Self-censorship is an act of tact, not a widespread barrier to free speech

At the University of Virginia and elsewhere, “hushed voices and anxious looks dictate so many conversations,” UVA senior Emma Camp wrote in an essay published in The New York Times earlier this month. Camp said some students who are only comfortable discussing controversial topics in private experience a “pile-on” when they voice unpopular views in class and lie about their views to avoid confrontation. According to Camp’s point of view, backlash for unpopular opinions and the pressure to conform has led students to censor themselves on college campuses nationwide, which has hindered her and other students’ abilities to have meaningful debates.

Though student self-censorship is real and hardly limited to UVA, the panic surrounding it is utterly laughable in the face of far more serious censorship of students and staff, including at GW itself. University-led attempts to punish political expression and outside pro-censorship pressure campaigns pose a more serious threat to student and staff members’ speech than feeling bad about an in-class debate ever could. Whether you lean liberal or conservative at GW, you’ve no doubt elected to keep quiet during classroom discussions about controversial topics. Camp’s uncritical commitment to unpopular ideas in the classroom – even those which lack evidence and logic – does not further students’ education by exposing them to new views. Instead, promoting so-called “intellectual diversity” amounts to uncritically platforming and rewarding certain views on their face. 

More than 80 percent of students report censoring their viewpoints at their colleges at least some of the time, and 21 percent of students say they censor themselves often, according to a 2021 College Pulse survey that Camp cites in the essay.  

Collegiate self-censorship and personal censorship in all walks of life is as much about politeness as it is politics. Though it can be anxiety-inducing, thinking before we speak or not speaking at all ensures people don’t view us as inconsiderate jerks or something far worse. The ability to navigate difficult situations with different people requires a degree of social and emotional intelligence – it is a survival strategy in a rapidly changing world. 

Societal pressure stemming from the context of the conversation tips the balance of when we decide to self-censor. Democratic respondents to the 2021 GW Marriage Pact outnumber their Republicans counterparts 10 to one. While that may not be representative of the entire University, that overwhelming consensus around liberal ideas might push conservative students to self-censor.

But feeling like you can’t speak is different from not being able to speak at all. Unlike Liberty University, for example, no “culture of fear” or concrete policies stop GW students from voicing their beliefs. Instead, the University has a long history of political activism and expression.

If you’re genuinely concerned with self-censorship, then take part in that tradition. Speak up and welcome whatever comes next. But don’t expect to have it both ways. You can be popular, or you can say what you believe. By and large, your peers are a captive audience, not an eager one. They aren’t obligated to applaud controversial or unpopular opinions simply for being controversial or unpopular. 

Some students are clearly comfortable making their voices heard. I’ve witnessed fellow students explain their opposition to including transgender women in women’s sports in front of their gender non-confirming peers and watched male students describe so-called reverse sexism to a group of largely female students. 

Besides being offensive, these “debates” amount to ego-driven, mind-numbing soapbox stands that waste valuable time meant for professors’ professional expertise. Unlike skillfully delivered lectures, such discussions hardly enrich students’ education. The free speech problem rocking college campuses isn’t so much that students’ politics are taboo as their points are asinine. 

Ironically, embracing “intellectual diversity” would only make that issue worse. It’s foolish to make uninformed or ignorant ideas untouchable simply because they’re controversial. Artificially balancing views or guaranteeing equal time for each side of a debate prevents the best ideas from rising to the top and hardly furthers the intellectual rigor of college campuses. And even worse, officially protecting “intellectual diversity” for its own sake would force students to censor their responses for fear of reprisals. 

Student self-censorship is here to stay in a world where we judge people by what they say and do. It’s not fairly innocuous self-censorship, but institutional censorship, that should concern college students of all political stripes.

The University faced a genuine censorship scare in February after interim University President Mark Wrighton condemned and said he would remove posters criticizing the Chinese government. Though Wrighton later backpedaled in a statement, his hasty response and alleged promise in an email to investigate the students responsible gained national attention and criticism. 

And paradoxically, Turning Point USA, which bemoans conservative students’ self-censorship, maintains a “professor watchlist” of “radical” professors that includes two GW faculty members. Under the guise of informing prospective students and their parents, the watchlist has a chilling effect on professors’ own speech and opinions.

Students come to college for professional development, the expertise of their professors and ultimately a degree, not to listen to their peers ramble incessantly about personal political grievances. The demagoguery of cringeworthy controversial opinions and half-baked hot takes in the classroom is just as bad as any campus culture of silence. While we all have a right to speak and ought to exercise it, self-censoring makes you a mature adult – not a victim of your peers’ tyranny.

Ethan Benn, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions columnist.

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