Self-censorship: destroying democracy

Throughout history, tyranny has resorted to terror to curb the free expression of citizens considered dangerous. There are countless inquisitions that have targeted specific people and certain groups, forcing them to remain silent by force. However, explicit censorship is effective in the short and medium term, but over time what was crossed out in books, press, images comes to light, and then what was silenced gains enormous visibility.

Often, the attempt to censor a text, a representation or an artistic object is a claim for the public. A visit to the library of the Colegio del Patriarca in Valencia always ends up in the censored books, in the curiosity of guessing what is hidden under the crossing out of lines and entire pages. And it is enough to ban a book to increase the number of readers. Hence, in democracies, the most effective method to erase stories or proposals from the public scene consists of forcing self-censorship on the victims, but not in any way, but through a subtle and effective mechanism, embedded in the nature of our being social, which is the fear of rejection by public opinion.

This is the thesis of the book The spiral of silence. Public opinion: our social skin, published in 1982 by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. In the text, the author formulates a theory, the key to which lies in a lucid dictum by Tocqueville: people “fear isolation more than error.” Thoreau said well that “it is always easy to break the law, but even for the Bedouins of the desert it is impossible to resist public opinion”.

Man is a verdáboro animal —Ortega had said—; the true was one of the transcendental, the one to which the intellect tends, also the truth is one of the validity claims of speech in Habermas’ theory of communicative action, and in his theory of justice, of 1971, Rawls assures that justice is the virtue of the institutions as the truth is of the systems of thought.

Whether, then, as an intellectual value, as a vital value, as one of the conditions of validity of speech, as a goal of the community of scientists who tend to it in the long term, in line with Peirce, it has been understood that humanity wishes to discover the truth and flee from error. The tension of the human being towards the truth seems unquestionable, whether it is the truth in a perspectivist sense or in the absolute sense of Antonio Machado: “Your truth? No, the Truth, / and come with me to find it. / Yours, keep it.”

And yet, Noelle-Neumann rightly asserts that even if people see clearly that something is wrong, they will keep quiet if public opinion goes against it. What do we mean by the expression “public opinion”? Not so much to the rational deliberations that take place in the public space, but to the opinions and behaviors that can be shown in public without fear of isolation, to the consensus on what constitutes good taste and politically correct opinion in a society.

One might think that next the author is going to defend the resisters, those who break the silence of the lambs and denounce what they consider to be wrong or mendacious; however, it is not so. According to her own confession, she wants to arouse understanding towards those who bend to the mandates of public opinion, because with this they do nothing but abide by something as inevitable as the fact that human beings have a social skin. “Perhaps we do not sympathize with the social nature of man,” she will expressly say, “but we have to try to understand it so as not to be unfair to people who move with the crowd.” Perhaps with these words the author is claiming understanding for herself, she is included in the number of those who move with the crowd and live that dynamic of the spiral of silence, in which some people feel free to express their opinions and others they are forced to swallow them, until in a spiral process one point of view dominates public life.

Does that point of view dominate public life because it is the truest? Absolutely; It triumphs because in all societies, including democratic and presumably tolerant ones, self-censorship works for those opinions that are not going to be well received. Of course, in the totalitarian ones, self-censorship goes hand in hand, except in the case of dissidents, who pay dearly for their audacity. But in all societies self-coercion works to bite one’s tongue, as the title of Darío Villanueva’s book says. Which is a suffering for those who feel obliged to remain silent, a gag on freedom of expression and an insurmountable obstacle for democracy.

Because it could be said that, in the same way that democracies in recent times have not died due to spectacular coups d’état and riots, but due to the gradual deterioration of institutions and because unwritten rules of conduct that the community accepted and respected are losing force , as Levitsky and Ziblatt assert, a large number of proposals do not disappear either because they cease to be convincing with reasons, but because they are silenced by those who fear isolation more than error. This would be the process by which ideologies and social movements are imposed or disappear.

People observe their social environment, they notice the opinions and what is thought about them, register which ones are gaining ground and are going to become dominant. Those who trust in victory speak out and the losers tend to keep quiet, because the tongue loosens when one feels in harmony with the spirit of the times.

If this has always been the case, even more so today with the rapid functioning of social networks, capable of viralizing unaccepted affirmations, let alone since the birth of thought woke up and the culture of cancellation, which consists of singling out certain people to destroy their reputation and cause their social death. It remains true, as Nietzsche said: “We get along better with our bad conscience than with our bad reputation.” The interpretive dimension of the brain can silence the voice of conscience, but reputation and status are in the hands of others, and losing them can mean ostracism and lost opportunities in life.

The most curious thing is, however, that the inquisitors use a supposed moral superiority; resort to that ancestral instrument that is social shame, so well related in texts such as dangerous friendships (1782), by Choderlos de Laclos. The well-known work tells how the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont compete in their efforts to destroy love and reputation among their friends. In her duel, the Marquise wins, but society punishes her with a resounding boo, condemning her to suffer public shame and isolation from her. The weapon of social shame is a very effective mechanism, which some authors recommend in good faith to complement the law, but, in my opinion, it is very dangerous, because you never know who is pulling the strings and it may be in the hands of the pack human.

The truth is that those who believe they are morally superior show that they do not understand what morality is and make democracy impossible.

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