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Who Can Freely Speak Their Mind? (Newsletter 027)

Every senior manager and CEO I know is (typically rightly) paranoid that they are getting bad information from their subordinates. One reason you see CEOs asking multiple people the same question is that they are trying to triangulate the truth through a thicket of self-interested answers.
Who Can Freely Speak Their Mind? (Newsletter 027)

Greetings friends!

This will be a longer letter, so I'll only briefly describe this week's Moral Letters. Moral Letter 053 On Knowing Your Limits deals with one particular group of people who are ideally-suited, indeed required, to say what they think: judges.

Among other things, Moral Letter 054 On Existence And Its Opposite gives advice about how to turn adversity to advantage, to find the positive in what looks like a dark situation. If you decide to practice additional truth-telling as a result of today's letter, this may be a skill worth developing.

Last but not least, I have published Eight Views Of America In Late 2021, containing our first impressions on the American South after two months' living there. The best time to tell the truth (and the worst time, ironically) is when the impressions are fresh in your mind. I'll let you decide the value of our observations yourself.

The questions for today are, "Can you freely speak your mind?" and "Do you?" If you want to be successful in your career, you must be able to answer both questions with a clear "Yes."

I think many of us when asked these questions would instinctively say "Of course!" At least, I suspect you would answer this way if you live in most places in Europe or the United States. Perhaps today's article will cause you to question your conviction.

We hear much about how we live in times of economic and technological miracles. I recently discussed the dramatic advances in global GDP in Is Your Country a GDPaholic? And we can each feel the impact of technology on our daily lives. Particularly with the rapid spread of the Internet across the globe, I assumed that freedom of speech had also been seeded far and wide. I was wrong.

The organization Freedom House performs surveys on the level of internet freedom in 70 countries around the world. They look at things like Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content, and Violations of User Rights. Their latest report makes for depressing reading. See Freedom on the Net 2021. Among other findings:

  • Global internet freedom declined for the 11th consecutive year, as "more governments arrested users for nonviolent political, social, or religious speech than ever before."
  • "Officials suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms."

It seems that economic and technological progress are not inevitably correlated with greater online freedom. In fact, looking at the ten most populous countries in the world, which together represent 59% of the global population, only the United States, is considered "Free" in terms of Internet Freedom. The U.S. represents just 4.3% of the global population. The other countries are rated either "Not Free" (China, Pakistan, and Russia), representing 23% of the global population, or "Partly Free," representing 31% of the population.

This paints a dark picture, so I went looking for other bastions of freedom. I found them in Europe, excluding Eastern Europe, where we find another 450 million citizens living in societies with Internet Freedom, almost 6% of the global population. Beyond that, we can add relatively large countries like Japan, South Africa, Argentina, Canada, and Australia, together accounting for not quite 4% of the population.

What I take from these numbers is simply this: the great majority of the world's population do not experience anything like the freedom of speech that most of us take for granted. Our ability to access information and express our thoughts is an aberration, not the norm.

Even if you are lucky enough to find yourself in those havens of democratic freedom in Europe or the United States, should you rest easily? I'm not so sure. According to Freedom House again, "Internet freedom declined in the United States for the fifth consecutive year." And Europe has been at the forefront of introducing regulations to control large technology companies, which brings with it greater bureaucratic ability to steer content decisions.

Some of you will be tempted to dismiss this as fearmongering by disgruntled political minorities. I've had conversations with several people who insist that talk of censorship and self-censorship is greatly exaggerated and largely imaginary. "I am fully free," so they tell me, "to speak my mind on any topic at any time." I suspect these people are making the same mistake that I did before writing this article: assuming that their personal experience is representative of the larger world.

I'll pick one slice of society to explore the point, our universities. If there was one place where we could traditionally expect to find freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and an open environment, it would be the university. In 2014 the University of Chicago published the "Chicago Principles," which set out the University's commitment to protect and promote free expression. In their view, "without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university."

In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.

This is an admirable principle that defines what freedom of expression means in practice and they seem to mean what they say. So how do we explain the anecdotal evidence of speakers being "shouted down" or cancelled for views that some students find offensive? The newspapers are peppered with such stories. Are these isolated examples or a sign of a dangerous trend?

Luckily for us, earlier this year the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education commissioned "the largest survey of college students about free speech on their campuses ever conducted." This survey included more than 37,000 students at 159 colleges, so should give us a good sense of current attitudes on free speech in the United States. Here are some key findings from the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings:

  • "More than 80% of students report censoring their viewpoints at their colleges at least some of the time."
  • "Two thirds of students say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus."
  • "Almost one in four students say it is acceptable to use violence to stop a campus speech."

I am blown away by these findings. Please read them again and consider the implications. The University of Chicago is not the norm, but itself increasingly an outlier. The students we assume should be most open-minded are in fact a self-censoring, censorious mob.

If 80% of students report self-censoring their views in an environment expressly committed to the freedom of expression, can we expect a different experience in the workplace? At work there is generally no upside to speaking your mind on non-work topics, and potentially a great downside. Namely that you may be fired or at least have a complaint filed against you by someone you've offended.

Although I personally think we must each support freedom of speech for it to survive, let me focus for now on in-house lawyers. Companies are filled with what I'll call "optimists," by which I mean people who have an incentive to tell favorable stories. This includes people who draft budgets, submit forecasts, and fill out self-evaluations. It covers managers who set financial targets and employees who report on their contributions to results. Marketing professionals live in a world of optimistic hyperbole, and it is a rare Board of Directors that hears an unpopular truth.

In this sea of Pollyannas the lawyer faces a stark choice: tell people what they want to hear or tell people what they need to hear. The truth is painful. Often what the lawyer points out are harsh realities and obstacles to quick progress: that path is illegal, and the alternatives take more time and may cost more money; that behavior is inappropriate, and we must discipline the star employee; we are indeed subject to this new regulation, and we must spend money to ensure compliance.

You will be greatly liked if you tell people what they want to hear. You may even initially find career success by following this path because it takes time and bad luck for most legal problems and non-compliance to come to light. I don't recommend basing your career decisions on luck.

The best lawyers are the ones who know their true value to their companies, which is to always and only speak the truth. When most around you say what they think will benefit them or what others want to hear, a person who only says what they believe to be true is a treasure indeed.

You must not let fear of disappointing others hold you back. Yes, you are discussing difficult situations, where something bad has happened or could happen. But it's rarely your personal fault, just the situation itself.

Every senior manager and CEO I know is (typically rightly) paranoid that they are getting bad information from their subordinates. One reason you see CEOs asking multiple people the same question is that they are trying to triangulate the truth through a thicket of self-interested answers.

If you tell the CEO what you think they want to hear, you will be missing a great chance to become one of their inner circle of trusted advisors. The CEO has plenty of potential lackeys but relatively few truth-tellers. If you are someone the CEO trusts will always say what you believe, they will seek out your perspective more often.

You will annoy others by being scrupulously honest. This is because in the land of liars, the honest person is hated by those with something to hide. For example, when what you say contradicts someone who spun a different story. Or when someone gets in trouble as a result of your noting something inappropriate they did.

One important caveat: speaking the truth does not mean you always divulge everything you know. Knowing when to speak, and to whom, i.e. exercising discretion, is also part of the successful lawyer's repertoire. The point is that when you speak you must be honest.

This advice holds true no matter what your job. Because ask yourself this: if you live in a country where it is still possible to freely speak your mind, what do you think will happen if you do not?

Be well.