Voluntary Censorship

by Dorian Minors

September 8, 2021

Analects  |  Newsletter


Noam Chompsky and co-author Edward S. Herman developed a propaganda model of the media, a model which describes how the media ‘manufactures’ our ‘consent’—manipulating us into adopting a convenient set of ideologies. But they left one out. One we apply to ourselves.

Our education bestows on us a 'common sense' that narrows our vision to only those things that 'can be said'. We censor ourselves and, as a result, have a schizoprenic approach to important issues.

Noam Chompsky and co-author Edward S. Herman developed a propaganda model of the media, a model which describes how the media ‘manufactures’ our ‘consent’—manipulating us into adopting a convenient set of ideologies. But they left one out. One we apply to ourselves.

Their thesis is that the information that makes its way to us is necessarily filtered. Not always by intent, but rather by the pressures attendant on producing the information in the first place, to wit:

  1. The cost of doing business. To own and run any media production organisation requires an intimate relationship with the market. One needs money, and to gain money you need a market-orientation. This, very often, narrows the sources of information to mostly large companies with the most capital, as well as a market-friendly bias on the content of that information;

  2. The sources of income determine the message for media outlets big and small. Audiences need to be attracted, through subscription or to view and purchase advertised goods. The best audiences, therefore, have money. This encourages some news to be emphasised and some news to be ignored. We have to keep our buyers in a ‘buying mood’;

  3. Information is costly to obtain. Smaller organisations rely on larger ones to produce content, and all rely on government sources and sources backed by powerful interests. This means that not only is information filtered according to the interests of large companies, it’s also pre-filtered by governments and powerful interest groups;

  4. Negative response to media, from letters to legal action, influences the media narrative, particularly when these responses are issued from well-resourced organisations backed by powerful interests whose motives are rarely questioned; and

  5. Finally, much media focuses on ‘fear the enemy’ narratives at the expense of less biased coverage. In part this is because the other filters permit this manipulation, but also because it generates income.

The forgotten filter: the one we apply ourselves

But in a recent interview, Chompsky noted a sixth filter “which we didn’t actually discuss in our book”. This filter is that described by George Orwell in his surpressed introduction to the book Animal Farm:

The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban … [a] kind of veiled censorship [that] operates in [the press,] books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it … Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

George Orwell is describing an effect of what Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony—a dominant set of cultural norms or ideology imposed by the ruling class on a diverse society which manipulates their systems of belief, values, and explanations about the world.

Specifically, Orwell is pointing at the hegemonic ‘common sense’—a sense of ‘the way things are’ applied by people within a society as a coping mechanism. To explain their place within the social strata of society as the status quo, and by doing so inhibiting their ability to sense the nature of their exploitation within a larger system of more powerful pressures.

Chompsky uses this filter of Orwell’s to describe media attitudes towards the climate crisis:

if you look at the New York Times … there’s a pretty good article on the new discoveries on the melting of the polar ice caps which happens to be, as usual, more drastic than the (earlier) estimates … it discusses the probable impact on sea level rise, albeit conservatively, given how dramatic it has obviously been … it’s not that global warming is ignored. On the other hand, if you look at a standard article on oil exploration, the New York Times can have a big front page article on how the U.S. is moving towards what they call energy independence, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia in fossil fuel production, opening up new areas, Wyoming, the Midwest, for fracking. They do a long article, maybe 1,000 words … it will mention environmental consequences, it may harm the local water resources for ranchers, but literally not a word on the effect on global warming … And that happens in article after article in every outlet … the science reporters are occasionally saying look, ‘this is a catastrophe,’ but then the regular coverage simply disregards it, and says, ‘well, isn’t this wonderful, we won’t have to import oil, we’ll be more powerful,’ and so on … It’s a kind of schizophrenia, and it runs right through society

Chompsky isn’t wrong. Our common sense intuitions of the world are necessarily limited by the world we inhabit. But also, in combination with the media filters Chompksy and Herman discuss, our common sense intuitions are increasingly directed in antagonistic directions. Our common sense is more and more a common sense about how absurd some other ‘side’ is.

A recent example comes to mind of the articles around race education. After the George Floyd protests, advice columns to ‘white allies’ were a popular subject. In these articles we are treated to choice quotes like this:

For instance, some aspiring allies have increased their ability to stay calm by listening to conservative media for two minute micro-bursts and then working up to entire 15 minute news blocks.

Two. Minute. Micro. Bursts. Because conservative media engenders that much rage. I’ve talked at length about how this kind of messaging completely undermines the effort to ‘educate white allies’. But it truly does indicate just how dominant our cultural common sense can be. So dominant that media communicating anti-hegemonic ideas requires two minute micro-bursts lest our poor minds shatter under the weight of our infuriation.

The outrage or cancel culture determines a great number of the things we think about. It determines, for example, the kinds of psychic predators that prey on us. Once Trump. Now the pandemic of the unvaccinated. It determines the kind of media we will, not simply listen to, but merely tolerate to exist. Some kind of perversion of Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance has us scrubbing both people and companies off the face of the internet.

This kind of behavioural is obviously problematic. I’m not sure how many people I interact with truly think these things are going in a positive direction. But, demonstrating the same kind of schizophrenic attitude as we do to the climate crisis, I also don’t see anyone doing anything about it. We make uneasy Twitter posts about the digital annihilation of Parler, then follow that up by denouncing some heterodox thinker.

And the source of this uncomfortable cognitive tension is, as Chompsky notes:

just essentially a good education. You go on to the best schools, graduate from Oxford and Cambridge, and you just have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say — and you don’t even think about it any more … you just don’t talk about it. And that’s a big factor, how these things simply become internalized. People who bring them up sound like crazies.


It seems unlikely that we’re going to fix the education system. It might not even be a desirable place to focus our attention in light of the other pressing issues we face in the current age. But our education is a filter. And our education doesn’t stop after we leave the school gates. Every article we read, every podcast we consume, these things reinforce the cultural hegemony and narrow our common sense.

The solution is simple enough. Listen to some different shit.

Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.

Malcolm X

If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing

Malcolm X

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

Join over 2000 of us. Get the newsletter.