Self-Censorship in the Liberal Academy


Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright’s latest article, “Self-Censorship and Associational Life in the Liberal Academy” from a recent edition of Society, tackles the issue of self-censorship in the academy —a “tyranny of opinion”— that is an existential threat to liberalism itself. Dr. Chamlee-Wright examines why academics self-censor and what can be done to promote civility while preserving vigorous debate in the liberal tradition. 

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the American propensity to engage in discourse protects us from tyranny, but he also recognized that because of this, our fellow citizens present a danger to our liberty, as they hold the power to remove us from associational life.

Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright
Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright, IHS President and CEO
Alexis de Tocqueville, Library of Congress

John Stuart Mill also warned us that when we lose the habit of engaging in intellectual challenge, intellectual life begins to die and that because of this, society should treat those with divergent views with a high degree of toleration. But neither offers guidance on how an individual should navigate this terrain. 

The value of intellectual abrasion in academic discourse is well-recognized, and exposure to diverse opinions helps sharpen our own viewpoints, creating both emotional and intellectual challenges. But there is a point where this abrasion ceases to be useful coaching and instead becomes a punishment for the person being challenged. Once it becomes weaponized, it shuts down the intellectual openness that drives the growth of knowledge. 

We understand that civility is necessary for a productive conversation and recognize that some self-censorship is necessary. Taken too far though, civility can lead individuals to degrade the quality of discourse by making one too deferential to the majority opinion and unwilling to “rock the boat.”

When this happens, unpopular arguments are disallowed or crowded out. In groups that feel they have the moral high ground, heretics get cast out and a single unchallenged ideology prevails. In this instance, without any formal rule of censorship, censorship still takes place. 

For those who value associational life, including friendships and professional standing, it can be difficult to know when we are acting civilly and when we are caving to the pressure to conform. This dual effect of self-censorship makes it particularly difficult to navigate. 

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill by London Stereoscopic Company, c1870

Scholars seeking to do the right thing face two problems:

1) knowing whether self-censorship is appropriate in a given situation and 2) finding the virtue to do what is right once the proper course of action is known. The first problem is an epistemological challenge; the second is moral. 

In the face of public outrage, it can be hard for the scholar to know if their arguments are misguided, or if they are just hearing “noise of the faction.” It’s easy to understand why many would choose to retreat to self-censorship. This is why we must reinvigorate the liberal tradition calling for abrasion and civility in higher education.

To read Dr. Chamlee-Wright’s full article, view the December 2019 edition of Society. And read additional pieces by Dr. Chamlee-Wright and the Institute for Humane Studies at

See more posts: Civil DiscourseDebateIdeasIHS News 

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