Censorship of “Offensive” Speech by Individuals and Groups



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    8-15

ABSTRACT:  Recent years have seen a growing movement of private censorship of speech thought to be offensive or harmful.  Psychological phenomena underlying this issue are explored.

KEY WORDS:  censorship, speech, free speech

Growing out of the context of “political correctness,” there has been a considerable expansion in the last few years of private actions aimed at publically challenging certain kinds of speech.  The largest number of these efforts has been aimed at speech that presumably is offensive to certain “oppressed” subgroups (determined by ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, etc.).  The word “nigger” was a flashpoint of this reaction for a time and has become simply anathema, regardless of whether it is used as an historical descriptor or an epithet and despite the fact that not all African-Americans find it offensive (depending, of course, on its specific usage).  In psychology, the term “microaggressions” has arisen to describe small instances of speech (or other types of expression) that are on the border of being offensive, being more usually annoying than offensive and usually related to the same groups mentioned above (ethnicities, national origins, sexual orientation, etc.).  Microaggressions are assumed to often be issued unintentionally and without awareness and in these instances to illustrate unconscious prejudice, although they may of course be the product in everyday speech of negative feelings or of conscious prejudice.  Some colleges have issued guidelines for professors with examples of possibly offensive words and phrases to be avoided, usually including words and phrases that would not be seen as offensive by most people but could possibly be offensive to some.  In an effort to preserve public calm, some countries have enacted laws prohibiting offensive speech, with the only test being that someone was offended regardless of the type of content.  Some college students are requesting of professors that they not use certain words that might bring up painful feelings in a few classmates, such as “rape” and “incest” (even in a class specifically about rape!).

The University of California is considering issuing guidelines on this matter, and as can be imagined, there are mixed reactions.  Some felt that the first draft proposal didn’t go far enough (e.g., that it failed to advise against questioning the Jewish state’s right to exist) while others see it as censorship that will prevent honest debate about important issues and concerns.  The guidelines at issue generally would prohibit saying publically things that identify an entire group in a negative way, such as generalizing that all persons of Italian descent are mafia-connected or that African-Americans as a whole are mentally inferior.  It was unclear whether research evidence that would so identify a group would be permitted or simply banned because on an a priori basis it could not possibly being true.

As one might imagine, these possible offenses have been a frequent topic on social media, with various tides of support and criticism raging about some posts, resulting even in some instances in death threats!  All of these efforts raise some challenges to “free speech” and have implications of censorship.

The primary aim of these efforts to prevent offense seems to be to reduce the amount of painful feelings that occur in normal social intercourse as a result of the hearer’s emotional reactions to certain words.  An interesting feature of this effort is that it is usually brought up by persons who are not offended themselves but who believe that there must be others who are.  Some of those who question possibly offensive speech are no doubt completely sincere, though some probably enjoy feeling righteous as defenders of the oppressed.  It is especially worth noting that simply suppressing speech does not equate to a change of attitude, so while an increase in awareness of potentially offensive speech might result in less prickly social interactions in general, particularly for those whose offense is purely through ignorance or lack of concern, for those for whom offensive speech stems from negative feelings in the first place (consciously or unconsciously), suppression is unlikely to change those negative feelings (and may even increase them as a result of the public shaming involved).

The invention of the term “microaggression” reveals the politics of the inventors, since “aggression” is a “bad thing,” thereby labeling those who engage in microaggressions as “bad” also.  Less efficient but more accurate would be “expressions of unconscious prejudice” (or “expressions of conscious prejudice,” which is also possible).

While most of us wish to express ourselves completely and clearly without using speech that causes pain, from a psychological point of view, efforts to minimize pain wherever it occurs are not necessarily healthy.  Pain is a necessary part of our human system’s self-protective efforts, since it alerts our consciousness that there is possible harm and danger to be attended to.  Successful pain avoidance could result in suffering injury without awareness, and it may also result in undesirable secondary effects.  It has become “normal” in our society to take pain relievers for any pain that we feel, but for many this results in dependence and in some, overuse of pain relievers leads to bodily damage, either actual tissue damage or damage through failure to attend to the actual bodily causes of the pain.

If we acknowledge the value of pain, then we face the question of how much and what types of pain are useful but not damaging.  Without attempting a complex answer to this, with respect to the current topic, speech that results in damaged self-esteem and self-confidence is worth response, while speech that does not have those results should perhaps be left alone.  If a person is in fact damaged by the speech of another, an assertive and public denial of the truth of the damaging speech is often in order.  Beyond that, it would be healthier for a person who is affected to adapt psychologically to hearing offensive speech, through maturing and nurturing healthier self-concepts and self-esteem, to such an extent that these presumably offensive words would not affect their lives.  Of course it is desirable, in general, for us not to knowingly offend others, particularly through lack of awareness, but to assume, as offensive speech critics do, that all members of an oppressed group are offended is to define that group as weaker and less healthy, rather than to encourage resistance and a positive response of growth and success.  Some might react to this by asserting that it is impossible to mature/grow sufficiently to not be affected by offensive speech, but my experience has proven to my satisfaction that it is possible to mature/grow to a degree that potentially offensive speech that seems to originate through ignorance or lack of concern can be viewed as an annoyance, and that it is possible to mature/grow to a degree that offensive speech that seems to originate from negative perceptions and feelings can be responded to in a healthy fashion, in some circumstances by ignoring it and in some by confronting it but in all circumstances not allowing it to affect one’s self-esteem or confidence.

Another complication that must be addressed is the level of offensiveness required for something to be officially offensive.  The decision cannot be left to each affected individual, since individuals have markedly different levels of pain tolerance and use different internal self-supportive mechanisms in responding to verbal offense.  We are probably all capable of recognizing responses which most of  would agree to be over-reactions, even to these supposedly offensive words, so over-reactions should be taken into account when determining whether or not something would be offensive to most members of a group.

To be clear, these comments apply to the raising of these issues and the criticizing of others’ speech by persons who are not themselves the target of the possibly offensive speech.  Those who are in fact themselves directly offended, because they are targets of the speech, have every right to challenge the offense in whatever socially appropriate avenues are available.  Bystanders could then certainly appropriately join in the defense and challenge.

Naturally having large numbers of persons in one’s society feeling negative things about oneself on an unfair basis cannot help but be a special burden for individuals and for groups and will be harmful to some (or even most), in terms of reduced self-esteem and self-confidence.  Those of us who care should continue to influence society in positive directions, but speech police may not be the best approach to this, due to the negative impact on social intercourse of pushing everyone to second-guess themselves before speaking at all times.

From a psychological point of view, if it is presumed that a possibly offensive word or phrase is uttered as a result of prejudice or malice (both of which would involve underlying emotions), than a message to avoid speech is also a message to avoid feelings, which is in general not healthy.  The speaker’s feelings are implicitly labeled as wrong or bad (and thereby to be avoided), and the defender believes that he or she is helping the hearer to avoid feelings as well, simply because they are painful to him or her.  This is not an argument in support of offensive or harmful speech but simply a comment on the method used to improve social discourse.  From a psychological point of view, a more open discussion would be desirable, in which no feelings are avoided.  In addition, it is not helpful to society for the feelings attributed to groups to be overgeneralized.  Not all members of an oppressed group (or any other group) will in fact be offended by the speech that censors seek to ban.  For someone to assume that someone else is offended by something may often be wrong, which will lead to increased confusion in understanding those of another group, as well as suspiciousness, uncertainty, and confusion about what can be said and what cannot.  A more adaptive response to social pain is to adopt attitudes and beliefs that counteract the pain, by supporting the self and appropriately discrediting the source of the pain when that is clearly needed.

A bystander’s decision in the moment to criticize or not criticize another’s speech depends on two unknowable bits of data—whether a hearer was in fact offended and whether the speaker intended harm or spoke with malice.  Neither of these is known by the censor in a “microcensorship” moment, and to censor without knowing these things will often lead to confusion and even to resentment on the part of the supposedly offended hearer.  A bystander who overgeneralized about the feelings of the hearer would be engaging in the same sort of overgeneralizing that results in and supports prejudice.  Some might argue that the avoidance of any offense is worth the damage to speech that the microcensorship brings about, but history would suggest that attacks on speech often  have more negative than positive consequences and are often unsuccessful in an ongoing, overall sense.  The hearer of possibly offensive speech will of course know if he or she is offended but still may not know whether the speaker intended harm or spoke with malice.  It would be appropriate for the hearer to express his or her offense but not to make assumptions about the intent or emotional state of the speaker (unless it is clear that the speaker intends harm or has malice).

In addition to creating a climate of fear and uncertainty about speech in general, private censorship acts in the direction of creating differences in society and of supporting the growth of separate enclaves of the various oppressed groups.  The oppressed are identified implicitly as weaker and less viable and are given a special status (should not be offended) that encourages walls between people rather than supporting acculturation or gains in strength that erase the reasons for negative feelings because people come to be seen as equally competent and no longer seen as different.  This special status (is different and needs extra help) encourages those offended to stay with “their own kind,” who will not offend, rather than to figure out what needs to be done (further acculturation?, greater assertiveness?, better self-esteem?) in order not to be damaged by the microaggressions (and the non-micro aggressions).  This is not to suggest that no special recompense should be given to disadvantaged groups, such as affirmative action, but it must be acknowledged that special recompense arouses resentment and ongoing negative feelings in some who are not members of the disadvantaged group.

Making offending illegal has even more problems than private censorship, not only because bureaucracies get involved but because giving this legal protection to supposedly offended groups legitimizes their forming and staying in ghettoes, which is clearly leading to more and more problems in Europe, with good examples being Muslim enclaves in the Netherlands and in the suburbs of Paris.  Britain is developing these ghettoes as well, and well-intentioned financial support for those out of work has unintentionally kept people together who raise each other’s discontent level and their level of blaming the larger society for their lack of success.

The motives of many who engage in microcensorship may be positive, but the consequences may be more negative than positive.  Prohibiting or punishing certain speech should be a very careful decision made by the total society.  Perhaps an appropriate dividing line would be that speech that damages self-esteem or self-confidence should be responded to, but with questioning confrontation rather than shaming, and that speech that does not damage self-esteem or self-confidence should be tolerated in the interest of the communications that are needed to maintain a society in which everyone’s needs and feelings are known to all, so that the actual and sincere responses of all can lead to healthier functioning for the total group.