Thursday, October 6, 2016

Results of twitter poll on self-censorship - which, ironically, I ended up self-censoring

I have a long-standing interest in freedom of speech, and in particular the way in which people will tend to self-censor for fear of being accused of some form of bigotry. I'm particularly concerned, for example, that the accusation of Islamophobia is being used to try to shame and silence critics of Islam. I'm similarly concerned that the accusation of antisemitism is being used to try to shame and silence critics of Israel. Here is something I wrote on that subject.

I thought I would do a not-very-scientific twitter poll to see whether people felt they were self-censoring due to fear of being accused of bigotry.  I asked the following 'yes' 'no' questions:

1. Have you ever self-censored yr views on Islam for fear of being accused of Islamophobia?
2. Have you ever self-censored your views on LGBT issues for fear of being accused of bigotry?
3. Have you ever self-censored your views on Israel for fear of being accused of antisemitism?
4. Have you ever self-censored your views on race for fear of being accused of racism?

It occurred to me  some might think there should be a question on antisemitism  that was more closely analogous to questions  2 and 4. So I added: 

5: Have you ever self-censored your views on on Jewish people for fear of being accused of antisemitism?

Here's what I expected: that there would be a significant number of people self-censoring on Israel and Islam for fear of accusations of bigotry. I have certainly caught myself doing it in the past, and I have seen many other defenders of free speech express concerns about such self-censorship. That's why I thought it worth asking the question.

Here are the responses I got:


Fairly significant levels of self-censorship on both topics.

My expectation was that questions 1, 2 and 5, on the other hand, would produce very few positive responses. I was surprised to discover that, actually, there was considerable self-reported self-censorship going on there too:


And here is the result I got for question 5 before I pulled it: 

Of course, when I asked all these questions, I wasn't assuming much about whether the people answering "yes" actually were or weren't bigoted. I thought some would be. I also supposed there would be some answering "yes" who did not consider what they thought bigoted, but self-censored anyway out of fear of being accused.

I'm not sure what conclusions can be drawn from these results, other than that, obviously, among my twitterati there are a good number who maintain they self-censor for fear of such accusations being made against them.

Is it bad that we self-censor? Not necessarily. It may be a good thing that a racist is shamed into not expressing their racist views. Obviously there is on upside to that: we don't then have to hear their awful racist views, and such views do not become normalised. But there may be a downside to their self-censorship too: their racist resentment may bubble away like a pressure cooker until it finally explodes in a much more violent form, no doubt with much righteous indignation expressed that they had previously been unfairly gagged by the "PC" brigade, etc.

On the other hand, I think it's a very serious matter if, for example, people don't express perfectly legitimate criticisms of Islam (the belief system) for fear of being accused of Islamophobia,

It's similarly a serious problem if people self-censor perfectly legitimate criticisms of Israel for  fear of being accused of antisemitism.

Ironically, I felt I had to self-censor my poll on self-censorship

Question 5 started to get some very hostile comments, and was being quoted on twitter in isolation from the others, thereby creating a potentially very toxic impression. Here's one example:


Note the embedded original tweet is now unavailable because I then deleted it. Others suggested that by even asking question 5 I was exhibiting signs of antisemitism (and I don't deny 5 could be asked in such a way as to promote or defend racism). Yet others wondered suspiciously where I was 'going with it'. One person referred to me as "Stephen 'Nuremberg' Law".

None of my other four questions prompted such accusations, suspicions, and insults. It seems that, for whatever reason (I really don't know what), when it comes to this particular form of bigotry, my twitterati are far more likely to start pointing fingers and raising accusations or suspicions of bigotry than they are with respect to the other forms.


David McKeegan said...

If one of your poll questions was, "Have you ever censored your views on black people for fear of being accused or racism?", I think it would have provoked similarly hostile reactions. Not because you're talking about any particular form of bigotry, but because there is a presumption built into the question itself: that you have opinions about black people.

Can you see why this might raise a few eyebrows? If so, then you've solved the mystery of why your "Jewish people" question did the same.

Actually, I'm fairly confident that the "black people" poll question would provoke a stronger reaction than your Jewish one. Do you want to test it? :-)

Stephen Law said...

Thanks David. Hmm, not sure about that. I used race because I wanted question to cover more than just one race. However I would have happily used ‘black people’. Really! Maybe we should test it.

Randy said...

Wow. Too bad that happened to your poll. I agree with David that it's likely better to ask about characteristics or ideologies or organizations, rather than particular groups, which is what set your #5 question apart. Compare with your #1. Maybe you could combine #1 and #5 and make it multiple-selection (checkboxes, not option buttons) with atheism and others in there too. Maybe make #2 a multi-selection choice also.

I would also have been interested on the results of questions along the lines of "Have you ever censored your views on feminism for fear of being accused of sexism?" and "Have you ever censored your views on non-LGB sexual minorities for fear of being accused of perversion?"

(This "I am not a robot" captcha ... I'm not entirely certain that I'm not a robot in some way... perhaps you are also a robot... I think the real objection is to fast robots. I am a slow robot.)

Stephen Law said...

PS Not this week though as people will spot this, and also I have had enough fingers pointed at me for the time being.

Stephen Law said...

It would also be good to compare reactions to 'Have you ever self-censored your views on Muslims for fear of being accused of Islamophobia?' and similar.

The Atheist Missionary said...

I realize this is a peanut gallery comment but "Stephen Nuremberg Law" does have a nice ring to it.

David B. Ellis said...

Judging by the religion groups on Facebook, many people have no inclination to self censorship. Quite the contrary. What I've learned participating in discussion there is how easily criticism of Islam slips into straight up prejudice. It's caused me to reexamine my own attitudes to Muslims and to pay greater attention to the diversity of Islam.