Free Speech

One of the great themes of Agile is freedom.

There is no doubt that some take freedom in the wrong way, and what they get is more like anarchy, which is not freedom. But, from what I see, most people don’t really understand freedom. Based on actions, they seem to think it means, “I am free to do whatever I want, and you are ‘free’ to do a lot of the things I want you to do — because I know what is best for you.” In other words, they accept that others have some degree of autonomy, but they say, “These people still report to me” (as one example), meaning they must — in the end — do what I say.

Well, perhaps I am putting too much attention on where freedom is abridged and not counting enough where it waves free, but the abridgment is where we need to be fighting.

One argument made against free speech is that it is indecisive.

We must accept that in business we must make some decisions — many decisions are difficult and there are ones where full consensus is not possible, so we must have some way of deciding quickly, and hopefully the decisions have a good chance of being better (than doing it another way).

Some say the manager has the final authority. Umm. OK, that is one method. When implemented, it is not always a method that recognizes the freedom of the “workers.”

Also, managers forget too often Little’s second law: People are remarkably good at doing what they want to do. Frankly, I forget it too, on a daily basis. At least with knowledge workers, this voluntary consent seems to be necessary.

Managers should let people have their say. Each worker (for lack of a better word) doesn’t require the team do exactly what they say, but they can go with the decision more if they feel the group heard them. The team took the time to listen, and, one may hope, also learned.

Who should decide or how should the team decide?

Well, first, I would let the team discuss that. But, for a given decision, after everyone in the team gets a chance to express what they know or think or have questions about, then maybe one person decides. That person might be a manager, or whomever the best person on the team may be to decide that issue.

Now I come to political correctness that I see in the U.S. as mainly a corporate abrogation of our free speech rights.  Yes, we could agree that some people say “evil” things. I never see this at work; perhaps it is latent, but I doubt it. I do see some silly things said, and occasionally a mean thing or two, but speaking and thinking are different than acting.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

So, IMO, the corporate “PC” codes have, in many cases, de facto gone way too far. Maybe the PC codes as written are OK, but the de facto effect is very bad, at least where I see them. (There may also be a good effect — I have not studied that and it is not as apparent to me.)

Definition of Belief in Free Speech: You only believe in free speech if you are willing to defend a person whose speech you strongly disagree with. (This is a famous definition.)

What the PC ethos does is cause people to lie and cover up and not tell the truth, sometimes even to themselves, so all the “imperfections” that we all have come seeping out another way — Freud showed this and we all have experiences that show this.

One could argue that for certain kinds of speech that are “not helpful” from a business viewpoint, we don’t care (from a business viewpoint) that that speech is suppressed. This does not affect the business — maybe, from a certain point of view. But, that we have treated the people as “under our control during business hours” does in fact affect business. at least with knowledge workers.

We must accept that every person holds biases and generalizations, for example. These can be useful, even life preserving, but equally they can be not useful or hurtful or stupid or worse. But, it is the nature of how our minds work that we generalize, and some ideas become biases, prejudices, discrimination, etc. Any thinking person should examine his generalizations and expect a bunch of them to be stupid. Also, as Linda Rising famously (to me) summarized, it is the way our animal being works. We are pack animals, for example.

Free speech is not just for the non-stupid ideas.

Stupid ideas especially deserve free speech.

The effect of the PC “rules,” however perfect they sounded on some bureaucrat’s desk, is that they create a culture where people withhold stupid thoughts and even good or useful thoughts — but let’s just focus on the stupid thoughts — and it is only by putting stupid thoughts on the table that the team can examine them and correct them.

(I may like the person, but I hate “the bureaucrat” almost every time.) And right now, I am talking about stupid thoughts that have a business impact.

Now, we do need some rules for extreme behavior or words. OK — that is a complicated area. But words that merely hurt our feelings cannot be unacceptable. In business, we have to hurt feelings.

A person might roughly say, “Oh, you suits, you guys never understand the technical stuff.” A gross generalization, but until it is on the table, the team can’t examine how true it might be.

A person might say, “Oh, geeze, you’re so like a chick with these concerns about emotions. Let’s get on with it.” Again, a gross generalization. Maybe that team needs to work on emotional IQ or not, but they can’t deal with either side of it until the issue is on the table.

A person might say, “Typical guy; gotta fidget with your tool endlessly. Bring your head up out of the screen, and consider the people just a bit. Dude!” Again, a gross generalization, but the PC impact is that these rough words don’t get said. And thus, the real issues are often unknown, and hence very hard to deal with.

Free speech is a serious issue.

More concretely, in business, we want people to feel free to say the truth — even unpleasant truth — a lot more than they currently do.

I am not advocating that people be mean or brutal with each other, but in general, we need to tell the truth more, and it will not always be fun. Some will object. Some will say they feel hurt.

Mostly, the fight is worth it.

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7 thoughts on “Free Speech

  1. Anonymous

    Believing in freedom of speech, and understanding that not everything is appropriate in a business atmosphere are not the same thing… Even if I was vehemently opposed to your using that video as a teaching tool (I'm not, but for the sake of argument) that would be quite different than believing laws should be enacted to prevent you from using it. Being PC in a business environment is not directly translatable to freedom of speech, and the two are not contradictory, either.

    Reply
  2. Joe Little

    Hi Anon.

    I both agree and disagree with your comment. Which is well said on your part (IMO). Mainly agree, but I want you to say more.

    Agreed: From the point of view of the speaker, we *should* consider ourselves under more constraints than just free speech (almost no constraints). Taste, manners, god sense, etc.

    Disagree: From the point of view of the would-be censor, especially when people spend most of their sentient hours at work, I don't think the censor has much further "rights" to censorship. As I think you maybe are suggesting. (True?) Maybe a bit (as I suggested in the post), but not much.

    But, as you suggest, this is a complex subject. Tell us more, by taking whichever side you want first: speaker or would-be censor.

    Or, perhaps better yet: take the side of the whole system, and consider the effects of reductions in freedom by the PC "laws" and enforcements that large corporations have in place now.

    Thanks, Joe

    Reply
  3. Chris

    I'll go un-anon…

    My main point is just that free speech doesn't really have anything to do with what's appropriate in a business environment. If you're someone wanting to use this video as a teaching tool, and someone in a position of authority over you in a business environment says "forget it, that's inappropriate", then trying to claim they're infringing on your right to free speech is a worthless argument.

    Free speech applies to what the government can enforce, not what businesses can enforce.

    A parallel is visiting someone's home. If you said something in my home that I felt was inappropriate it would be within my rights as the homeowner to ask you to shut your pie hole, right? It has nothing to do with free speech. If you insisted, then I would just kick you out. You could then go out on the public sidewalk and say what you were wanting to say, and I'd have no leverage against you other than maybe if you did it in a harassing way, or whatever, but that's beside the point.

    When you're operating within the confines of a business you are participating in a business relationship. And if the other side of that relationship decides something is inappropriate, then your choice is to operate within that restriction or sever that relationship. Or if the relationship is cordial enough then you could appeal to them to relax the restrictions, but you would have no room to claim freedom of speech when doing so.

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  4. Joe Little

    Hi Chris,

    Umm. Interesting contention.

    Let me try to say again what I already said, but I think it is clear we disagree fundamentally. (And I respect your right to say so. In a space that I "own.")

    As a speaker: I agree that I have more constraints than my free speech rights (which are almost no constraints, except that I can't yell 'fire' in a crowded building). As you rightly point out. Exactly how many constraints, and how enforced, especially in the sometimes prissy bible-belt self-righteous southern society in which I sometimes walk, is another question. (Mind you, southern society can, two blocks later, be the polar opposite of the cliche I just voiced.) If the punishment is merely the whispering of prissy older ladies, I think I can take the heat.

    As a corporate would-be censor: I have already suggested how bad this is for business. Unless you are only talking about the most extreme of foul speech. (BTW, my point is by no means only about that video. Or about me, as an external person, in a corporation, although that has its own special issues.) If one is hired and lives there most of the time, one *should* have quite extensive rights to free speech. I don't remember signing those away when I became an employee of a large corporation (which I was in my younger years).

    The implication of what you have said is, I think, that the "owner" of a corporation can restrict our rights to free speech as completely as he (she would never be so evil) as much as he could possibly want.

    While I might agree that 'a man's home is his castle' and he has complete ownership of it, I cannot agree that an 'owner' of a corporation can or should have the same rights. There are completely different degrees of flexibility in my association with those two and far different implications.

    My contention is, because freedom is so important, both the corporation (and other types of large orgs) and the individuals *should* be fighting for free speech within their walls. And free speech only matters when it is speech one strongly disagrees with. Among other small reasons, we spend too much time there to pretend to be someone we are not.

    Fire me if I don't do my job, but not because of almost anything I said. (The almost is for very extreme speech. Just barely more than the famous 'fire' limitation.)

    As the great thinkers on free speech have noted, two or three wise people might agree that those 3 words in that specific context might be censored. But it is almost impossible to make rules that can be applied fairly in all the different situations of life. "Stick and stones may break my bones, but words…" And so, while it hurts our feelings some to hear disagreeable things, it hurts our being more to censor them.

    Now, you have not raised this argument, but others have some counter right to reasonable peace and quiet. If I am yelping off endlessly (yet still working), they have a right *not* to listen to me. But in most typical real situations, my free speech rights trump this.

    Also: most PC rules are stated so vaguely and enforced so stupidly (from what I have seen and heard) that anyone can be fired for anything, if the weather is blowing the wrong way that day. It is idiotic. Perhaps you have not seen this, but it does exist.

    Again, I am personally sympathetic to the underlying basis for most of the PC rules, but I abhor how that basis has been used in this way.

    I am concerned for you that you do not care enough about freedom. And that can lead to you voting away my freedom.

    Anyway, I do appreciate your candid comments. As a speaker, I mostly agree with you. But I strongly disagree to the degree you are defending would-be censors. But it is a complex subject, and we continue to learn.

    I say again, in all the world, there are only a few things more important than freedom. They were right to have died for our freedom.

    Thanks, Joe

    Reply
  5. Chris

    I have you in my news reader and I've read many articles/posts without commenting. The reason I chose to comment on this one is not because I have a beef with you, it's just that I'm not following the connection you're trying to make. I understand and even sympathize with your core complaint, as I am not a manager nor have I ever been one, and I've worked for at least one large corporation that was overly restrictive for my tastes (emphasis on workED).

    Maybe your point that this applies to large corporations is the key to your argument, but I don't think large corporations should have to play by different rules. It seems you're going a bit further, though, and I think maybe this one sentence of yours illustrates what I'm getting at best: "I don't remember signing those [rights] away when I became an employee of a large corporation."

    You *aren't* signing those rights away. You aren't deprived of those rights. You are free to say anything you want to say (yelling fire, aside). A business is not the government. Your "rights" to free speech deal only with the degree to which the government is allowed to restrict you. You are perfectly within those rights to say whatever you want within the walls of any business or company in which you find yourself. But that company is also fully within its rights to ask you to leave if you insist on violating what someone in authority within that company has decreed as appropriate. That's the part I'm stuck on. I fully believe in your (and my) rights to free speech, but I also believe in the rights of a private entity to define what is appropriate behavior within the confines of their environment. This isn't censorship. They are a private entity, not a public (government) one. Their influence does not extend to a public sidewalk, for instance. Even the public sidewalk directly outside their building.

    Now if a company wanted to be a "cool" company, then they would be less restrictive. A company that is overly restrictive is not a cool company, and I would not want to work for them nor do business with them. There are all too many companies that are taking things too far, sure. There are prudish asshats in positions of power in too many companies exerting undue influence on this culture-defining process, sure. If that's all your argument comes down to, then you can disregard all that I've said, because I agree with you. But you seem to be saying that you don't think a company has a right to define what is acceptable culture, and I just take issue with that. They have the right to do that, and that is something I feel is worth defending. You have the right to free speech, and you have the right to do or not do business with anyone or any company you choose. Those are also things worth defending.

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  6. Stefanie

    Freedom of speech is a right that we all have in this country and I am very glad for that. I am often frustrated by how that freedom is allowed for some and not for others. For example, as a Christian my views are not welcome but other Religious denominations are allowed to speak out about Christianity and their beliefs while not wanting me to speak my mind……but that is for another blog.

    In the work place there is a balance that must be maintained. For one, we are a litigious society and a comment misplaced can have serious implications for an employer. A misspoken comment can potentially cost someone their job or a company a lot of money. Unfortunately because of this companies have gone to the extreme limiting the discussion of personal beliefs and opinions. I have adhered to the guideline that there are 3 things you never discuss at work – religion, politics, and sex- it is just safer. On the other hand, an employer strives to protect people from harassment or being subjected to extremists. Of course how you and I define extremists can vary. The measure of what is acceptable is usually based on the “reasonable person” guideline; how would the reasonable person react. My experience has shown that what is reasonable can vary by region and company. To say it is difficult is an understatement.

    So how does this apply to scrum. I think that in that setting it is based on the trust and relationships within the team. I have worked with people that could be blunt, brutally honest, and downright shocking to others. It was acceptable because, as Stephen Covey describes in 7 Habits, an emotional bank account had been established. There was trust, camaraderie, and team work toward a common goal. These people could have called me an “emotional chick”, “babe”, “girlie”, told off color jokes, and shared political and religious opinions and I would not have blinked an eye. I knew that these people had my back! So how will I apply this to my teams? I will work to build that trust, establish a “safe” environment for freely sharing opinions, and help the team learn to laugh at themselves! All while keeping HR and the corporate police at bay!

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  7. Sir Thomas

    I will say here, with all due freedom, that this business problem stems from a social problem. it falls from two areas of decline. First, we should be learning remember this, "When is school, follow the rules, when you're out, go ahead and shout!" In other words, when we are at work, we are to follow basic decorum. As Stefanie pointed out so well (as she is my wife) religion, politics, and sex should be excluded; as should language that would be seen as offensive IF it is agreed that it is offensive to the group at large. for example, as a paramedic in the South Bronx for NYC EMS I used, not just jargon, but language in Spanish and English, that just would not be–let's says used in polite company.

    The second point is our lack of the amount of people with military experience. There is a reason why we have a chain of command. There are times when your people are not suppose to question the manager (or superior). Now, even in the military, we use group settings and discussions to teach. In the same vein, a team can use a certain time period to bounce ideas. However, when discussion time is over, it's over. You do your job and that's it. Business is to make profit, if you are not doing your part, then you can actually lose money for other.

    In the end, free speech is altogether fine on your own time. Within the office, there are rules for a reason, typically efficiency and a feeling of trust between the workforce. You want to be wild and free, be an artist.

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