Self-censorship in tech and social change

4 December 2016

A few months ago I was talking to a (white, male) friend about the current political situation in Bangladesh. I was explaining how there had been crackdowns on freedom of expression, and that I knew of people who weren’t being as forthright with their opinions as they would otherwise be.

He said: “Wow- self-censorship. That’s terrible, that’s the first sign of an authoritarian state.”

I agreed. It is a bad sign - but what I didn’t say then, is that in reality I know of lots of people working in the sector I do, who regularly self-censor. People of colour, and women. Not for fear of a government or a politically restrictive state, but for fear of their future career development. The irony doesn’t escape me - we’re all for freedom of information, equality, social justice - but here we are.

Over the past few weeks especially, a lot of people have been discussing the importance of standing up for what we believe in, and speaking out against hateful behaviour. “Now is the time to resist”, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in this beautiful piece.

Given the sector I work in - social change and technology - you’d think this would be a given. We’ve all made conscious decisions that we want to dedicate our professional work towards making the world a better place, which is how we’ve ended up here. But somehow, our grand ideas of a better world don’t always translate into being good people.

We’re quite comfortable in criticising perceived bias in algorithms, or discriminatory behaviour in the private sector. But we rarely turn those critical attitudes inwards.

I know far, far too many people of colour, women especially, who hold their tongues when it comes to our own community. Instead of knowing where to turn openly without doing harm to our future prospects or potential partnerships, we share stories between ourselves - who to avoid when they’ve had a few drinks, who to expect patronising and sexist behaviour from, who doesn’t react well to being told what to do by women.

Last week, someone told me that I was “brave” for writing as I do on my blog. That comment made me sad. That writing down my honest thoughts about privilege, inclusivity and diversity is something that others look at and know they’re not in a position to do without damaging their own careers, is so upsetting to me.

And of course, I am writing this from a position of comfort and stability. I know that the organisation I work for appreciates my thoughts, rather than being scared or worried by them. I know that if anything, they’ll understand that my thinking carefully about these kinds of issues strengthens my professional work. Call me naive, but I hope that my future professional life will be enhanced, rather than damaged, by my principles. But I know that isn’t true for many people - which is why I wanted to write this.

I also know that there are many people working in this sector who probably have no idea what I’m talking about, and to be clear, I’m not writing about a particular event. It’s the small things, the many, many microaggressions that wear you down over a period of years, the people that you avoid, or the ones you might have to work with despite knowing that their behaviour would be wildly different if you looked more like them. The tiny things we put up with, the bullies, the put-downs, the racist quips by people who seemingly have nothing better to say.

And the worst thing about all of this, is that it’s the people who are hurt by that behaviour who spend time and energy worrying about how to deal with it. Who to tell, how to check if it’s just a one-off or standard behaviour for a person, at what point in a new friendship with another woman can you be honest about these kinds of things? It’s stressful, and hard to navigate.

I’m not too sure what to suggest to try and address this, but I do know that we all need to be more aware that this kind of behaviour doesn’t just happen in communities or sectors that we study or observe. It happens right here, too. Being constructively critical of others can be great and helpful, but sometimes we need to take a long, hard look at our own communities.

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