Our inability to speak openly, and what this means for progress

More and more people are feeling the need to self-censor. And it’s not a good sign of where we are headed as a region (image source: Pinterest)

It’s been a funny couple of days (I know, it’s 2020). Over the past week, I’ve had two people reach out to me, basically telling me to be careful of what I post. The first was for a piece I wrote mentioning another place and its work on promoting education across the world (which I hope all of us would support). The second was a post mentioning a piece of bread and how much it cost (I’m serious). It goes without saying, more and more of us are self-censoring. And on every issue out there. And that worries me.

Why are they doing it? Partly due to politics, to laws, and to the overall cultural climate around us. We live in an increasingly divided world, where many believe that their viewpoint is the only one that matters. And increasingly, these people are in positions of power. Given the potential reach of social media, where one person can engage with millions, far too many believe that we should only write and share things that agree with them. Ironically, those that break the law whilst agreeing with those in power are not punished. And laws are used to hold others to account for the flimsiest of reasons.

Not knowing where the line is any more, people are remaining silent. Or they’re saying things they don’t believe it. That makes my job as a communicator much harder, as I don’t know if what I’m hearing is true or not. And even if my engagement online is making a difference, how would I know this if people aren’t saying or writing what they feel?

The issue is bigger than this. My belief is that, given enough time and reinforcement, self-censorship extends to our behavior in a number of settings, including our workplaces. We’re less likely to speak up with a new idea, to point out when something isn’t working, or when someone does something wrong. Freedom matters, for our personal lives and for our economies too. I will leave the last word to the American economist Milton Friedman, who was writing about the US, but could have been talking about any place on earth:

I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a
large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something
comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity

Where does self-censorship begin in the Gulf?

Has much changed in the Gulf? Looking back over the last 12 months, the headlines have rightly been dominated by news of events in Egypt and Syria. On the sidelines, Iran, Israel and Palestine have filled the column inches. In comparison, the Gulf seems to have changed little.

Most of us know to think before we speak. We understand that certain issues may be difficult to discuss during certain occasions. And then there’s self-censorship, the concept of altering the spoken and written word, picture, or other published material out of concern about the consequences.

Having talked to people I admire from the art world, publishing and the online communities there is a concern and fear that the boundaries of expression are shifting. The region’s powers that be are not just watching and listening, but they are also taking action. The number of persons questioned and detained for stating their views or thoughts publicly seems to have increased, and the media coverage surrounding these events has certainly gone up several notches.

So where does that leave those writers, publishers, artists and the like who live in the Gulf? We’ve always had soft censorship in the region’s media, the concept of avoiding sensitive topics to not upset advertisers, the authorities/media owners.

However, today’s conservative wave (it may be even called a tsunami if the levels of monitoring and action pick up pace) following the Arab Spring has come up against an awakening of expression brought about by social media tools. Who will win out?

The question in my mind today is where are the red lines? What should be spoken about and when should one stay silent? And can one censor the web today without unplugging oneself from the internet?

Has there been an increase in self-censorship across the Gulf?