You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Beware of Self-Censorship

It takes a whole society to create an atmosphere of fear: elites and collaborators, bystanders and victims alike.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Thus far, we have taken a worm’s eye view of fear. But political fear is more than an individual experience, and it affects more than personal lives. The morals contributing to it descend from tradition and popular belief, and the rational calculus underlying it reflects the realities of social and political power. Whether by design or consequence—for sometimes the outcome is intended, other times not—political fear reinforces a society’s distribution of power and resources, influences public debate, and compels public policy.

Political fear usually takes one of two forms. First, it governs relationships between the higher and lower orders of society, whose mutual fear of each other helps maintain the inequalities from which it arises. Second, political fear can arise from forces external or internal to a society, where an entire people are threatened by a foreign enemy or dangerous presence like crime, drugs, or moral decay. In actual practice, as we shall see, these two kinds of fear are often fused and reinforce each other.

Creating and sustaining political fear may require immediate applications of direct coercion like those levied against Thomas Chatmon, but more often, fear bleeds into the fabric of everyday life, without need of personal interdictions. That is the function of political fear: not to quell one individual, but to make an example of her, to send a message to everyone else that they should be careful, or they might be next. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the Uruguayan military detained one in every fifty citizens, and sent one in every five hundred to jail. Their target was not just the victims themselves, but individuals like this Montevideo psychoanalyst and his wife, who, though never detained or imprisoned, kept politically silent for years:

Our own lives became increasingly constricted. The process of self-censorship was incredibly insidious: It wasn’t just that you stopped talking about certain things with other people—you stopped thinking them yourself. Your internal dialogue just dried up.

Nadezhda Mandelstam likewise reported that most men and women under Stalin were kept in line not by the regime threatening them personally but by exemplary acts of coercion, which made it so that “none of us ever submitted petitions and pleas, expressed our opinion about something or took any other action before finding out what people thought ‘at the top.’”

This condition of generalized fear may even be inspired by some act of ancient violence, passed on through underground lore to contemporary consciousness. In the western part of El Salvador, peasants remembered, long after the fact, the army’s 1931 massacre of their families, which took over ten thousand lives. So powerful was that memory fifty years later that when the rest of the country rose up against the military, scarcely anyone in the region took up arms.

Such ripple effects, even if unintended, are especially potent when their target belongs to an already vulnerable group. After 9/11, for example, journalists and activists reported extensive fear throughout Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, inspired by the detention of 1,200 to 5,000 Muslim and Arab men. This was a fear not just of detention, deportation, or vigilante violence, but of speaking out on politically controversial issues of American foreign policy, which might—and often does—attract scrutiny, surveillance, or harassment from the federal government and police. “There’s fear in the Arab community,” reported Mino Akhtar. “What I hear Arabs and Muslims saying is, ‘Let’s keep a low profile. Don’t step out there. We need to stay quiet and let this blow over,” a claim confirmed by numerous press reports.

Against such a backdrop of fear, even the most innocuous actions can generate additional fear, with equally repressive results. In December 2001, for example, Mohadar Mohamed Abdoulah, a Yemeni immigrant living in San Diego, was granted $500,000 bail after being detained for two months as a 9/11 material witness and for having lied on his asylum application. Initially, the local Muslim community rallied to Abdoulah’s cause, pledging $400,000 for his bail fund with promises to raise more. But once it was announced that each contributor would have to provide his or her name to the government and perhaps appear before the judge, many in the community balked. “When people were told they’d have to go to court and answer questions from the judge,” said Abdoulah’s lawyer, “they chilled out.” “One day,” added the lawyer, “it’s all about the solidarity and standing tall. Then they run. This community isn’t split. This is about abject fear.” Because of the state’s detentions and deportations, and because of vigilante attacks, this simple request to identify themselves to the court was enough to arouse fear throughout the Muslim community in San Diego.

Generating fear across time and space in this way requires the involvement, even cooperation, of the entire society: elites and collaborators, bystanders and victims. To command more than a small, immediate audience, political fear must mobilize generals and foot soldiers, and a supporting army of secretaries, cooks, and maids to tend to them. Political fear also relies upon bystanders, whose passivity paves a path for elites and their collaborators, and the targeted community of victims, who transmit didactic tales of fear among themselves, thereby increasing its reverberating effects. Inspired by the victims’ desire to shield themselves from sanctions, these small acts of education among the victims are central to the economy of fear. They minimize the amount of actual coercion perpetrators must apply, and they maximize the effect. One black North Carolina woman recounts that under Jim Crow her parents and grandparents warned her, at an early age, that if she disobeyed the rules of segregation, she would get arrested. “So,” she concluded, “any time you saw ‘white’ and ‘colored,’ unless you wanted to be arrested and be in jail, you didn’t dare.”

This is the second in a series of five posts this week on fear in the age of Trump, drawn from Fear: The History of a Political Idea.