The biggest threat to free speech in an open society is, always and inevitably, government censorship that threatens people’s lives and freedom over their views. But government overreach is not the only thing that can imperil free expression; social pressure and intolerance for dissenting ideas can, too.
A new study suggests that these malignant forces have risen in our society, so much so that the public is now experiencing an epidemic of self-censorship.
A Massachusetts-based organization called Populace prepared a report examining the difference between people’s publicly stated opinions and their actual beliefs when granted privacy. On a whole host of issues, from public health to gender to race, the survey found a significant gap between the public’s actual opinions and what they’re willing to admit publicly.
— Brad Polumbo 🇺🇸⚽️🏳️🌈 (@brad_polumbo) August 19, 2022
For example, 6 in 10 said mask-wearing was an effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19 when asked for their public opinion. But when their true, private beliefs were analyzed, only 47% actually believed this. Women and Hispanics were the two subgroups with the biggest gap between their public position and their true beliefs.
The report also asked whether we should get back to normal life without any COVID mandates. Black and Hispanic respondents were much more likely to answer in the negative when their public beliefs were measured — but in truth were much more supportive of going back to normal than they were willing to let on publicly.
On abortion, too, the survey found a huge gap.
Publicly, 67% of respondents believed that whether a woman can have an abortion should solely be between her and her doctor. But privately, only 58% agreed with this sentiment. Men in particular had a huge gap, with 60% offering public support for this notion but only 45% actually agreeing in private.
Not all the gaps cut one way. There were some questions in which respondents took more right-leaning views publicly but actually weren’t as supportive privately.
For example, 80% of Republicans agreed publicly that “public schools are focusing too much on racism.” But privately, only 63% actually agreed with this sentiment.
When asked whether teaching K-3 students about gender identity was inappropriate, 63% publicly say yes. But only 53% actually agreed with this sentiment when granted privacy.
The survey included many other questions, but you get the idea.
“The pressure to misrepresent our private views — to offer answers on politically and socially sensitive questions that are out of sync with our true beliefs — is pervasive in society today,” the report summarizes. “Across all demographics, every subgroup had multiple issues with at least a double-digit gap between public and private opinion.”
Why does this matter?
“It is essential to understand the extent to which people are misrepresenting their views today, because when preference falsification becomes widespread in a society it can result in collective illusions that drive false polarization, erode trust, and hold back social progress,” Populace concludes.
The tremendous societal value of free speech is that through open, honest debate, good ideas win out over time. Free speech was vital, for example, in the civil rights movement. Originally unpopular ideas often prove right and just over time if they’re able to be expressed despite their unpopularity. But if people are so intimidated of social repercussions or even being fired that they can’t even say their true opinion, then the free exchange of ideas that leads to progress over time is stifled.
Clearly, the public on both sides of the political aisle and from all walks of life are feeling the pressure to self-censor. This is a wake-up call. We need to take a hard look in the mirror and figure out where we went wrong to get to this point — and salvage the spirit of free expression in this country before it’s gone for good.