Review

Freedom of Inexpression

Photo: Kristina Flour on Unsplash.

For any person with a minimum of political awareness, it has become clear that our expression and thoughts, even our very existence today is caught in an inextricable net of prohibitions that ends up being an attack on life itself, and, in fine, on the inner life. The destruction of the inner life, as the French writer Georges Bernanos reminds us, is the ultimate goal of modern civilization.

In her brilliant essay, Anne-Sophie Chazaud, a French journalist and columnist for Le Figaro, Front Populaire, and Marianne, dismantles the systemic character of the censures we are subjected to today. We are facing institutionalized censures coming from the top—which are the laws and decrees on opinion and expression. But the governments—or the GAFA companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon—are not the only perpetrators of censorship. Individuals now have a role to play, by being transformed into infinite relays of a new kind of thought police. It is no longer the all-powerful totalitarian state that presides over censorship, but society itself as a whole, where everyone watches everyone else and vice versa. The COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying measures of social control accentuated this phenomenon in a dramatic way. The agents of the State—police officers, administrative personnel—delegated their power to private individuals, from the neighbor to the restaurant owner, in charge of making the new social order respected. 

The consequence of this situation is startling: censorship soon gives way to self-censorship, which becomes second nature and a deeply internalized habit. It is no longer a question of daring to speak out, but of keeping quiet and displaying a facade of consensus, and of keeping one’s contestations for the very restricted circle of the home, and sometimes even of keeping them to oneself—in the face of the galloping degradation of social relations, including within families. 

The overall quality of intellectual and political debate is inevitably affected. With a generalized self-censorship, which is necessary to avoid any contradiction with the dominant narrative, it becomes very difficult to simply express different points of view in a conversation. Conflict in any exchange is now considered an infamy, almost a moral fault. Oppositional argument is systematically rejected and condemned because it would undermine the peaceful consensus that has taken the place of a collective project and identity. Consequently, the very possibility of refining thought through confrontation, the search for truth disappears, leading to the progressive death of the interior conscience. 

The current crisis gives particular relief to the analysis of Anne-Sophie Chazaud. One will find in this work well-known themes, but skillfully renewed. Chazaud is a free and fine spirit—furiously rare in these times—with an alert pen and style, which is a real pleasure.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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