THR Web Features   /   December 14, 2023

Self-Censorship and Don Quixote

Bringing prudential judgment back in.

Alan Jacobs

( The Lion, illustration for Don Quixote, 1902, by William Strang, National Galleries of Scotland.)

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Musa al-Gharbi and Cory Clark on academic censorship. One major theme of the article concerns self-censorship by scientists concerned that their findings, or even their mere inquiries, could prove politically controversial. Here’s a key passage:

Depending on the issue being discussed, between 6 percent and 36 percent of faculty members supported soft punishment (condemnation, investigations) for peers who make controversial claims, with higher support among younger, more left-leaning, and female academics. Thirty-four percent of professors had been pressured by peers to avoid controversial research; 25 percent reported being “very” or “extremely” likely to self-censor in academic publications; and 91 percent reported being at least somewhat likely to self-censor in academic publications, meetings, presentations, or on social media.

“Many academics,” the authors continue, “self-censor to protect themselves—not just because they’re concerned about preserving their jobs, but also out of a desire to be liked, accepted, and included within their disciplines and institutions, or because they don’t wish to create problems for their advisees.”

I think the authors are absolutely right to call attention to this problem, but I think they are wrong to call it “self-censorship,” even though that is a commonly used term. I don’t believe that self-censorship is an intelligible concept, which is to say: There ain’t no such thing.

“Censor” is a peculiar word: It is both verb and noun, both action and actor. In ancient Rome, a magistrate called the censor—Cato the Elder is a famous one—was responsible for protecting public morals against those who would degrade them. The act of censoring is itself doubled, future-oriented in that it forbids certain speech acts and past-oriented in that it punishes transgressions of its standards. Careful users of the English language will use censor to refer to the prohibitions and censure to refer to the punishments. The entire business is legal or administrative, though the relevant administrators may not be government agents but rather custodians of some other institution: a university, a publisher, a professional organization.

Al-Gharbi and Clark say that scholars “attempt to suppress findings”—that is, to censor them, by preventing them from being published or by withdrawing them from publication—“because they view them as incorrect, misleading, or potentially dangerous. Sometimes scientists try to quash public dissent of contentious issues for fear that it undermines public trust or scientific authority, as happened at various points during the COVID-19 pandemic.” In some cases, the authors of the censored works will be censured, possibly by some word of reprimand, in some cases by dismissal from their job or an organization they belong to. 

What people call “self-censorship” is something wholly different. It is neither legal nor administrative, neither governmental nor organizational. It is a prudential judgment by an individual—typically the prudential judgment that publishing on certain controversial topics, or even researching such topics, may lead to censorship or censure by figures in authority: by administrators, or the editors of periodicals, or one’s colleagues, or one’s disciplinary peers. Such prudential judgments get called “self-censorship” because they are always made with censorship in mind, but to conflate the two things is, I think, a category error.

The question to be asked about censorship is whether it is just; the question to be asked about prudential judgments conducted in light of potential censoring or censuring is whether they are in fact prudent, or … something else.

In the second part of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (Chapter XVII), our hero stops a wagon-driver and demands to know what is in his wagon. Lions, he is told: “two fierce lions in cages that the General of Oran is sending to court as a present for His Majesty.” Hearing this, Don Quixote demands that the keeper release the lions so that he may fight them. He is certain that they have been sent to torment him, sent by the enchanters who always pursue and afflict him. The keeper is not easily persuaded, but, largely because he’s afraid of this lunatic, agrees. He opens the cages, and the lions are sleepy and comfortable, and choose to stay where they are.

This whole business is closely observed by a man called Don Diego de Miranda, who is not sure what to make of this strange “knight.” And Don Diego is further surprised when Don Quixote approaches him and says, in calm and rational tones, “Who can doubt, Señor Don Diego de Miranda, that in the opinion of your grace I am a foolish and witless man?” After all, he agrees, “my actions do not attest to anything else.” But, he says, Don Diego does not perceive the full picture. He is Don Quixote de la Mancha, a knight-errant, he says, and he continues with this remarkable speech:

“I, then, since it is my fortune to be counted in the number of knights errant, cannot help but attack all things that seem to me to fall within the jurisdiction of my endeavors; and so, it was my rightful place to attack the lions which I now attacked, although I knew it was exceedingly reckless, because I know very well what valor means; it is a virtue that occupies a place between two wicked extremes, which are cowardice and temerity, but it is better for the valiant man to touch on and climb to the heights of temerity than to touch on and fall to the depths of cowardice; and just as it is easier for the prodigal to be generous than the miser, it is easier for the reckless man to become truly brave than for the coward; and in the matter of undertaking adventures, your grace may believe me, Señor Don Diego, it is better to lose with too many cards than too few, because ‘This knight is reckless and daring’ sounds better to the ear of those who hear it than ‘This knight is timid and cowardly.’”

I know very well what valor means. Don Quixote here shows himself a good student of Thomas Aquinas in his understanding of virtue (or anyway all virtues other than the theological ones of faith, hope, and love). Every virtue “occupies a place between two wicked extremes,” between two vices. True valor requires a certain prudence—it is not virtuous to throw away one’s life carelessly—but prudence taken too far becomes timidity. Moreover, Don Quixote judges that his particular vocation requires him to err on the one side rather than the other. And Don Diego warmly agrees: “Señor Don Quixote, … I say that everything your grace has said and done has been balanced on the scale of reason itself, and I understand that if the code and laws of knight-errantry were ever lost, they would be found again in your grace’s heart as if they were in their own repository and archive.”

Scientists in today’s academy are not knights-errant, and need not balance the scales in quite the same way that Don Quixote does. But courage is a virtue—both a personal and an intellectual virtue. This is not to say that the scientist working on controversial topics must act without caution, must care nothing for career or reputation or family. That would be reckless, and recklessness is a vice. But we should remain aware that every vice has its counterpart: Presumption is opposed to despair, rigidity to flaccidity, and recklessness to timidity. When one is deciding whether to research or publish something potentially controversial, the language of “self-censorship” removes the question from the moral realm in which it properly belongs. It is to describe in legal or administrative language what should be seen as a matter of virtue and vice. And framing the issue properly is the first step toward addressing it.