How Self-Censorship Feeds Extremism

In a Columbus Day scandal for the ages, a measured but provocative essay reconsidering the evils of colonialism got the axe a month after its publication. First, critics of Portland State University political science professor Bruce Gilley’s “The Case for Colonialism” launched a 10,000-signature petition. Then, there were mass resignations from the board at the Third World Quarterly. Next, an apology from the author—and finally, what did it in, per the publisher: “serious and credible threats of personal violence…linked to the publication of this essay.” From whom, they don’t say. 

The fifteen board members who resigned in protest demanded a retraction of the essay, which they claim failed to meet proper standards: “We all subscribe to the principle of freedom of speech and the value of provocation in order to generate critical debate. However, this cannot be done by means of a piece that fails to meet academic standards of rigor and balance by ignoring all manner of violence, exploitation and harm perpetrated in the name of colonialism (and imperialism) and that causes offense and hurt and thereby clearly violates that very principle of free speech.”

And, with his subsequent apology—and request that they scrap it—the author acquiesces: “I regret the pain and anger that [the essay] has caused for many people.” Gilley’s abstract announces “it is high time to question this orthodoxy”—evidence he anticipated a backlash of how-dare-you proportions to meet his argument that anti-colonial zeal has done more harm than good in many cases. Mass resignations and a credible threat of violence, less so.

These are the days one wishes Nirad Chaudhuri had lived to 120 instead of 101. The Indian author’s famously—or infamously, depending whom you ask—bittersweet autobiography of British India still stumps post-colonial academia with its nuance and depth of personal insight. Published in the early aftermath of India’s independence, his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian carries the ironic and perpetually misunderstood dedication: “To the memory of the British Empire in India,/ Which conferred subjecthood upon us,/ But withheld citizenship./ To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:/ ‘Civis Britannicus sum’/ Because all that was good and living within us/ Was made, shaped and quickened/ By the same British rule.”

The Raj fanned the Bengal Renaissance that bore forth his favorite writers and poets, and himself: Chaudhuri wouldn’t be rhapsodizing in English about the village landscape of his youth if not for the imperial overlords—as he reminds his readers once he’s got them in thrall. In my own college years, excerpts from Chaudhuri’s The Continent of Circe came with a casual trigger warning of sorts: Don’t worry, kids, no one would publish this sort of thing today.

In writing a modern day reconsideration of colonial rule’s geopolitical legacy, Gilley’s gravest mistakes—1) offending puritanical progressivism, and 2) overestimating his peers’ appetite for a nuanced treatment of a controversial topic—are ones that American undergraduates nowadays largely learn to avoid.

According to new survey data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, while vast majority (87 percent) of college students do feel comfortable contributing ideas in class, more than half—54 percent—say they’ve “stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class at some point since beginning college.” Many were probably about to say something genuinely worthless and thought better of it, while others will have held back genuine insights. But most of the self-censors, FIRE finds, weren’t shy or circumspect: They feared they would offend someone.

Nearly a third reported having self-censored in class discussions “because they thought their words might be considered offensive to their peers.” And 29 percent said they’d self-censored “on campus outside of class because they thought their ideas might be politically incorrect.” Speaking up may be the only surefire test of what triggers thought policing, but staying silent—this, the social media generation learns early—is just safer. Self-censorship, a harder trend to track than trigger warnings, has insidious implications.

Retired law and political science professor Carol Swain, for one, blames the cultural forces behind college students’ self-censorship for funneling discontents into the white supremacist slums of the Internet. (Swain’s 2002 book The New White Nationalism has been credited with predicting the rise of the “alt-right.”) “When we don’t discuss issues pertaining to race, it creates an opening for extremists to divide people,” she told me in an interview earlier this year. Before students learned not to air unorthodox ideas, she argues, open debate gave the truth a fighting chance against bigotry. But when the Professor Gilleys of the world win so much public shame for a provocative paper, the intellectual outliers on campus—that third of students who self-censor for fear of causing offense—may sooner cop a seething resentment than risk raising a counterpoint.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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