When Keeping Your Mouth Shut Is the Best Policy


San Diego -- Remember when you were a kid, and said something outrageous and your friends hooted and hollered at you, and you crossed your arms and announced, "It's a free country. I can say anything I want!"

Today, many Americans, regardless of their political bent, increasingly believe they should watch what they say, monitor their behavior (and other people's behavior) -- and, in the workplace, submit to a kind of Corporate Correctness. "Expression inhibition" is the term used in a study by Middle Tennessee State University for the American Society of Newspaper Editors. According to the report, personal forces "many have a far stronger influence on free speech in everyday life than the law."

Among the findings of the study:

* A substantial plurality of Americans "oppose protection for forms of expression that do not remotely affect the national security but merely represent things members of the public disagree with or dislike."

* Most American feel "kind of free." High on the list of reasons for not speaking out are fears of being sued or physically harmed.

* Americans feel most free to express themselves at home. Feelings of freedom decline as people enter the world of shopping malls and stores, and drop even further in restaurants, organizations and civic clubs.

* The workplace is the environment in which the American public feels most restrained, particularly around the boss or supervisor.

Much of this should come as no surprise. Some of our behavior -- clear sexual or racial harassment, for example -- should be curtailed. And keeping our thoughts to ourselves at work is nothing new. In the '50s and '60s, my father drove off each day in his mandatory white shirt to a company with a clean-desk policy; each desk was allowed one company ashtray.

What's new is the context. My father came home to a house he could paint any color he wanted, to a neighborhood with far more social life than most neighborhoods have today, and no company ever tested his urine.

Today, we work longer hours; the neighborhoods and churches atrophy.

We make more of our social contacts in the workplace; we meet our future spouses there, we find our friends there. Yet, even as our personal lives shift to the workplace, we seem increasingly hesitant to say or do anything out of the ordinary at work. That's a recipe for mass neurosis, at best.

One trend would seem to make it easier to speak freely in the workplace. In the '50s, the father usually was the family's only breadwinner, which, as Robert Ellis Smith points out, "sometimes made him into a wimp who felt he had no options." Now that most families bring in two paychecks, men and women should feel more free to take risks. Apparently they don't.

Mr. Smith is editor of Privacy Journal, an independent monthly on privacy in the computer age. "In tight economic times," he says, "it's always more difficult to speak out because you can be fired more readily."

Workplace fear is cyclical. Other cycles occurred with the first introduction of mass production, and before World War II, when the United Auto Workers and other unions were organizing.

The most recent cycle was during the early 1970s, when people shaped by the '60s and new employees brought in by affirmative action moved into the work force. These people were accustomed to speaking their minds. Some companies cracked down -- usually ineffectively -- by stopping employees' newsletters, for instance, or strictly restricting what was on company bulletin boards.

What's new is the use of technology to monitor worker behavior (there's more focus on behavior than speech, though the two are intimately related), and the willingness to monitor off-site behavior.

"Urinalysis to test for drug use by employees or job applicants became legally acceptable in the early '80s," Mr. Smith says. "As one byproduct of urine testing, companies could tell if someone smoked tobacco at home. Many employers began to impose rules that they would not hire smokers. There is some backlash. Nineteen states have adopted some kind of protection for smokers."

Some employers concerned about rising health-insurance costs are prohibiting obesity. Others are imposing dress codes, including prohibitions on facial hair, which discriminates against certain religions.

A rash of recent court cases involve the firing of whistle-blowers. Employees have been trailed, wiretapped; their homes have been broken into, their trash gone through.

People get fired for writing letters to the editor, for serving on jury duty, for taking time off to vote, or, more commonly, for objecting to the fact that the company won't give them time off to vote.

"We're seeing workplace recrimination against gays, not because they're gay but because they're involved in gay advocacy outside the workplace," Mr. Smith says, "There's a different kind of oppression today than in the '50s. Today, gays are encouraged by the society to come out and speak their minds, but then they're punished for that in the workplace."

Some states have laws against firing people because of political views or off-site political activities, though these laws are not commonly known or enforced.

If enough people go around censoring their views, playing it safe, you don't need Big Brother; you've got Little Brother, and the First Amendment becomes nice theory.

What's the solution? It's doubtful that the workplace is going to open up soon. The best antidote to Corporate Correctness may be to seek social contacts outside of the company, to bring back the neighborhoods and churches and diners and corner taverns and barbershops, to find or create social institutions that make a point of encouraging people to make their point, and then not punish them economically for doing so.

Richard Louv is the author of "Childhood's Future."

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