I lived successively in two ostensibly free countries where self-censorship is prevalent: Hong Kong, where concern over the authoritarian Big Brother next door drives many journalists to limit or moderate their statements on certain subjects; and Hungary, where an triumphalist and populist government has pushed many opposition voices into resurrecting old Warsaw Pact habits of watching their backs and curbing their tongues. I know from experience that it works. And now it seems the Land of the Free is going the same way. At least according to a survey, “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor, conducted by the FDR Group on behalf of the PEN American Center.
“In October 2013, PEN partnered with independent researchers at the FDR Group to conduct a survey of over 520 American writers to better understand the specifc ways in which awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs infuences writers’ thinking, research, and writing,” reads the introduction to the survey. The survey found that 16 percent of its poll “have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic, and another 11 percent have seriously considered it,” due to awareness of NSA surveillance. More broadly, 28 percent “have curtailed or avoided social media activities, and another 12 percent have seriously considered doing so.”
As well as simply assuming by default that their communications are monitored, the writers contacted are apparently exercising self-censorship through “reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects; reluctance to pursue research about certain subjects; and reluctance to communicate with sources, or with friends abroad, for fear that they will endanger their counterparts by doing so.” The full report goes into considerable detail on the exact responses and actions of writers, and further statistical breakdown on the sample’s opinions.
It is possible that writers as a group are more aware of or sensitive to theses issues than the U.S. public as a whole: the survey found that 66 percent of its poll disapprove of “the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts” and only 12 percent approve; whereas for the U.S. general public, only 44 percent disapprove and 50 percent approve. However, writers are also precisely the group whose freedom of thought and speech is supposed to be most valuable to a society. It is also very possible that writers are being discouraged from researching on terrorism, foreign policy, security issues, or other topics where their contributions might be most valuable in tackling threats to the U.S. There is also no reason to assume that TeleRead’s writer audience are thinking or acting, or being affected, any differently. This presumably is making a direct difference to the writing lives of many of them.
I always assumed that Henry David Thoreau wrote On the Duty of Civil Disobedience on American soil for a reason. (And note that choice of word: Not right, but duty.) He wrote that it is “not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.” Looks like the nation of Thoreau has never had more need of him than now.