Breaking the Habit of Self-Censorship
A few weeks back, my partner entered into a guest blog entry contest for the Art of Nonconformity. The contest was rather open-ended, but in general, the point was to offer something supportive towards the practicality of being a non-conformist, being true to yourself, or dealing with the awkwardness that can come with living the unconventional life. Oddly enough, my partner recommended that I submit an entry as well. Sadly, we were sharing one computer at the time and as such my idea was shelved.
I wrote back in my manifesto my belief that weirdness, non-conformity, oddity is something we all have to one degree or another. That deep inside, no one naturally fits 100% perfectly the narrow box we imagine when we appeal to the “norm” and that which is “normal”. And it’s even more important to note that many of the people desperately trying to fit in the box do not find the pursuit and performance to bring them any form of happiness.
Non-conformity and, in a larger aspect, happiness itself are byproducts, remnants of simply being true to oneself, of living the life you truly have. It is the result of escaping the self-shame of having to act against yourself.
While this may seem easy, it obviously isn’t. If it truly were, there wouldn’t be agonizing stories of queer folks clinging to closet doors, family men destroying themselves and the people they claim to love the most striving to fit a fictional patriarchal ideal, minority children growing up with a firm belief that they are less than and less valued than other children. There wouldn’t need to be blogs about non-conformity if the power of conformity wasn’t so strong, if it really was so easy to just be yourself without shame.
So what are the blocks to successful self-expression?
Well some of them are in fact institutional. I will not deny that discrimination against minority groups doesn’t exist, that prejudice can affect all manner of decisions from hiring to banking to how you’re treated in stores, on the job, on the streets. Nor will I deny the very real actual censorship faced by many who write of their experiences by so-called mainstream publishers, media figures, critics, and “family organizations”. And I certainly won’t deny the heavy tactic of terrorism wrought against minority groups or other “wierdos” in the form of hate crimes and targeted assaults and murders.
All of these are unfortunately common and real as is the desperate fear triggered in those who cling most fervently to conformity when they encounter the very real options open to the truly free. No one wants to face that they have made the “wrong choice” especially if the reasons involved were ones of fear or ignorance of the choices available. Still others believe themselves “too old” to start over and resent the young for the freedoms they feel themselves excluded from. Still others are simply afraid of losing the automatic deference of privilege and fear losing an easy method by which to be “better” than someone else.
But most of the blocks come in how we interact with these forces. Discrimination, hatred, active opponents all exist, but they aren’t a 100% sort of thing. Violent angry defenders of the status quo will rail, mock, and expunge their venom at all they see as alien, but they are hardly everyone, nor is everyone a fervent ally.
In a society like ours, in fact in most societies for most issues, it’s about 10% right bastards, 10% fervent revolutionaries for good, and 80% largely indifferent.
Where we go wrong oftentimes in living an unconventional life is in assuming the ubiquity of the conformist, that most who conform or seem to conform agree with the loudest, most assholic and violent of detractors. That the world is openly hostile on an universal level rather than mostly ignorant.
But that isn’t true.
The world is far less malign than we assume and most people’s responses to change or novelty isn’t out and out hatred. In truth, even those who seem nervous are most nervous of what “others would say” than the reality of the person in front of them. And that affects even the one standing there.
But it has been critical for those who defend the status quo to make it seem so. It has been critical in order to inject into “common knowledge” the idea that some topics are taboo, some things are less worthy of respect, some people are less honest or less worthy than others that some people’s opinions (those who conform) are the only one’s whose “really matter”.
And in many ways, those who transgress in one form or another have learned those lessons often painfully in adolescence and have learned to subconsciously engage in a specific type of behavior conforming those worldviews.
That behavior is self-censorship.
And I don’t just mean by that, the self-censorship of the closet or even the self-censorship wherein we try and self-deceive ourselves into conforming. Those are both self-censorship of a terrible degree, but I am more addressing something even more universal, that which feeds into a sort of world where the previous examples could exist. I am talking about the self-censorship of language and basic actions, of automatically every day privileging “normal” or “acceptable” over true expression.
And it really is something we all do without thinking about it. For all those who love “untraditionally” with a same-sex partner or a differently raced partner or multiple partners or even with a partner with a disabled, how often have we found ourselves “double-checking” before engaging in any form of PDA with our partners? How often have we hesitated before even giving the name of our partner or in introducing them? How often do we find ourselves hesitating about “how much we should reveal” before talking about some domestic situation? Before we open our mouths, we have already accepted two lies of our greatest enemies, that:
1) Our lives are inherently weird, awkward, and unwelcome in light conversation or even in reality
2) That our conversation partner would agree with statement 1 and finds your revelation of the most basic and banal to be an imposition.
And this really isn’t true. But it can become true if we all believe it to be true and in fact, it seems more true every time we hesitate and pause and even more when we censor the conversation out entirely.
We can see how a culture of deference to a tiny minority and a mass crisis of self-censorship has led to a total rhetorical surrender to the frames of the “conforming” opponents.
Over 1/3 of all women in this country have had or will have an abortion in the US. Even more will have faced unwanted pregnancies or a pregnancy scare that has put them close to making that decision. It is the most performed surgery in the US.
Yet we believe it is “legal and rare”. We accept the illusion that when we speak of abortion in this country we are not talking about something affecting us or our loved ones, when most likely you or a close relative has already had one.
Because the millions of women in America who have had abortions have felt pushed under a cloud of silence and self-censorship about their actions. That it wasn’t right to talk about their medical operations, that it was untoward or would lower their esteem in their friends’ or parteners’ eyes. That, in short, everyone shares the viscous women-hating beliefs of the tiny minority of active anti-choicers.
But that’s just one simple example, we can also see the pernicious work of self-censorship in even issues where no violent reprisals or terrorism has occurred. Such as the “common knowledge” that degrees in humanities in college are worth less or are somehow “easier” than those in the sciences and economics. It’s part of a similar common knowledge which also pushes the narrative that anything involving the humanities is thus worth less than anything involving science and math. That everything from poetry and philosophy and history to jobs directly involving that knowledge like publishing, professional writer, museum historian are worth less than an engineer or a biologist.
And we have accepted that state and let it define how we approach our life choices in that delicate time early in college and after. How many humanities majors preface explaining their major with a statement saying how they’ll never find a job. How many more let it impair their actual job search or in putting down or not revealing actually interesting jobs for fear of looking “unserious”?
I may be a biologist, but I enjoy my job. I’m doing something I love, something that won’t make me tons of money, but something related to a field I’ve been obsessed with since college. And yet people will assume I’m more employable, that I’ll be earning more money. They don’t even fully believe it, but the trope has become easier to say than any truth. A formality.
My partner is a poet seeking her MFA in poetry. Yet even after being employed more gainfully than I have, even after seeing for herself that the conformist business world has more direct use for the reading, communication, thought process, and comprehension skillsets of the humanities majors, still feels that there is something wrong with her pursuit. That daring to follow something she enjoys will leave her penniless and unemployable. That pursuing a career she will enjoy somehow will make her less serious and focused than someone who stumbles into conformity.
And when she does this, she unwittingly is accepting an odd frame. One wherein being more employable, creative, spirited, and driven makes you less likely to find a job. Where doing something you love is doing something wrong. That people should want nothing more to be a cog in the machine.
Think about that. We all assume that there is a big huge they out there disapproving of something as intrinsic to life as how we want to spend the rest of our days if we don’t spend it miserable.
And really has anyone met a majority of people that really think that. Oh some people may rattle off the “common knowledge” or worry what some others may think, but how many more respond in jealousy and awe when you describe a job that’s actually interesting?
It’s really quite a lot. Most people would want to spend their lives doing something they love. Certainly we have all expressed jealousy and desire for jobs that have sounded awesome. And for all those jobs, the people who have them did so because they broke away from the common wisdom and did something they actually enjoyed. They followed their own dreams and desires for their life and didn’t let the shame of trying something new keep them down.
They are essentially on the road of a journey that begins with the simple step of standing up where you transgress and stating what you are.
Where you find yourself dropping your clapsed hands when you see another couple coming your way, give your sweetie a kiss. Where you find yourself apologizing for having a weird desire or job or major, stand up loudly and tell them some of the really exciting things you are learning or doing. Where you find yourself getting quiet about a racy conversation when a “family” approaches, talk as usual.
WIth each self-expression, with each deliberate resistance of the habit of self-censorship, you’ll find yourself more confident, more assured, more comfortable with yourself as yourself.
And with that, you’ll feel yourself become more natural. More and more aspects of yourself will reveal themselves and you’ll be able to express them and explore them without fear.
And on that path, one can find not only a non-conventional life, but the true source of happiness.
Good luck fellow freaks and if any want to take the opportunity to practice in the comments, you have my full support and full promise of absolutely zero judgment or other conformist bullshit.