Free societies emphasize the ability to voice opinions and debate with those who disagree without fear of penalty. Political systems that punish people for espousing "wrong" ideas are unfree no matter how they try to justify the constraints they impose on speech. But what happens when a society retains the forms of freedom, but its culture becomes intolerant of dissent and imposes unofficial penalties on those who stray in their public statements? Americans are finding out what it means to live that way with the resurgence of an old flaw called out early in this country's history.
"Social pressure to have the 'right' opinion is pervasive in America today," notes Populace, a social-research organization, in a report published this summer. "In recent years, polls have consistently found that most Americans, across all demographics, feel they cannot share their honest opinions in public for fear of offending others or incurring retribution."
"One important, but underappreciated, consequence of a culture of censorship is that it can lead individuals not only to self-silence, but also publicly misrepresent their own private views (what scholars call preference falsification)," the authors add.
Given the events of recent years, it's no surprise that some big disconnects are over COVID-19 responses and the management of public schools, which have become merciless battlefields.
"A majority of people say publicly that mask wearing was effective, but they don't believe it in private," Populace notes. "Whereas 59 percent of Americans publicly agree that wearing a mask was an effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19, only 47 percent privately hold that view (a 12-point gap)."
The pressures people face vary by demographic group. Americans of parenting age often feel compelled to take public stances at odds with their private beliefs as to what goes on in classrooms.
"For people between the ages of 30 and 44, the two biggest public-private gaps both relate to education. First, the vast majority (74 percent) of people in this age group privately think parents should have more influence over public school curriculums, but only 48 percent are willing to say so publicly. Second, while in public a majority (60 percent) say discussing gender identity in public schools is inappropriate for young children (K-3), in private this is not the majority view (only 40 percent privately agree)."
These varying pressures can exaggerate disagreements in weird ways, as white and black Americans feel conflicting social pressure when it comes to the opinions they voice about the treatment of race.
"About 1 in 2 White Americans (50 percent) agrees public schools focus too much on racism in the U.S., but only 38 percent agree with the same statement when granted privacy through a list experiment. The opposite effect holds true for Black Americans—despite 16 percent of Black Americans agreeing with the statement publicly, more than one-quarter (28 percent) agree privately."
Socially acceptable opinions vary based on race, age, income, partisan affiliation, educational level, and sex, but across demographic divides, many Americans feel compelled to mouth opinions at odds with their true beliefs. It's a phenomenon noted before, in totalitarian countries.
"As Milosz had himself observed about intellectuals under totalitarianism, the need for survival often involved more than just keeping your mouth shut. Tough moments could often arise where you had to make positive, public affirmations of loyalty and even enthusiasm," the late Christopher Hitchens commented in 2004 about the Polish writer and diplomat Czeslaw Milosz, who defected to the West in 1951. Milosz's The Captive Mind (1953) is a classic study of oppressive political systems.
But Milosz described societies in which dissidents could be arrested, imprisoned, or shot for challenging acceptable opinion. That's not the case in the United States of 2022. Instead of secret police, Americans face Twitter mobs, sniffy neighbors, outraged co-workers, and upset bosses. That's enough to nudge many people to conform with the prevailing views in their communities so as to avoid opprobrium. It's an unfortunate weakness, but one observed about this country long ago.
"I know of no country where, in general, there reigns less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Volume 2, Chapter 7, of Democracy in America. "In America, the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Within these limits, the writer is free; but woe to him if he dares to go beyond them. It isn't that he has to fear an auto-da-fé, but he is exposed to all types of distasteful things and to everyday persecutions."
"Everyday persecutions" sounds like today's "cancel culture" of snubbing, firing, and deplatforming—informal means of punishing people for their opinions. The French observer saw Americans of the 1830s facing social pressures similar to those described by Populace researchers. Those pressures nudge people to edit their own views and espouse beliefs they don't actually hold.
But America is fragmented, and so the "right" opinions people feel obligated to mouth vary from community to community. So, 44 percent of Democrats publicly insist corporate CEOs should take stands on controversial issues, but only 11 percent believe that in private. In public, 39 percent of Asian-Americans say the U.S. should completely phase out use of fossil fuels, but only 13 percent privately agree. A 64 percent majority of Republicans publicly favored overturning Roe v. Wade, but only 51 percent agree in private. A 61 percent majority of political independents publicly say that whether someone is a man or woman is determined by their sex at birth, but 45 percent really believe that. And 42 percent of those 18-29 years old privately believe racism is built into the economy, government, and educational system, although 65 percent say that in public. In sometimes contradictory ways, Americans are misrepresenting what they actually believe to endorse views they don't really hold.
"This trend is concerning because of the threat that it poses to individual freedoms, community flourishing, and democratic self-government," Populace researchers note.
"The democratic republics of today have made violence as entirely intellectual as the human will that it wants to constrain. Under the absolute government of one man, despotism, to reach the soul, crudely struck the body; and the soul, escaping from these blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body alone and goes right to the soul," de Tocqueville commented in rather more evocative form.
Fixing this situation is no easy task, since there are no laws to reform, but rather a culture that needs an infusion of tolerance and people who require stiffer backbones. That leaves us to marvel at the quality of debate among people who inflict on themselves the constraints suffered by residents of totalitarian states, not out of fear of a knock in the night, but from concern over what the neighbors might think.