We know that large percentages of academics and students refrain from expressing their views on certain topics for fear of being denounced, mobbed or formally sanctioned. Self-censorship on campus is frequently discussed in the media – and rightly so. But what’s the situation in the population at large? And how has it changed over time?
Recently, two relevant studies came to my attention. The first is from the United States. In a paperpublished last year, James Gibson and Joseph Sutherland collated all the surveys they could find that had asked Americans a simple question: “What about you personally? Do you or don’t you feel as free to speak your mind as you used to?”
This question is not necessarily ideal, though it has the advantage that it was first put to the American people way back in 1954 by the sociologist Samuel Stouffer – which permits the study of long-term trends. When the authors plotted the percentage who said they did not feel free to speak their mind over time, this is what they found:
There is a clear increase in self-censorship. (Although note that the years on the x-axis are not always consecutive because they represent the specific years in which surveys were available.) In 1954, only 13% of Americans said they did not feel free to speak their mind. By 1987, this had grown to 21%; by 2011 to 31%; and by 2020 to 46%.
So around half of Americans say they don’t feel free to speak their mind. And interestingly, a substantial portion of the change since 1954 has occurred over just the last 10 years – corresponding to the Great Awokening.