There are lots of pressures to conformity in the world, but three examples really jumped out at me recently. The first comes in the form of some young scientists, concerned for their career prospects, scattering away from a video camera to avoid any public association with the Discovery Institute:
The second instance arrives via a recent memo from an Associated Press (AP) supervisor warning reporters that, in his view, their very employ with AP entails that their free speech rights on controversial issues are, essentially, completely null and void (even if a person makes it clear, on a blog or social network, that her opinions are her own, and that she is not speaking on behalf of her employer):
From: Kent, Tom
Sent: Wednesday, July 06, 2011 2:57 PM
Subject: Expressing personal opinions on social networks
In at least two recent cases, we have seen a few postings on social networks by AP staffers expressing personal opinions on issues in the news.
This has happened on the New York Senate vote on gay marriage and on the Casey Anthony trial. These posts undermine the credibility of our colleagues who have been working so hard to assure balanced and unbiased coverage of these issues.
AP’s News Values and Principles state that anyone who works for AP must be mindful that opinions they express may damage the AP’s reputation as an unbiased source of news. This point is contained in our social network guidelines as well.
Failure to abide by these rules can lead to disciplinary action.
The vast majority of our tweets on these stories — and on other issues in the news — have been completely in line with our guidelines. They pose no problem at all, and are consistent with the importance of AP staffers being active on social networks.
But social networks, however we may configure our accounts or select our friends, should be considered a public forum. AP staffers should not make postings there that amount to personal opinions on contentious public issues.
Please let your supervisor or me know if you have any questions on this. And thanks.
The third instance comes from Chris Hedges’s recent devastating critique of his former employer, the New York Times, and his recounting of its management’s intimidation and manipulation of reporters:
When you allow an institution to provide you with your identity and sense of self-worth you become an obsequious pawn, no matter how much talent you possess. You live in perpetual fear of what those in authority think of you and might do to you. This mechanism of internalized control—for you always need them more than they need you—is effective. The rules of advancement at the paper are never clearly defined or written down. Careerists pay lip service to the stated ideals of the institution, which are couched in lofty rhetoric about balance, impartiality and neutrality, but astutely grasp the actual guiding principle of the paper, which is: Do not significantly alienate the corporate and political power elite on whom the institution depends for access and money. Those who master this duplicitous game do well. Those who cling tenaciously to a desire to tell the truth, even at a cost to themselves and the institution, become a management problem. This creates tremendous friction within the paper. I knew reporters with a conscience who would arrive at the paper and vomit in the restroom from nervous tension before starting work.
I myself started this blog a couple of summers ago while I was still going through the tenure process at my college. I’ve got tenure now, and maybe, in retrospect, I was being reckless. But no person on my tenure committee (to their credit) ever mentioned my blog to me. And I felt that I had covered myself with the following disclaimer (which I still have on my “About” page):
I teach writing and literature at a college in California, but all opinions expressed at this blog are my own. I’m using this blog as an outlet for free thought about whatever happens to be of interest to me on any given day. I am not writing as a spokesperson for my employer.
I share 20th century journalist I.F. Stone’s belief that:
“[N]o society is good, whatever its intentions, whatever its utopian and liberationist claims, if the men and women who live in it are not free to speak their minds.”
Consequently, this blog is a place where I speak my mind.
End of story. Or, at least, in a genuinely free society, it ought to be.
In the new Google world, we need an Internet and legal liberationist movement where people come out of the opinion closet, publicly speak and write in their own names what they think, and seriously push back against employers who would attempt to shut down peoples’ inalienable human right to freedom of speech. In an Internet connected world, we need to be able to compartmentalize our personal opinions from those of our employers, or most of us will be turned into 24/7 mouthpieces of large institutions and their public relations offices. Or we will simply be silenced altogether.
We should say no to both of these soul-destroying options, and not leave true and unfettered freedom of speech to the lucky minority who are financially independent, retired, or tenured.