Policing the Self

Self-censorship possibly becomes most dangerous when it is a conscious choice with regard to political viewpoints. That is when the voice of dissent is effectively silenced. Paramita Banerjee traces the insidious functionings of self-censorship and its myriad ramifications.

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Censorship: the practice of silencing/ obliterating something because it is considered inappropriate. It is practiced variously: adult censorship seeks to determine what is appropriate for young people; social censorship determines what is acceptable in which social situation; governments determine what is permissible for a country’s citizens to be exposed to in the form of books, films, paintings, theatre and so on. Interestingly, much of the discourse around censorship is around the kind authenticated by governments, though gender-sexuality discussions have also opened up considerable space for social censorship. The issue of familial sanctions has much less space in the public domain – given the dichotomy that continues to exist between the private and the public, despite serious feminist attempts at abolishing this binary. There is also self-censorship, which is the least recognised and talked about, this qafeteer thinks.

It is noteworthy that mostly creative people – authors, actors, musicians have talked about self-censorship and its insidious ways of working. I’m reminded of a workshop that yours truly had helped organise and coordinate years ago on censorship as experienced by writers from Bengal who happen to be women.  Self-censorship had come up in a big way, with passionate discussions on how ‘self-censorship is the most insidious form of censorship’, as Marty Rubin puts it.

So, then, what is self-censorship all about?

Why and how does one learn to censor oneself? What is the extent of that censorship? Does it regulate only public expressions and behaviour or does it extend to the self as well?

Do I even censor my own thoughts, dreams and expressions to myself? There is, of course, a ready answer to this in Freud’s tri-dimensional personality theory-in his notion of the superego as the locus of acquired social values and morals. The superego, later rechristened by some with minor modifications as the ‘critical mother syndrome’, teaches human individuals what one ought to be and also offers punishments (feelings of fear, shame and guilt) and rewards (in current parlance, ‘the feel good factor’) for behaving as per that ideal self. So, the superego would not just influence what one says or does in public – but also censor thoughts and cravings disclosed to none other than oneself. ‘Inappropriate’ thoughts and yearnings would be punished by the superego/ critical mother through feelings of fear, shame and guilt.

Reflecting upon one’s adolescent years underlines with clarity how self-censoring subtly functions. I’m reminded of a number of same-sex oriented persons from workshops and research projects who have elaborated on how their first realisation of same-sex attraction and desire had induced in them shame, fear and guilt. This indicates our internalised homophobia – a not-very-uncommon form of self-censorship. But how does one arrive there? That is where socialisation plays a pivotal role through the superego – our repository of social beliefs, perceptions, values and morals. Heteronormativity is experienced, taught, reinforced in myriad different ways. To experience a desire different from the norm, therefore, generates a feeling of otherness and alienation – a feeling of failure in being included. The critical mother then takes over to punish for failing.

There is, however, absolutely no reason to conveniently assume that only people with non-heteronormative sexual orientation face self-censorship of this kind. I’m quite certain that most readers, their gender expressions and sexual orientation notwithstanding, would be able to remember classmates from their teenage years who would steadfastly refuse to participate in naughty pranks even in situations where chances of being caught and punished were virtually non-existent. I know a classmate like that from school, who has turned out to be an amazingly open and non-judgmental person as an adult. But what a ‘goody goody’ type she was in school! Especially during the teenage years in middle and high school – busy ensuring that not even the slightest hint of a smile creased her face when we talked romance and sex as is natural for most adolescents. What was inside her to have compelled her to suppress natural adolescent curiosity about love and sex and frown at the giggles that followed? We all carry our critical mothers inside us, but amongst some of us – her control is stronger. Sometimes so strong as to last a lifetime!

But self-censorship is not necessarily a function of the superego controlling the unconscious. We take conscious decisions to censor ourselves also – sometimes unwilling to take the political consequences of what the expression of one’s views might entail; sometimes to avoid social repercussions.

Tim Robbins has said that the biggest danger in a free society is that one is afraid to the point of censoring oneself. With no experience of ever living in a free society, I cannot really say much on whether self-censorship ensues from such freedom, but in a society such as ours where paying a price for inclusion is nearly unavoidable – self-censorship is often that price. One chooses not to do certain things and participate in certain others, even when one’s heart is not in that, simply to avoid being talked about and/or excluded – from the family, from classmates, from one’s milieu per se. The problem with such conscious self-censorship is that it continues to reinforce the status quo. If everyone practised it, there would be no dynamism left in human society and it is debatable whether such a society would be human at all. It may be difficult today to imagine the practice of ‘sati’, but if Raja Ram Mohan Roy had censored himself for fear of ridicule, animosity and exclusion (all of which he had to face aplenty) and refrained from challenging this custom – Lord William Bentinck might not have cared to enact a law to abolish that practice at all.

Self-censorship possibly becomes most dangerous when it is a conscious choice with regard to political viewpoints. That is when the voice of dissent is effectively silenced.  No amount of governmental control can suppress thoughts in variance. As long as such thoughts are permitted to flit through the mind – there remains a chance of these thoughts gathering a momentum of their own and prompting some people to act. And, as history reflects, when the proverbial belling of the first cat happens – others are encouraged and inspired into belling other cats. That is what challenges to the powers that be and uprisings and rebellions are all about. But in situations of extreme and subtle control, the fear of concrete adverse backlashes sometimes prompt people – many of them, as it happens – into immediately putting a stop to the expression of thoughts to the contrary.

If the fear of expressing in a moment of lapse is deep enough – then one starts exercising control on one’s thoughts, too. It isn’t difficult to think of situations in real life when we tell ourselves not to think in a specific manner, not to think of something at all.

With that self-censorship on our political thoughts comes real repression – a society without any dissent to be voiced at all. One twists one’s own spine, as Milos Forman has said.

Thankfully, there is no historical and/or sociological evidence yet of any regime being able to so completely manage to drive an entire population into self-censoring their thoughts. But I keep wondering what the history of the world might be if Hitler had tried, instead of his aggressive wars, to cajole the whole world into investing in Germany and make spaces for Germany to emerge in ever-increasing glory – even as he carried out his agenda of controlling information and expressions of dissent nationally. If he managed to have history rewritten to suit his political views and agenda, and designed every cultural medium to do the same – can we say for sure that there wouldn’t be a generation with no dissent at all?




Paramita Banerjee works as an independent consultant in the sphere of child protection and gender justice. Her expertise lies in research, training, evaluation and community mobilisation. This black-coffee drinking queer activist dreams of wielding the pen to ruffle the feathers of status-quo-ist survival.

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