In this article we aim to examine the concept of self-censorship and its potential impact on workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. We will discuss a variety of data that reveal societal perspectives on self-censorship and what is commonly referred to as ‘cancel culture,’ as well as how individuals across the political spectrum share and differ in their views. We will also examine traditional DEI programs, their effectiveness, and factors that are known to promote and hinder progress. Finally, we will merge these concepts to explore how the real or perceived need to self-censor throughout DEI initiatives may undermine genuine progress.
Societal Views on Self-Censorship and Cancel Culture
Individuals hold a variety of views about self-censorship and cancel culture. Some individuals feel a strong need to self-censor their ideas, opinions, and beliefs out of fear of judgement or serious repercussions. These people would lament that it is no longer possible to disagree and debate respectfully and that people attack those with opposing views without seeking understanding. On the other hand, some people do not believe that self-censorship is a problem. These individuals tend to justify the negative consequences of an individual stating controversial or offensive ideas freely and would argue that those who feel the need to self-censor wish that they could share these ideas without any pushback.
The concept of self-censorship is closely related to cancel culture. Many individuals who feel the need to self-censor fear being ‘canceled’ for their views. These individuals would argue that society is too quick to ostracize people with opposing viewpoints and that cancelling is often an unjustified punishment for perceived, not actual injustice. Conversely, those with a favorable view of cancel culture argue that it holds individuals accountable for offensive or morally wrong speech, actions, and beliefs.
The range and prevalence of these viewpoints have been studied by multiple sources. A 2020 study by the Pew Research Center examined Americans’ familiarity with and personal definitions of the term ‘cancel culture’. Results of this study are reported in the Pew Research Center feature article, “Americans and ‘Cancel Culture’: Where Some See Calls for Accountability, Others See Censorship, Punishment.” The results indicate that 44% of Americans have heard at least a fair amount about cancel culture, with 22% having heard a great deal about the phrase. Individuals who reported that they have heard at least a fair amount about cancel culture were subsequently asked to define the phrase in their own words. These responses were coded into broad categories for analysis.
Out of all the responses, 49% mentioned actions taken to hold others accountable, 14% mentioned censorship of speech or history, 12% mentioned mean-spirited actions taken to cause others harm, and 9% mentioned people cancelling anyone they disagree with. The relationship between respondent’s definitions and their political views was also studied. Looking at the above categories, 59% of liberal Democrats mentioned accountability in their definitions compared to 36% of conservative Republicans. 6% of liberal Democrats mentioned censorship of speech or history compared to 26% of conservative Republicans. 8% of liberal Democrats and 15% of conservative Republicans mentioned mean spirited actions to cause others harm, and 5% of liberal Democrats and 15% of conservative Republicans mentioned people cancelling anyone they disagree with. It is important to note that while trends exist, individuals across the political spectrum were represented in each response category.
Returning to the concept of self-censorship, a 2020 poll by the Cato Institute reveals that 62% of Americans have political views that they are afraid to share. Interestingly, this sentiment is felt across the political spectrum with 52% of Democrats, 59% of independents, and 77% of Republicans agreeing that “the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” The poll also shows that 32% of respondents are worried about missing out on job opportunities because of their political views. Interestingly enough, the same individuals who are fearful about missing out on job opportunities may be perpetuating the issue. Of those polled, 50% of strong liberals supported firing executives who personally donated to Trump’s campaign, and 36% of strong conservatives supported firing executives who personally donated to Biden’s campaign. Finally, the poll shows that people across demographic groups feel the need to self-censor. 65% of Latino Americans, 64% of White Americans, and 49% of African Americans reported having political views that they are afraid to share. This was also true for 65% of men and 59% of women.
The results of these studies indicate that while Americans have a wide range of views about cancel culture, most feel the need to self-censor to some extent. While it is certainly beneficial to use your filter to avoid saying something inappropriate or offensive, the research raises an interesting question: Is public discourse truly reflective of most American’s values, beliefs, and convictions? Furthermore, is there always one correct viewpoint, or do multiple perspectives have merits and flaws? With this in mind, we will take a look at common diversity, equity, and inclusion training practices and their long-term effectiveness.
Traditional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training Practices and Their Effectiveness
Sociologists Frank Dobbin of Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University study the effects of workplace diversity training. They summarize their findings in the Harvard Business Review article, “Why Diversity Programs Fail.” Dobbin and Kalev explain that executives often take a simplified but ineffective ‘command-and-control’ approach to diversity initiatives that focuses on behavioral expectations. They write, “Decades of social science research point to a simple truth: You won’t get managers on board by blaming and shaming them with rules and reeducation.” Furthermore, they write, “It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.”
An example of such research was conducted by Dobbin and Kalev, themselves. They conducted a five-year study of companies that implemented mandatory diversity training for managers compared to companies that implemented voluntary training. The study found that companies that mandated training saw no increase in the proportion of white women, black men, and Hispanics in management and actually saw a decrease in the proportion of black women and Asian-Americans in management. Conversely, companies that implemented voluntary training saw increases of 9% to 13% to the proportion of black men, Hispanic men, and Asian-Americans in management. Still, there was no change in the proportion of white or black women in management.
The BBC article, “Why Ineffective Diversity Training Won’t Go Away,” by Zulekha Nathoo, provides additional insight. Referring to single-session diversity and sensitivity training, the article states, “Often, it endures as a way to maintain optics, legal protection, and the veneer of progressive action.” Even if employers are genuine in their desire to improve DEI in the workplace, there are better ways to spark change. The article states that recruiting at diverse universities and professional associations, offering mentorship to all new employees, and hiring a diversity officer or task force to oversee these strategies are all more effective than diversity training. That said, if organizations still want to conduct short term diversity training, it is recommended that training sessions encourage empathy and interaction among diverse groups. In fact, research shows that exchanging perspectives between diverse groups can lead to longer lasting improvements.
If the most effective diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives involve interactions, empathy, and perspective taking among diverse groups, is it possible that self-censorship and cancel culture undermine progress?
(Self)-Censorship Within DEI Initiatives
To address this question, we will begin by discussing a rather extreme case of individual perspectives being silenced during diversity training. By using this extreme case, our intent is not to undermine the importance of DEI efforts, but rather to highlight the ineffectiveness that can occur when such efforts are done poorly. The story comes from the Forbes article, “Diversity Training and Diviseness: A Real Problem That Needs a Better Solution,” by Ilana Redstone. A friend of Redstone attended a diversity training session where all employees were given a survey intended to reveal privilege. Redstone writes, “On the paper were statements similar to those in Peggy McIntosh’s piece ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.’ These included assertions like, ‘I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time,’ ‘I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me,’ and ‘Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial responsibility.’” Participants rated how much each statement applied to them on a scale of 1-4 and added up their points. Then the following occurred:
“Once they had done so, participants were instructed to line up in ascending order of point totals. Each participant’s point value corresponded to their level of privilege – more points meant more privilege. After lining people up based on their points, the facilitator then told people to return to their seats. He instructed all the white participants to pull out their paper again and to change any score where they’d put less than a 4, to a 4, explaining that anyone who had initially provided a number lower than 4 wasn’t recognizing their privilege. And the facilitator instructed all non-white participants to change any answer where they’d put higher than a 1 to a 1 on the grounds that a score higher than one meant that they were denying their oppression. He again asked people to separate themselves into groups based on their points. Now, of course, there were only two groups in the room: those with privilege and those without, divided based on race.”
In this case, individuals of all backgrounds were forced to deny their experiences and opinions in favor of a narrative that every individual white person has more privilege than every individual non-white person. Furthermore, this activity paid no attention to other identities such as age, gender, sexuality, faith, and disability status. Because individual participants were unable to express their honest perspectives, genuine interaction, empathy, and perspective taking could not occur.
While diversity training typically does not force participants to deny their own thoughts and experiences, based on the statistics noted previously many participants likely feel pressured to keep their views to themselves out of fear of appearing biased and insensitive. This fear is likely strengthened when one doesn’t have to look far to see cases of individuals losing their jobs and/or reputations for openly sharing their views on challenging issues. While there are certainly cases in which an individual’s words and actions warrant negative consequences, other cases may deserve critical and respectful consideration. Furthermore, we know from research that forced compliance often leads to rebellion. From this, it is logical to conclude that when people feel forced to hide their own views, they become less open to differing perspectives.
In order to create an environment where people of all backgrounds are included and treated equitably, we must seek to truly understand one another, and to constructively/critically evaluate diverse viewpoints, before passing judgement. Overcoming self-censorship is critical in doing so.
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