Some topics seem to get lost in the mix of world-wide news, Covid updates, European lack of foresight, Scottish intrigues and Royal escapades. Yet, one topic, mentioned briefly here or there across our newsfeeds, is potentially more important, than any of these – long-term. This is the issue of Free Speech.
Interestingly, free speech is gaining more attention, albeit not in a big bang kind of way, but in what might seem like unconnected storylines in different pockets of the world.
Tougher legal measures to strengthen free speech
16 February 2021, the UK government launched ‘Landmark proposals to strengthen free speech at universities.’ which will see “tougher legal measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England … to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on campuses.” (http://bit.ly/3uVkNIJ) such as de-platforming speakers.
The Human Rights Watch highlighted recently that “at least 83 governments worldwide have used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violating the exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly.”
Increased commentary on the lack of free speech
We can see an increased commentary on the lack of free speech on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and have been confronted with new concepts such as ‘shadow-banning’, a technique used by social media providers to silence voices they do not agree with or deem dangerous.
Hungary and Poland recently announced their determination to tackle ‘Big Tech’ censoring which has seen their messaging curtailed by the likes of Facebook.
The level of aggression on social media as well as within organisations when people express a different viewpoint has also risen. We seem to have lost the ability to debate, to enquire, to show curiosity and accept that other ways of thinking, whether their thoughts are mainstream or not, might be valuable.
The press, too, has lost the concept of free speech, either because it is being censored itself or it censors people by not providing them with editorial space or airtime. Clarity on when speech is inciting violence or not is lacking, and, as a result, censorship has become arbitrary.
At the heart of democracy and humanity
Freedom of speech is at the heart of democracy. It is at the heart of humanity. Without our thoughts and our speech, we seize to truly exist and become no more than a ‘soldier’ marching in line.
Free thinking separates us out from animals. The ability to take ideas, shape them and create, innovate, is strengthened by speech. Be it in writing, through art, verbally or through sign-language, speech allows us to express our ideas, paint a picture, share our opinions, enquire of other’s views, check our own thoughts, evaluate our reality and create dialogue.
Business needs dialogue – a multitude of words
It is this dialogue which is at risk if free speech is curtailed. It is here that business is at risk.
Firstly, if free speech is curtailed and overtaken by mantras of what is allowed and not allowed in terms of opinions within organisations, then variety cannot be guaranteed. It means that the best ideas might not be shared. It also means that the worst ideas might not be looked at in more depth. It means that people, our human resources, will become no more than mouth pieces of our corporate machineries. There is no joy in that. And ultimately, some of the best people will leave – hopefully to go and do greater things.
Secondly, innovation will not be allowed to flourish. Neither innovation of thought nor innovation of design, products, services, ways of working. What happens is that only one idea is allowed. Only one way of expressing yourself is then permitted and those who dare to speak up, suggest a new way, are not given the incentive to think differently.
Thirdly, people spend the majority of their day at work, Denying them the human right to express themselves during these hours means that they need to be one person most of the day and then try and recapture who they really are after work. It does not make sense and will, ultimately become counter-productive.
Lack of free speech is bad for business.
So, how do we bring free speech back? You are reading this and thinking: “It has never left.”. Think again, look around you. Would you be able, at work, let’s say experimentally, say the opposite of what is being said on a certain societal topic?
If you are a business owner, could you, in all good honesty, express your opinion on certain issues on social media or in a public meeting without risking your business?
Very likely not.
Am I arguing that you should be able to shout your opinion at others? No. I am arguing that we should all be able to encourage dialogue, challenge others positively, say: ‘hey, have you ever thought about this issue in a different way?”.
The Agora as a way to debate
In Ancient Greece, Athenians used public spaces such as the Agora and amphitheatres to explore ideas, debate and participate in public life. It was a well-accepted way of – not shouting at each other – but reconciling differing opinions.
This is why the UK government’s focus on freedom of speech is so important. We must encourage conversation on university campus, the exploration of opposing ideas in a civilised manner.
The Millennial dilemma
The tendency to overrun other viewpoints can particularly be seen among the Millennial generation in the western world, which is very much about ‘I’, not ‘we’. One might argue that this generation’s desire for social action and purpose counters this idea. Yet, in their expression of these issues we often find that for people who do not buy into their specific causes, the freedom to think and say differently is negated. It creates an interesting juxtaposition.
But we cannot blame an entire generation who might simply be at the receiving end of unfortunate circumstances. In a world of ‘look at me’ and worship of the rich and famous, easy access to information and manipulation via social media and an increasing push towards cultural conformity, they very much have become instruments rather than creators. This is a shame and a highly unwelcome development.
Yet, not all is lost.
In order to recapture free thinking and the ability to critically assess, generously engage with others and create a society whose default stance is no longer ‘fight’ but collaboration, we must be brave and encourage it at a young age. We should actively seek to find ways for our young people to learn how to disagree agreeably, to analyse, to critically think for themselves, but equally accept that their idea is bar one of many.
Again, you might think this is already encouraged, but the sad truth is that at some schools this is not the case. Many less traditional schools, in particular, have lost a desire for debate, reconciliation and collaboration, without which society cannot progress. Their focus on one-sided ideas or even ideologies means that students have lost the ability to think in multiple ways. They are herded into one direction, one opinion and, unfortunately, one way of arguing their opinion, loudly and aggressively.
Beyond the feedback box
If our businesses matter to us, we will also want to create opportunities for people to express free ideas, new ideas. We are not talking about the ‘feedback box’ in the cafeteria but open fora which allow for debate, new thinking, expression of opinion without repercussions.
So, we must find new ways of communicating. In some ways they are not new, but we have forgotten about them; extending others the respect of listening carefully, asking more questions and putting others first. We need more words, a multitude of words. What we are seeing instead are slogans, twitter style communication and the key words everyone is required to use in every meeting, every social media post and, of course, on their way up the career ladder. But let’s be honest. Many are being fed a diet of acceptable words and asked to keep churning these out as if they have become truth. Multiplicity of thought has been cut out. So, in a not so obvious way, free thought, free speech and a contribution from all is being stamped out.
For our future
If we do not want to end up like societies in China, North Korea, or Russia we will want to take this issue seriously. It impacts all spheres of life. It cannot and must not be a mere mention on our newsfeed. It is something truly worth pursuing.
Free thought and speech matters for the future of our businesses, but most of all, our societies. It is the bedrock of a multifaceted community. Without it, we will see more discrimination and violence, not less. For ideas which are suppressed either create dull, unimaginative compliance and dead societies or they will rise to the surface at some point or another, and then most likely not quietly.