Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network.
Have you ever had a question that you refrained from asking, because of what someone might think? Or had an idea that you were afraid to share, because of what someone might say?
These are very common human impulses, sometimes even healthy. If you refrain from sharing because you realize what you say could hurt someone’s feelings, restraint may simply be good manners. If you refrain because you realize you don’t know as much about the topic as others present, restraint might just be mature judgment.
But if you are an academic professional or higher education student, and you refrain from sharing your work and ideas not because of these healthy impulses but out of fear, then you may be engaged in academic self-censorship.
What Is Academic Self-Censorship?
Academic self-censorship is refraining from examining specific research questions, teaching specific topics, or sharing specific theories, evidence or ideas within one’s professional expertise or discipline because of threats or fear of professional, legal or physical retaliation.
It is not about fear of being wrong. Academic freedom—when it is respected—protects scholars’ and students’ right to be wrong, to explore theories and evidence which may not pan out.
Academic self-censorship is about fear of losing one’s job or position. It is about fear of harassment and threats of violence—whether in-person or remote (such as by phone or online)—including racist, sexist, and homophobic threats; “doxing,” or the malicious publication of personal details online; and conscious efforts to destroy reputations and livelihoods. Fear of actual violence, including beatings, rape, and killings. Fear of actions by the state, including wrongful arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment. Fear of non-state actors, including mob violence without adequate protection from public authorities. Fear not only of actions against yourself, but against family members or colleagues, including intimidation of children and parents and judicial hostage taking—the prosecution or imprisonment of a loved one to punish the expression of another.