Do not watch what you say

A sketch showing a person in profile, muzzled by a mask.
We were so afraid of Big Brother muzzling us, we muzzled ourselves first. lee lim

Speaking up is scary but necessary

We often hear about the perils of state- or authority-sponsored censorship, where those in power control, or try to control, what opinions can be voiced and which questions can be asked.  

With private media, this control is often achieved using the threat of cutting funding or advertisement for any media outlet that does not conform to the desires of the establishment. This remains a very strong argument for the presence of public, tax-funded media that does not have to censor themselves in an effort to secure funding.  

Even in the private media sector, any entity that earns a reputation for being overtly biased or unwilling to speak the truth is likely to lose a lot of its effectiveness through people losing faith in it. This is what has happened, for instance, to Fox News in the United States in recent years. 

However, censorship via the state, management, or private businesses is not the only thing to be concerned about. In a diverse multicultural society like the one we have here in Canada, a very real issue to contend with is that of individuals practicing self-censorship.  

Often this is because individuals come from cultures where the relationship with those in power is one of more distance and deference than is the norm in North America. A very common reflection we often hear from international students on campus is how professors in North America are more approachable and helpful, especially in comparison to the standards of professor-student interactions in Asian cultures.  

I grew up in a setting where students were expected to stand up every time an elder walked into a room, and remain standing until said elder allowed them to sit. How the youngest person in Bangladesh ever gets anything done is beyond me!  

Of course, things are changing now, but the fact remains that, in some cultures, questioning or challenging authority, in any form, is very hard. Often, this gives rise to self-censorship and an unwillingness to be seen as someone who is critical of those above one in a given hierarchy. 

Working across this cultural barrier takes time, conscious effort, and patience. It is something I still contend with, but also find to be an immensely rewarding experience. I wanted to take the opportunity to share the reasons why I find rising above this cultural barrier to be a worthwhile goal, both at the level of personal values but also as a society in general. 

A culture where those lower in the social hierarchy are not allowed to critique those above them, is almost bound to be one where errors are not caught on time and do substantial harm. In most professional arenas, there are errors that are first visible to those doing the daily work of keeping things running.  

If these people are not comfortable – or worse, not allowed – to speak up and talk about things that are off track, the problem will only get worse over time. What would have been an easy fix in the early stages will turn into catastrophic failure, costing the establishment far more to rectify, if correction is even possible.  

In the most basic terms, a culture of open communication and criticism works better in the long term. 

While I understand the uneasiness of being seen as the difficult person who is speaking up and spreading discontent, ironically the way to avoid being seen as the problem, is for more of us to engage in honest, open dissent. Those in power can hardly come after everyone!  

Another huge reason to be open with concerns, is that it can nurture an environment of learning and growth for everyone involved. It could well be that the concerns we have are on the radar of others, and things are being done. If instead of fuming silently, we ask questions, it creates the opportunity for dialogue, from which we might learn how others view the world. 

Self-censorship is safe, and it avoids unpleasant conversations in the short term. But like most things that feel good in the short term, there are costs down the line we might not be willing to pay.  

So, it pays to form a culture where anyone, anywhere, is a fair target for criticism. It pays to create a culture where people feel safe communicating their dissent. If you speak up, things might not improve. But if you do not speak up, they will definitely not improve and could even get worse! 


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