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The freedom of speech crisis is about discouraged speech, not forbidden speech
Freedom of speech is increasingly debated, particularly within sociocultural sectors such as universities and the arts. Though some call attention to the prohibition of certain views, this appears exaggerated; there are few examples of practices such as noplatforming, legal guarantees of freedom of speech remaining robust. But this distracts from a distinct issue. Within sociocultural sectors, there is a problem with discouraged speech. Majorities hold left-liberal views, meaning that such positions become embedded within incentive structures. Contrary views are discouraged, albeit informally. This hampers freedom of speech and encourages conformity, impeding the creative expression which is central to these sectors.
This reflects a human logic. Aside from self-selection, workers with specific profiles being attracted to similar sectors, humans imitate each other; this is an evolved behaviour which promotes group cohesion, emulation focusing on high-status individuals. Within groups, the values of majorities become hegemonic, dissenters facing pressure to adopt them. The ingroup is the relevant unit, consisting of immediate peers, rather than wider society, which contains many outgroups.
This occurs across groups, but sociocultural sectors such as universities and the arts are critical cases, such industries being key producers of political and cultural output. Within sociocultural sectors, majorities hold left-liberal positions. This results from the nature of such occupations, attracting individuals who value autonomy and creativity, but also reflects hegemony, such values becoming encouraged as they dominate. This follows a logic of salience. Many hold left-wing economic views, meaning that such positions are encouraged; but there is more pressure on cultural topics, reflecting the temperature of the culture war. This also follows a logic of numbers. Though cultural topics such as transgender rights and radical anti-racism are very salient, supporters being highly committed, there are significant levels of silent opposition, meaning that such topics can be taboo.
But on cultural issues on which there is near consensus, such as immigration and abortion, there is pressure to espouse a liberal position. When there is opposition among outgroups in wider society, the topic of immigration being a prime example, pressure grows, reflecting pressure on the ingroup position. Support for the Conservatives and/or Brexit straddles these areas, meaning that it carries a particular stigma. Surveys demonstrate the extent of discouraged opinions. In a Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) study of UK academics, 35.5% of respondents admitted self-censoring. Though certain radical positions can be discouraged, strident criticism of Israel being one, anecdotal evidence suggests that many discouraged opinions are conservative ones.
Crucially, incentive structures underpin discouraged speech. Feminists emphasize the ways in which social rituals reinforce male dominance. In many sectors, the pub is a key professional site, irregular hours and topics of conversation excluding women. Within sociocultural sectors, left-liberal views play similar functions. We prefer associating with people like ourselves, meaning that left-liberal views lubricate relationships, encouraging professional advancement. Many are not interested in politics, but if such topics arise, paying lip service to prevalent views is wise. Conformity can be tacit; most learn the jokes to get and the topics to avoid. This does not mean that conservatives cannot advance in such sectors; there are myriad successful conservatives and many relish such settings. But left-liberal views heighten chances of success, encouraging their adoption.
Pressures for encouraged speech have always existed, but have recently intensified. This reflects the culture war. The Brexit and Trump votes were turning points in such sectors, increasing pressure on conservatives. This also reflects growing stratification. Though left-liberal views have long dominated sociocultural sectors, balances have become more lopsided. Several studies find this. For example, among junior faculty at Stanford and Berkeley, the left/right registration imbalance was 49:1. The education cleavage reinforces this. Education increasingly predicts political views, yet degrees tend to be prerequisites for entry to sociocultural sectors and universities produce them. In these conditions, balances will remain uneven.
To a certain extent, discouraged speech is inevitable, reflecting our flaws as a species. When groups consist of similar people and certain issues become salient, such pressures will emerge. Discouraged speech is not as bad as forbidden speech. Though instances of noplatforming are concerning, such cases are rare; the legal frameworks which guarantee free speech are also robust, responding well to recent tests. Comparisons between the contemporary West and dictatorships, too frequent on the right, are facile and insulting.
But nor should we ignore the insidious influence of discouraged speech. Preference falsification theory explores the misrepresentation of preferences under social pressure. Though preference falsification is widespread, the act has consequences; it corrupts knowledge and perpetuates unpopular practices, making institutions vulnerable to instability as real preferences emerge. There are specific issues within sociocultural sectors. Such industries produce intellectual and cultural output. If sectoral cultures dampen self-expression, creativity will be stifled. More broadly, liberal democracies are predicated upon pluralism. Self-censorship is inimical to this, debasing political and cultural life.
This picture will not change soon. Whilst education predicts political views, positions in sociocultural sectors will remain unbalanced, hegemonic values enduring. But mere recognition of this issue helps. And if you are a sociocultural worker who self-censors, consider speaking up.
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