Last year (2019), I wanted to write a blog post about a certain cultural phenomenon in software engineering. But I was scared to post it because I was afraid of my theory being unintentionally or worse, intentionally, misinterpreted or misrepresented. I didn’t think much about this result – I wrote it off as a topic belonging to the growing list of things I probably shouldn’t talk about with people outside of my close friends and family.
Then 2020 rolls around and half way through it, I realized I’ve grown unusually accustomed to adding things to this list of things I only discuss with my inner circle. My conversations and interactions with people at work or casual acquaintances or new people I meet feel strained and stretched to avoid these topics or at best, give a nod to the most popular take (whether we really believe it or not) and then move on. We seem to bend our words and hide our real feelings on a myriad of topics because, I assume, we fear disagreement or the chance we might inadvertently offend someone, a most egregious sin in our society today,.
I find this a sad and potentially dangerous position to be in as a culture because cultures seem to thrive on having more ideas and people talking about things is a great way to generate new ideas. If we stop talking about important things, ideas about how to improve or change important things will be lost. If we reduce every problem to a sound-bite answer that matches the loudest opinion of the day, it seems to me we will have lost something extremely important and valuable to a thriving society.
This idea has plagued me the past year or two – that our culture has turned into something where unique opinions or even new ideas that run counter to majority opinion are dangerous outside the confines of our close friends. Of course, in various forms this has been true throughout human history and perhaps it is just my own experience but it feels more pronounced in the last five years or so than it did prior. Certainly, it feels especially true in 2020.
The world of people is a vast and complex eco-system. Because of this, the problems we face are rarely simple or trivial. They are almost always complex and nuanced. I don’t yet have a helpful idea for how we move away from this trend of silence beyond trying to teach our kids a better way. I believe the silencing of a society is a complex and multi-faceted problem that touches some part of everyone’s life. But I do fear for what the future looks like for my kids when the suppression and outright oppression of new or unique ideas becomes the norm.
Other people have written interesting things on this topic as well:
There’s a lot of concern about “fake news” lately. That is a real problem, but there’s also the opposite problem: true things that aren’t being said.
What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they’re much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.
It’s only in a totalitarian state where everyone appears to agree on hard topics. If you look around you and see that, it means people are silencing themselves or being silenced. Neither one is okay.
And just a little poignant satire…
From Bret Weinstein
…the population is made up of four types of people: A small number hunt witches. A large number go along with the hunt. A larger number are silent. A tiny number oppose it. The final group–as if by magic–become witches