Greta Thunberg and the Problems with (Self-)Censorship

Greta Thunberg and the Problems with (Self-)Censorship

Greta Thunberg, aged 15, sits outside of Swedish Parliament in 2018 during the first solo school climate strike. A year later she's created a worldwide movement with millions.
Greta Thunberg sits outside Swedish Parliament, 2018, during her first solo climate strike. A year later, millions around the world are rallying with her.

This inspiring image is circulating of Greta Thunberg sitting alone outside the Swedish Parliament a year ago with a sign. This is being circulated alongside yesterday’s climate rallies, where millions around the world, led by young people, led by Greta Thunberg, rallied for climate change in an effort to try to get change on one of the biggest problems our planet faces.

We Can’t All Become Greta Thunberg—But We’ll Never Know If We Don’t Try

Too often we internalize this idea that our voices don’t matter.

That they can’t have an effect if we do speak up.

Worrying Over Losing People Who Disagree

We stew over the idea that the response, if we do speak up about something that will challenge people, will be wholly negative.

We get concerned that our speaking up will displease our families and friends—those providing us with emotional support, etc.

Why We Worry Over Potentially Losing People

These are the times when our “tend and befriend” stress response—which is a natural part of our stress responses—and our internalized fears of opposition and of failure can get in the way of potentially great success. (You can learn more about the different stress responses and how they affect conflict in my free “Guide to Trolls”–look for instructions toward the end of this article!)

This idea—that we restrain ourselves from speaking up out of fear, and good things never quite happen from our failure to act—is a form of self-sabotage called the self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is not magic. It is a psychological phenomenon that states that if you presume things are going to go poorly—or well—you will act in ways that make things actually go as you think they will.

And so our self-censorship often leads to us not following our values about speaking up for the vulnerable and oppressed.

Why Self-Censorship Isn’t the Whole Story

It’s a little more complex than that, of course—often, our fears of opposition, at least when it comes to those we know well, are based in deeply visceral knowledge that has often been trained into us that significant people we know are unlikely to take things well.

Let me say that again: Often we “self-censor” because we are socialized, always by others, that it is going to negatively affect our relationships, and therefore put us at risk somehow, if we dissent.

Let’s Be Honest—Not Every Relationship Will Survive or Thrive

Often we don’t speak up because we know it will disrupt those relationships.

And don’t get me wrong—that sucks. Because here’s the thing—some of these fears are true. Not as many as you think, mind you, but some of them are true.

BUT here’s the truth: in those relationships, it’s not an accident that many of us self-censor. In some abusive situations or particularly totalitarian regimes or in other kinds of literally dangerous situations, self-censorship literally is the smartest thing to do.

But in Other Situations? The Best Response to Bullies Is to Speak Up

The issue is this, though: lesser bullies, and bullies and abusers and authoritarians who have not yet gained full control, also try to convince us that they have full control over us, and that’s often just not true. Things usually take awhile to get to that point, and in those scenarios, speaking up can help break through the spiral of silence to show many that the bullies’ voices aren’t the only ones.

Often those people have trained us to believe that our survival, and even our morality, depends on not disrupting those relationships. Christian Nice enables this kind of message, which as I explained a few weeks ago explains why it enables covert abuse and authoritarianism alike.

In the case of those exploiting the planet, this particular message—that voicing dissent is the thing that would actually lead to disaster—involves drinking some major rhetorical kool-aid in order to ignore the problems climate change is wreaking and the human changes that could prevent it. I talked more about how that kool-aid rhetoric gets sold here.

And yet Christian Nice in too many cases would sadly argue that dissent is the immoral thing in all these cases—which of course props up the case of the abusers and exploiters and authoritarians. “Don’t Rock the Boat!” is too often how this ethos translates.  

How the Messages of the Unhealthy Peops Leads to (Self-)Censorship

And yes, the message of both authoritarians and covert abusers alike–with participants in the Nice subculture too often joining in–is that voicing dissent will lead to disaster. Both authoritarians and cover abusers alike often do their level best to ensure they will contribute to those self-fulfilling prophecies of the negative type about speaking up.

So yes, in those situations, negative self-fulfilling prophecies aren’t just about you. They are about those people who are subtly or unsubtly threatening to make things go poorly for you. These people like to believe, and are trying to persuade you, that they have all the control. That they CAN have all the control.

That if you speak up your life will really fall apart. That your social support will fall apart. And that there will be no one there to catch you once that happens.

It’s Never Just Self-Censorship—These Folks Contribute, Including the Nice Ones

Those who oppress, and systems and policies and rhetoric that oppress, both actively and passively contribute to that belief by trying to add stigma, putting lots of people into positions of genuine scarcity in these areas.

And Nice, whether the Christian variety or other kinds, tends to contribute by telling people it’s wrong to rock the boat, to pick a side and strongly speak up. Worst case: they actually participate in trying to make nice with the oppressors and believe the demonization that occurs of the people in positions of scarcity and their allies.

The Valid Fears that Emerge from These Interactions

The result is that often those people who are in those positions of genuine scarcity—usually the poor and marginalized—and those who sympathize with their plight fear what those oppressors and abusers can do. And they have a strong incentive not to speak up.

Because they have too often and too thoroughly seen what can happen.

Why Trauma and Burnout Make (Self-)Censorship More Likely

The problem, of course, is that this becomes a looping cycle that seeks to create trauma and burnout, both of which bring on cynical, negative views that change for the better can’t happen. Over time, they often also affect people’s self-esteems, contributing to jaundiced views of the world that make it difficult to believe that good things can happen.

Why Speaking Up Is Important Anyway

Pardon my French, but f*ck that.

I’m sooo grateful that Greta Thunberg, and so many other cases, prove that these negative beliefs simply are not inevitable. No person, no system, is that powerful that speaking up and organizing in response may not have an impact for change.

My Experiences Defying External/Internalized Negative Beliefs with This Project

Just look at this site. I had been dreaming of creating a project that spoke into the problems surrounding how the Nice subculture holds us back from living by our beliefs for several years. I had worked my way through to a PhD in Communication. I had the credentials, I had the research saying that assertiveness is often about stubbornly refusing to giving in to the bullies.

I fully believed with my head, for years, that allowing others and even ourselves to bully us out of speaking up was not great morality.

But I had been so thoroughly trained up by Christian Nice that it was hard for me to believe, or to speak up out of my values, at the visceral level (those viscera can be sooo hard to manage!).

What It Took for Me to Start this Project

I am sad to report that even with all my expertise I had to limit contact with someone close to me in order to start this site. And as I’ve discussed before, my visceral Christian Nice instincts were correct that starting to speak up like this hasn’t had a fully positive impact on all of my relationships.

The Results Were MUCH Better than the Picture My Fear Painted

But here’s what I’ve learned in just under a year and a half of doing this—beyond those particular impacts, and having to deal with some rough spates of dealing with rafts of trolls during particularly controversial subjects, the positive results have FAR outweighed the risks in starting this project.

Yes, I’ve weakened or lost a few relationships. But I have gained my voice, started to live out my values properly, and thankfully a large group of people have gathered here (in less than a year and a half, it’s edging up closer than I would have thought to 10,000 on the Facebook page now!) who are interested in the cause I’m promoting here—the cause of speaking up against the toxic crap and working toward a healthier world.

That success is not something I take full credit for, by a long shot–I hate the toxic crap in the world that makes the message so valuable to people—but I’m incredibly grateful that what I say has helped in the way I can help.

The Work Was and Is Worth It

And I do know this—had I not done the hard emotional work of getting past my inner and external censors, it would have never happened.  

It’s been a struggle at times, this project—both externally and within. But it’s been sooo worth it. It’s funny considering what I study, but I never envisioned how much this project would generate it’s own sources of encouragement and support to help me through the negative parts of the responses. (That’s the ongoing damaging effects of the Christian Nice training–it’s a persistent thing, unfortunately!)

Living By Our Values Is Worthwhile

The truth is this: if we say vaguely we care about people who are being abused and oppressed, it causes us a tremendous amount of internal stress to live that out. I have been teaching students for years, and have found out myself that actually speaking up on behalf of my values has actually reduced my stress overall.

I know from the research and from experience both that being willing to speak up for what is right, on behalf of the abused and the oppressed, may make you some enemies, and cause some stress. But speaking up, especially when you have the conflict management tools to deal with the opposition the best you can, will also relieve it.

My goal with this project is to offer you as many of those research- and experience-based tools and resources as possible.

I know this: speaking up will lose you some relationships but gain you other healthier relationships. And

There Is Always Risk—But Good Things Can Happen as Well!

And who knows? It’s possible things won’t work out well—not everything does. But I know this—on this site, at least, many of the negative things I’ve feared have simply not happened to the extent that I feared. And we can see the same with Greta Thunberg.

Speaking Up Against Bullies Is a Healthy—and Spiritual—Thing to Do

What I know is this: it is outside my values system to let the bullies and abusers and authoritarians have the loudest voices. And it completely riles me when leaders in spiritual communities promoting love are complicit with them by convincing us that accommodation is the highest form of spirituality.

This is what drives me to speak up. I believe with all my heart that I am being steadfastly moral when I speak up against oppression and abuse and complicity with that, wherever I find it. I realize that it a complex proposition, and that it is also moral to use all the other conflict styles as well.

Join Us!

But I believe it is my job to speak up, and to help others have the resources to combat both the internal and external forces stopping them from living by their values. I hope you’ll join me in continuing to follow the lead of a young person, Greta Thunberg, and others she has inspired through her facing down the unhealthy systems—and be unafraid to speak up for the common good, if that is something in your ability right now.

(I hear someone once said that a little child would lead them!)

Looking for Resources?

Looking for more help speaking up and dealing with the conflict that will result? Sign up for our email newsletter in the top bar or by commenting on this or any other article and confirm your email and we’ll send you a link to the free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” in the final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but I hope you’ll stick around for our weekly newsletters notifying you of new blog posts and other news about the project. I’m working on some plans for more resources in the future, so stay in touch, both there and over on our Facebook page!

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! None of this is a cake walk, but let’s keep doing what we can where we are with what we’ve got to make a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing!

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3 thoughts on “Greta Thunberg and the Problems with (Self-)Censorship

  1. Love this & so excited to see Greta’s powerful voice.
    Send me the the guide to online trolls. I think I must have defeated it by mistake. Thanks & I am always stirred up by your articles. Gloria Green

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