Thoughts Concerning “Repression of Discourse”


thoughts concerning ‘repression of discourse’

Thoughts Concerning “Repression of Discourse”

by Roger W. Smith

“There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” — Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction



I was present at an after hours dinner at a Manhattan restaurant with colleagues at the office where I was working several years ago. Somehow, in the context of the conversation, I felt it was relevant and apropos to mention something I had recently read about racial stereotyping. I think it was something about false assumptions that underlie racial stereotyping and how this affects the terminology used to designate ethnic and racial origins and racial categories — I can’t quite recall.

The table fell silent. No one would say a word and the topic was dropped — they weren’t going to touch it with a ten foot pole. It was as if they had seen a ghost.

Perhaps one might say, this sounds rather complicated. Perhaps your listeners didn’t know what to say because they didn’t understand. I don’t believe that this was the case.

I think what was going on was what a psychiatrist would call repression — what, in this case, I would perhaps call “social repression” or “repression of discourse.” Psychological repression is defined in a Wikipedia article as follows:

Psychological repression, or simply repression, is the psychological attempt made by an individual to direct one’s own desires and impulses toward pleasurable instincts by excluding the desire from one’s consciousness and holding or subduing it in the unconscious. In psychoanalytic theory repression plays a major role in many mental illnesses, and in the psyche of the average person [italics added].

Repression (German: Verdrängung), a key concept of psychoanalysis, is a defense mechanism, but it pre-exists the ego, e.g., Primal Repression. It ensures that what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, which would arouse anxiety if recalled, is prevented from entering into it and is generally accepted as such by psychoanalytic psychologists.



I feel that, as stated above, “repression of discourse” is the operative term to describe how my attempt to contribute to the conversation with my work colleagues was received. By this I mean that one cannot talk about some topics in “public” discourse. By “public,” I mean here to convey the idea of a conversation which occurs outside the home, for example with coworkers, in a school, or at a reception. I am not thinking of public forums such as political speeches or commencement addresses, although it is undoubtedly the case that strictures that apply to conversations in the workplace, say, often do apply equally to public speeches and pronouncements, and probably to advertising and the media.

What do I mean by “strictures that apply to conversations”? Topics that are taboo.

One of these topics is race. The topic seems to have become completely taboo in polite discourse; it cannot be brought up outside the home. Hence my experience at the dinner with coworkers.

In present day America, one cannot admit to having some prejudices (undisclosed ones), while it is the case, I would aver, that no one in actuality is free of them. Sometimes, it seems that one can’t even discuss the topic of prejudice itself, unless one’s PC credentials have been established beforehand and the person is making a sanctioned statement, such as someone protesting or inveighing publicly against racism.



Subsequent to the dinner with my coworkers, I got to thinking about what I have clumsily termed “repression of discourse” and how it operates. Having experienced it, in this case, with regard to the topic of race, I got to thinking about what some other taboo topics might be. I started running possible scenarios through my mind.

What if, at the same dinner with my office colleagues, I had said: “Did I ever tell you about my favorite pornographic films? I love the genre of ______” (you name it: girl on girl, films depicting anal or oral sex, bondage, etc., etc.)? Or perhaps I might have said, without naming a specific type of sex act or perversion, “What are some of your all time favorite porno movies? I saw a great one in my hotel room on my last [business] trip to _______.” Think this conversational salvo would fly and be eagerly picked up by my dinner partners?

Or to go to even more ridiculous extremes, say that I introduce in a social setting/occasion, business lunch, or whatever the topic of masturbation and discuss, say, masturbatory practices by me at some time or other in my past or present life (e.g., “I usually prefer to masturbate at bedtime. How about you?”). Think that would fly?

Of course not.

Don’t worry. I am not planning to discuss nor have I ever been guilty of discussing such topics in such situations. But I was thinking, what is it that makes some topics unacceptable to introduce in all but perhaps the most private conversations, and then only in a specific context and at a sanctioned time, so to speak?



It is a social convention, a given, that some topics are out of bounds in polite conversation, which perhaps is (or, perhaps I should say, undoubtedly is) as it should be. One can’t discuss such topics, for the most part, even in the abstract and/or in the most general sense. Agreed and acknowledged, with a caveat. As discussed further below, I feel the strictures go too far and are often used, under the cover of protecting us against uncalled for remarks, as an insidious form of censorship masquerading as concern for persons who might be offended. The problem, as I see it, is that it is often the case that subjects which should be aired get swept under the table in the name of political correctness.

Take a topic such as masturbation. Dr. Ruth can bring it up in one of her talks beecause she is known as an outspoken, anything goes (content wise) sex therapist. Philip Roth described it in Portnoy’s Complaint and people were shocked (or at least titillated), but, well, he was a writer — what could you expect? Nor can one discuss sexual practices — say, those viewed in a pornographic film — that one might enjoy or prefer, as a participant or observer.

You or I could not bring it up, should we be so inclined, under any circumstances, in a conversation held in public. It seems to me that — temporarily leaving aside the most embarrassing and private topics, which I have introduced only for the purposes of illustrating my point and of comparison — this kind of repression can be at times so extreme and sweeping (in the sense of all-encompassing and prohibitive — a sweeping edict) that discussions of some topics and issues which should not a priori be considered of an embarrassing or harmful nature can not be contemplated, where such discussion could often be innocuous, interesting, stimulating, and/or heuristic.

A reader of this post might think or say to him or herself, he’s probably a pervert, and, anyway, what’s the point? Is he saying that he thinks one should be entitled to discuss such embarrassing and/or offensive things in public?

I am not. Public standards of decency should be observed. Distinctions should be made regarding what is permissible to be said and discussed in public versus in private. But, what I am trying to do is to show how repression works (as I view it) in public.



I think an analogy can be made with regard to discussing sexual topics in a non private setting and discussing other topics that have now earned taboo status, such as race.

In earlier times, through at least my grandparents’ lifetimes, topics of a sexual nature were prohibited in all but the most private settings, while language about ethnic and racial groups that would now be considered offensive was common. In my grandparents’ time, sex was virtually taboo as a topic and censorship standards were rigidly enforced. At the same time, ethnic slurs were printed and racial prejudices openly advocated or tolerated in the media without anyone noticing. Blacks were stereotyped and demeaned in vaudeville, the theater, and films. Insulting, pejorative terms for ethnic and racial groups were commonly used in conversation.

Now the public, which is to say most reasonable people, is hypersensitive to anything that smacks of or has a hint of racism. Racism has been eradicated, we want to believe (though we know it hasn’t).

Meanwhile, repression is alive and well.

Progress has been made, at least in the realm of public discourse and the media, where racial and ethnic slurs are prohibited. One hears them less in casual conversations nowadays. But, does this mean that we, as a nation, as people, have wiped the slate clean so that most people other than the lunatic fringe don’t have racial prejudices any more?

This is where I would say an emphatic no.

So why can’t assumptions underlying racism, and reverse racism, be examined and evaluated in a non private conversational setting? In my opinion, it would be salutary (psychologically speaking) to do so. Such conversations could be beneficial both when they occur between members of the same racial group, say, and when they occur between persons of different racial, religious, or ethnic groups.



The PC “thought police” want to control what can and cannot be said, everywhere. I am all for maintaining standards of polite discourse — see my blog post on this topic at

Marquess of Queensberry rules for arguments (my personal views on the subject)

but I am opposed to “repression of discourse,” as defined above.

I feel that people should be able to talk freely, as long as they are respectful and polite. That contrary opinions and thoughts or facts that might call into question the prevailing orthodoxy should be shared. And that “error of opinion,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, should it be identified and so deemed, should, as Jefferson said, “be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it,” both in private and public discourse.


— Roger W. Smith

   February 2017

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