to the use of the full political power of the government. 

At that point, self-censorship will be transformed into politically enforced censorship. Our mouths will be shut and our minds will be constrained not only by the psychological fears of social intimidation to conform, like in Mill’s third tyranny of custom and tradition. No, then it will shift to his other two forms of tyranny over the mind, the tyrannies of the many over the few and then the few over the many. At that point, darkness descends, and the free society comes to a close.

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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