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Censorship from Left and Right – by bell hooks

Below is an excerpt from bell hooks’ 1994 essay “Censorship from Left and Right”

“In the early years of contemporary feminist movement, solidarity between women was often equated with the formation of “safe” spaces where groups of presumably like-minded women could come together, sharing ideas and experiences without fear of silencing or rigorous challenges. Groups sometimes disintegrated when the speaking of diverse opinions led to contestation, confrontation, and out-and-out conflict. It was common for individual dissenting voices to be silenced by the collective demand for harmony. Those voices were at times punished by exclusion and ostracization. Before it became politically acceptable to discuss issues of race and racism within feminist circles, I was one of those “undesirable” dissenting voices. Always a devout advocate of feminist politics, I was, and am, also constantly interrogating, and if need be, harsh in my critique. I learned powerful lessons from hanging in there, continuing to engage in feminist movement even when that involvement was not welcomed. Significantly, I learned that any progressive political movement grows and matures only to the degree that it passionately welcomes and encourages, in theory and practice, diversity of opinion, new ideas, critical exchange, and dissent.

This remains true for feminist movement; it is not less true for black liberation struggle. In the heyday of civil rights struggle, black power movement folks were often “excommunicated” if they did not simply support the party line. This was also the case in white male-dominated “left” political circles. Censorship of dissenting voices in progressive circles often goes unnoticed. Radical groups are often so small that it is easy to punish folks using tactics that may not be apparent to those outside the group.Usually, repression is enforced by powerful members of the group threatening punishment, the most common being some form of ostracization or excommunication.  This may take the form of no longer including an individual’s thoughts or writing in relevant discussions, especially publication, or excluding individuals from important meetings and conferences. And in some cases it may take the form of a consistent, behind-the-scenes effort to cast doubt verbally on their credibility.

Marginalized groups often fear that dissent, especially if it is expressed in public critique, will play into the hands of dominating forces and undermine support for progressive causes. Throughout the history of black struggle against racism there has been, and continues to be, major disagreement over whether or not we should rigorously critique one another publicly, especially in racially integrated contexts. Efforts to censor surface whenever marginalized groups are overly concerned with presenting a “positive” image to the dominant group.


As a professor, I continually witness fear on the part of students to express themselves openly and freely. This fear is usually motivated by the concern that their peers will not like what they say, and that this will lead to some form of social punishment. Their willingness to self-censor in the interest of being liked, of being held in high regard by their peers, as well as their often profound fear of conflict, always indicts the notion that our classrooms are a place where the democratic assertion of free speech is possible. Professors will never create a learning community where students can understand the importance of free speech and exercise their rights to speak openly and freely if we lack the courage to fully embrace free speech. The same holds true for progressive political groups.

When repression via censorship becomes the norm in progressive political circles, we not only undermine our collective struggles to end domination, we act in complicity with that brand of contemporary, chic fascism that evokes romantic images of unity and solidarity, a return to traditional values, while working to deny free speech and suppress all forms of rebellious thought and action. In recent years, feminist thinkers have fought long and hard to make feminist thinking, theorizing, and practice a radical space of openness where  critical dialogue can take place. Much of that struggle has been waged by women of color, beginning with the conflict over whether or not to see issues or face and racism as feminist agendas.

Feminist movement, black liberation struggle, and all our progressive political movements to end domination must work to protect free speech. To maintain the space for constructive contestation and confrontation, we must oppose censorship. We remember the pain of silence and work to sustain our power to speak—freely, openly, provocatively.”

Full essay here.


One comment on “Censorship from Left and Right – by bell hooks

  1. Radical is as radical does.

    The concerns of women of color are central to radical feminism. The concerns of white women are on the periphery of those concerns, and when the concerns of women of color are adequately addressed, the concerns of white women will also have been resolved.

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