political divide

On the Mechanism of Self-Censorship

It should come as no surprise that political partisanship is on the rise. As Pew reports:


And there are many more graphics like these, both for the US and for other Western democratic countries. I won’t waste time laboring the point or offering my opinion(s), but I would like to point out a pernicious feedback loop that I have not seen described elsewhere.

Though correspondence bias and genetic predispositions play a role in party loyalty, I think self-censorshipthe tendency to refrain from criticising one’s own team – has played the most significant role in the recent metastasis of partisanship. Self-censorship played a large part in the Presidential election of 2016 and it will continue to play a large part in the breakdown of political discourse. This is how it works.

Say I’m part of the liberal ‘tribe’, but I take issue with a particular liberal idea, like sanctuary cities. If I criticize the existence of sanctuary cities, other liberals will decrease their confidence in my liberalism in response. Remember this is not necessarily unreasonable. After all, conservatives criticize liberal ideas more often than liberals. An inference has just been made on the basis of a rule. The rule is: conservatives criticize liberal ideas more than liberals.

When we self-censor, we accentuate the rule. We could have defied the rule, if we had spoken our mind, but we acted in accordance with the rule, and in doing so strengthened it. Unfortunately, this creates a self-fulfilling cycle where initial self-censorship leads to even more self-censorship over time as the likelihood that someone criticizing liberal ideas is actually still liberal is even lower, and thus the cost of criticizing my own team is even higher.

How long does this cycle go on for? Well, it goes on until I decide I no longer care to be a part of that tribe, which is increasingly the case for many former Republicans (like Bill Kristol, Charles Murray, David Brooks, David Frum, Bret Stephens, etc…) who are now relying more on lower-case labels like libertarian or conservative.

I don’t know how to rid people of the herd mentality that leads to this spiral, but if you cling to tribe over principle, or to ‘party over country’ as many have said, you’re part of the problem, and good luck surviving the self-censorship feedback loop. It only takes diffusion of responsibility for the cycle to begin. Resisting the feedback loop requires absorbing some personal cost in the form of ones tribe membership.

So resist the urge to self-censor. Try to delight in debate, and don’t worry about the reputational costs of earnestly disputing doctrine. The feedback loop magnifies the effect of every single instance of self-censorship, so speak truth whenever you can.

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