On Power and Censorship

Be a slave at first or free at last
Double-edged choices make a n**** wanna pass

-Lupe Fiasco, Strange Fruition

As of this year something that I have been thinking of a lot more is censorship and power. To be honest, the concept of power, what it is and how it manifests itself is something I frequently think about- however, it is only recently that I have been thinking of it more in relationship to censorship.

I have just completed my Masters and am going now searching for a full-time job, many of my friends are already working or just starting their first job, so why now? Why is censorship so relevant to me now?

I guess even though I always knew that censorship of certain topics and subjects is commonplace in the British media, I didn’t realise the extent to which it affected our occupational lives until now. Having friends who have just entered the governmental and similarly prestigious or even powerful roles, I have just been reminded of this factor. You see many of these jobs require that their employees refrain from expressing any political thoughts and opinions on social media, and even criticising the organisation within which they work- this seems fairly understandable, especially where government jobs are concerned as it is sometimes a requirement of the job that you remain politically neutral in what you do. Similarly, from a corporate perspective, you do not want your reputation smeared by your own employees. However, what I found interesting is that for many of these jobs, the insistence that their employees remain publicly apolitical was even extended to include the use of anonymous accounts.

One of my friends landed a job like this about six months ago and spent sometime clearing her social media of politics as a result. As she is generally quite political, I asked if she will instead voice their opinions on such matters through anonymous accounts, you know, just to get her opinions and frustrations out- this was when I found out that the use of anonymous accounts could be a breach of contract and so was best not done. She even mentioned that the organisation knows of all her email accounts etc to ensure this policy was followed and said that she would not risk posting anonymously just in case this affected her job security- a risk that, coming from a low economic background, with little corporate contacts, she could not afford to take.

Amongst many things, this conversation made me realise that censorship is far more than about presenting a one-sided, worldview that remains largely unchallenged, it made me realise that censorship is also about social control, and about maintaining power over an individual. Through ensuring that they have the upper-hand in such situations (for example, using a job offer as leverage), already powerful institutions, like the state and large corporations, are able to ensure that power remains concentrated within these spaces. If this was not the case, then why else would it be an issue for employees to voice their opinions anonymously? In this way then, these institutions strategically use your fear (of losing your job and means to financial security) as a means of both retaining their power, and, by presenting you with the ultimatum of choosing between financial security and freedom of speech, curbing your right to free speech.

This then becomes a cyclic occurrence where those with power, are able to use this power as a means of stifling and shutting down criticism and in doing so, ensure that their power is maintained and the processes through which it is exercised repeated. Where the redistribution of power is concerned, the existing power and censorship structures would not accommodate this change as, in order to create change, power as it exists, must be challenged. To challenge and create change, requires mass mobilisation and rebellion which, under these circumstances is unlikely. Take the Arab Spring for example, it was only able to have some sort of impact because they had numbers and in order to gain numbers, you need at least one person to voice their opinion so that other who agree can come forward and they can join forces. However, in the case of censorship and power, the two work together to ensure they prevent change and, I would argue, maintain hierarchies of power.  Individuals are scared into silence, threatened with the loss of something they value and so it is unlikely that anyone will speak up- ii they do, the consequences they face are often enough to prevent such rebellion in the future. What is important to acknowledge here is that I am speaking from a British perspective. Too often I have heard Westerners criticise China and the East for censoring their populations without realising that we are being censored in a similar way, it is just done in a more strategic and covert manner (where any lethal consequences and case studies are often covered up both by governments, large corporations and the media)- I am hoping this post would make you consider this in your own context.  If everybody’s voice is being shut down and those who speak lose everything they have, is freedom of speech even a real concept? Will we ever be able to create real change? Are we even free agents?

This is slightly off topic but I guess it’s also important to mention here that  oftentimes, when organisations and structures censor criticism and retaliate with irrational, dis-proportional responses to those who speak out, they fail to acknowledge that even when critical of something, it is possible to be loyal. Criticism often comes from a place of concern and is highly constructive yet those who voice it are usually written off and their concerned disregarded as they become labelled  ‘traitors’ or ‘enemies’. Most of the time however, this is not the case- they are simply people who are frustrated with the situation they are in and wish improve it through offering their criticism. Maybe if they weren’t being silenced all the time, they would mention their frustrations to those concerned privately and not have to make such a big issue out of it in the first place.

For those of you who made it this far, I hope this post has offered you some sort of insight into how power and censorship work hand-in-hand and has encouraged you to explore this further and consider where the boundaries lie for you. Although not discussed the main focus of this post, I also hope it has made you want to explore state and corporate crimes within your own contexts, ad how the general public are being censored from these on a daily basis. This is something regularly think about as, despite trying to be as politically outspoken and vocal as I can in my reasonably quiet life, I have recently come to question whether I would be comfortable accepting a job role which compromises my right to speak freely on such topics. It is something which I wrestle with constantly as I am in need of a job and incidentally, interested in working in policy or social research and so the prospects of having to censor myself are very real and, in all honesty, I am not sure of the extent to which I am willing to so do so.


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