The most effective form of censorship is self-censorship. And one of the unique Soviet phenomena of cancel culture is the liberal intellectual essay which bemoans cancel culture censorship and then never gets around to saying what the author is suppressing herself from speaking out about.
The latest case in point is a voluminous Atlantic essay by Sarah Hepola which details at great length how she and fellow liberal writers have had to censor themselves.
“But admitting what I really thought, what I really believed about these complicated issues, I feared a similar exile. As jobs in the industry diminished, journalism had become even more cutthroat,” she writes.
“Everyone kept quiet (save for the brave few who did not). My writer friends and I huddled backstage at panels in green rooms filled with chocolate-chip cookies and veggie platters, whispering about everything we couldn’t say out there, in the scary beyond,” she goes on.
“Back in 2015, I was putting out my first book, and then I was promoting that book, and then I was struggling to write a second book, and I could not risk the personal and professional blowback that might accompany stepping into the wrong lane. I’d long considered myself a liberal and a feminist, but I’d grown terrified of being banished for views I considered reasonable, or at least worth discussing—but maybe, but what about, but actually. Every day, I scrolled the endless river of outrage and all-caps, watching people express similar views to mine only to be pounced upon. Once-celebrated writers were being publicly rebranded as ghoulish, pieces of trash, red-pilled. The unwritten rule of elite media tribes seemed to be this: You spout the company line, or you shut up. And that’s why, midway through a career built on speaking out, I shut up.”
And, in this essay, Hepola for the most part has still shut up. What is it that she can’t say?
“From 2015 to 2021, my private conversations were some of the best I’ve ever had. Taboo subjects have always been delectable, but suddenly we were living in a time when so much that was once considered fair game for discussion (education, biological differences, the benefits of policing) had become dangerous. Phone dates with writer friends in other parts of the country stretched to two and three hours as we worked out essays we would never write, toggling between outrage, despair, and armchair cultural analysis of the latest dustup.”
That’s the closest that Hepola gets to addressing what taboo subjects might be getting censored. Beyond that it’s her focus on whether sex between two drunk adults should always be treated as the fault of the man.
That’s the only issue she will cop to having a more complex take on and it’s an issue that she had already aired in public.
I sympathize. As a conservative writer, I’m unemployable outside the movement. Liberals and lefties, when canceled, turn to conservatives because that becomes their only market. Hepola’s essay is about her fear, rather than the views she’s afraid of expressing, but that feels like an assertion of victimhood rather than courage. Is writing about fear really meaningful in and of itself? How many more essays will there be about fear rather than ideas?
It reminds me of the old Soviet anecdote. A man goes to a dentist. The dentist tells him to open wide. He says, “But I’m afraid to open my mouth.”