The brutality of Iran’s morality police has received increased news coverage since the September 2022 uprising sparked by the death of Jina Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old woman was arrested for not wearing her hijab “properly.” Her family and local media reported that she died in police custody three days later as a result of injuries sustained from severe beatings.
As a girl who grew up in Iran during the rise of the Islamist regime, I witnessed firsthand the impact of the morality police on our daily lives. This included censorship of the arts and free speech, restrictions on basic rights for women and minorities, and rules against socializing between men and women, among many other harsh decrees.
Enforcement of both explicit and implied rules affected everyone I knew, causing us to suffer in numerous ways. Armed guards raided private parties. One family friend was lashed publicly. Another had a miscarriage from the shock of witnessing a public hanging on a street near her house. My teenage friend was executed unceremoniously and without a public trial, and her parents were never told which specific law she broke.
But recently I’ve observed that “morality police” are not limited to Iran’s paramilitary enforcers. They’re a global force, and they’re spreading. In 2019, dictatorships with their street-level thugs enforcing restrictive laws outnumbered democracies around the world. Even in the United States, in a disturbing trend that reminds me of my childhood in Iran, the morality police are busy at work on both sides of the aisle.
On the right, in the aftermath of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, 70 cities and counties have banned abortion, compromising reproductive care for nearly 50% of their residents. Book banning is now practiced in at least 32 states and nearly 140 school districts, affecting marginalized communities. Around the country, nearly 400 bills have been proposed to target LGBTQ individuals.
On the left, the echo chamber of moral judgment and cancel culture results in the loss of livelihood and status, while its insidious effects reach far beyond the harm to an individual. Canceling has the propensity to fuel oppression and vitriol similar to what it’s trying to address, while wreaking havoc on the mental health of the canceler, the canceled, and the onlooker.
The morality police are loose in the free world, but they’re also lurking in our heads, silencing us from within.
In the U.S., we don’t fear imprisonment, torture, and execution in response to our social missteps online, but because the repercussions of canceling are severe enough, they result in self-censoring, something in which I’m exceedingly well-versed. In the Islamic Republic we learned to be secret-keepers, as it wasn’t unusual that a child would innocently recount the previous night’s dinner conversation at school and her parents would soon end up as political prisoners.
Here, freedom of expression is our constitutional right, but many U.S. residents are confused about what they can say and where they can say it, and they have become hesitant to have certain kinds of conversations, fearing the consequences. The morality police are loose in the free world, but they’re also lurking in our heads, silencing us from within.
Marriage and family therapist and trauma expert Mahshid Fashandi Hager, who herself lived in Iran as a child, says whether we’re dealing with the actual morality police or an internalized version, “it instills fear, and we have no choice [but] to respond to that fear by self-protection.” People who’ve experienced or even witnessed aggressive disagreement and the threat of cancellation on social media are less likely to express themselves because of their need for self-preservation.
“The other piece is that innate need for belonging,” says Hager. “When our belonging to any group gets threatened, we shrink away.” As a result, the nuanced conversations that might make us feel a sense of belonging, and also allow us to be more vulnerable in the larger community, stop happening or get relegated to more private interactions. The loudest, most polarized, and extreme voices end up controlling the public discourse, while the rest of us are self-censoring.
This self-censorship is increasingly showing up in traditional media, where journalists hold back on covering certain issues. Violent crimes against journalists are on the rise worldwide, and domestically, journalists fear both their employers and the online mob—a fear that was recently reinforced by the example of Ben Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize–nominated journalist for Axios, who was recently fired after not self-censoring, and calling a news release about an event by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “propaganda.” A recent Washington State University paper showed that online mobs deliberately use popular platforms to silence journalists. These online attacks seem to be disproportionately focused on women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, leading them to quit the profession, which in turn further silences their voices.
We can even find instances of morality policing in spiritual communities. For example, pervasive toxic positivity, or the attitude and belief that one should always maintain a positive outlook, uses “good vibes” as a policing strategy. Some groups or individuals enforce strict codes of behavior and the suppression of certain emotions or expressions of vulnerability. It’s as if there are bouncers standing at the door of the psyche who only allow in the most attractive and best-dressed emotions. Rather than being able to share their authentic feelings and receive support, people facing toxic positivity have to either isolate themselves from a harmful situation or engage in self-censorship. When policing is turned inward and the inner critic is weaponized, it leads to the suppression of important emotions such as sadness, anger, and frustration, and this takes a massive toll on the individual’s well-being.
Self-policing is always a response to a threat. “Whether it’s getting imprisoned and tortured or it’s getting canceled, or [it’s being] in this spiritual bypass all the time, the threat response in our biology is induced,” says Hager. Whether it’s a physical threat or a psychological one, the body doesn’t know the difference.
The antidote to this self-imposed police state and the rise of extremism is for us to feel safe enough in our bodies and in public forums to be able to engage in nuanced and often difficult conversations without the fear of backlash. In other words, Hager says, we need what she calls a “solid container”: a mechanism or program to help develop and maintain healthy connections with one another.
The book The Nordic Secret highlights the success of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in transitioning from poor authoritarian societies to rich democracies in just a few generations. Much of this success can be attributed to visionary Nordic politicians and activists who provided a solid container for social development: They enabled a large part of the population to become active co-creators of democracy. They established state-funded yet autonomous retreat centers that allowed young adults to become self-authoring, develop healthy relationships with themselves and others, and resist the siren call of extremism in any form.
“We’re missing the solid container in terms of our own self-regulation, and we’re missing it in the culture,” Hager says.
How can we engage in important conversations when we’re afraid of getting canceled or when we’re easily triggered because of personal trauma and the intensity of our culture? And even if collectively we do create such a container, how do we safeguard against bad actors who are determined to spew hate and spread harmful messages?
Addressing this conundrum requires us to confront a glaring fundamental challenge: As a society, we haven’t prioritized cultivating healthy relationships with ourselves, others, and our environment. Math, something many of us don’t use daily, is taught every year in schools, but it’s unusual to find a single course dedicated to relationships in K-12 or beyond, even though research shows that gaining such skills is the key to a good life. And while the loneliness epidemic reigns among people of all ages, we have no blueprint or map for how to proceed in developing healthy relationships. We don’t spend enough quality time with our loved ones, and we haven’t been taught to practice having meaningful conversations.
Few adults, let alone children, are taught or are aware of the physical manifestations of stress on their bodies, or what to do when they’re dysregulated and unable to modulate their emotional, behavioral, or physiological responses. And while Iranians are risking their lives to dance in public, for many of us in freer societies, our inner morality police prevent us from exercising this right. This resistance to the remedy seems to be a response to trauma too.
“It’s hard to say I’m not dancing because I’m traumatized,” says Hager. “It’s easier to say I’m not dancing because it’s just not appropriate right now.” This excuse is a protective measure our inner morality police conjure to keep us disconnected from our bodies. So, we shrink and silence ourselves rather than engage in healthy and safe activities that help us reestablish a relationship with our bodies.
As a species, we’ve prioritized relationships for millennia, but we’ve never had to contend with so many powerful opposing forces. Traditional and social media, and the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, and diet industries, all profit from our disconnection from our bodies, our environment, and each other, while our government rarely puts the well-being of individuals ahead of corporate profits. Plus, the busyness of life in a capitalistic world without a social safety net doesn’t leave much room to cultivate relationships.
In the absence of safe societal and cultural containers, we have no choice but to educate ourselves and our children, and practice establishing a relationship with our bodies. It’s up to us to learn how to have healthy relationships, prioritize nurturing our current healthy connections, become intentional about finding new friends, and restore our relationship with the earth. Some of us will be nourished by meaningful conversations with strangers, supporting the independent press, facilitating book clubs or discussion groups, or participating in local grassroots organizations. We don’t have to do it all. But any daily practice to mend our relationships is a step in the right direction. It’s the only way we can soothe and integrate the inner morality police, and help each other do the same.
Ari Honarvar is the founder of Rumi with a View, dedicated to building music and poetry bridges across war-torn and conflict-ridden borders. She dances with refugees on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She is the author of Rumi’s Gift Oracle Cards (2018) and A Girl Called Rumi (2021).