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Friday, July 17, 2020

Why George Orwell’s Warning on ‘Self-Censorship’ Is More Relevant Than Ever

Just as George Orwell warned, governments don't have to be the censors for free speech and free expression to be fatally stifled.

Image composite by FEE: Cassowary Colorizations

Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry.

The above is a quotation from George Orwell’s preface to Animal Farm, titled “The Freedom of the Press,” where he discussed the chilling effect the Soviet Union’s influence had on global publishing and debate far beyond the reach of its official censorship laws.

Wait, no it isn’t. The quote is actually an excerpt from the resignation letter of New York Times opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss, penned this week, where she blows the whistle on the hostility toward intellectual diversity that now reigns supreme at the country’s most prominent newspaper.

A contrarian moderate but hardly right-wing in her politics, the journalist describes the outright harassment and cruelty she faced at the hands of her colleagues, to the point where she could no longer continue her work:

My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m ‘writing about the Jews again.’ Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly ‘inclusive’ one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.

Weiss’s letter reminds us of the crucial warning Orwell made in his time: To preserve a free and open society, legal protections from government censorship, while crucial, are not nearly enough.

To see why, simply consider the fate that has met Weiss and so many others in recent memory who dared cross the modern thought police. Here are just a few of the countless examples of “cancel culture” in action:

  • A museum curator in San Francisco resigned after facing a mob and petition for his removal simply because he stated that his museum would still collect art from white men.
  • A Hispanic construction worker was fired for making a supposedly “white supremacist” hand signal that for most people has always just meant “okay.”
  • A random Boeing executive was recently mobbed and fired because he wrote an article 30 years ago arguing against having women serve in combat roles in the military.
  • A data analyst tweeted out the findings of a research paper (by a black scholar) about the ineffectiveness of protests and was fired after colleagues claimed their safety was threatened.
  • Led by progressives as prominent as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a woke mob tried to get a Chicago economist fired from his editorship of an economics journal for tweeting that embracing “Defund the Police” undercuts the Black Lives Matter movement’s chances of achieving real reform.

These are just a few examples of many. One important commonality to note is that none of these examples involve actual government censorship. Yet they still represent chilling crackdowns on free speech. As David French put it writing for The Dispatch, “Cruelty bullies employers into firing employees. Cruelty bullies employees into leaving even when they’re not fired. Cruelty raises the cost of speaking the truth as best you see it—until you find yourself choosing silence, mainly as a pain-avoidance mechanism.”

These recent observations echo what Orwell warned of decades ago:

Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship… but the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [government] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

Similarly, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell noted in a 1922 speech “It is clear that thought is not free if the professional of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living.”

Some might wonder why it’s really so important to protect speech and thought beyond the law. After all, if no one’s going to jail over it, how serious can the consequences really be?

While understandable as an impulse, this logic misses the point. Free and open speech is the only way a society can, through trial and error, get closer to the truth over time. It was abolitionist Frederick Douglas who described free speech as “the great moral renovator of society and government.” What he meant was that only the free flow of open speech can challenge existing orthodoxies and evolve society. From women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement, we never would have made so much progress on sexism and racism without the right to speak freely.

Silence enshrines the status quo. As John Stuart Mill put it:

If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

This great discovery process through free-flowing speech first and foremost requires a hands-off approach from the government, but it still cannot occur in a culture hostile to dissenting opinion and debate. When airing a differing view can get you mobbed or put your job in jeopardy, only society’s most powerful or those whose views align with the current orthodoxy will be able to speak openly without fear.

Orwell and Russell were right then, even if we’re only fully realizing it now. Self-censorship driven by culture, not government, erodes our collective discovery of truth all the same.