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When Self-Censorship Means Self-Protection

/ 28 Apr 2021

When Self-Censorship Means Self-Protection

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.

Do I sometimes self-censor? Yes. It is a highly contextual question, so I’ll try to answer it with as much nuance as I can, with the caveat that I am, to an extent, self-censoring even right now as I write this. Because this is not an “academic” publication understandable to a small minority of people, it will be translated into Arabic, and will be viewed by a larger audience than my blog or my peer-reviewed publications.

I think self-censorship, whether in our research (starting with WHAT, HOW and with WHOM to conduct our research), our teaching, or even our daily conversations with colleagues, is riskier in Egypt than, say, the United States. My U.S. colleagues often talk about the need to self-censor before they gain “tenure” because they want to maintain their job security; they speak as though once they are tenured, they no longer have to self-censor; a few who are self-aware will recognize that years of self-censorship may make them averse to fully using their academic freedom once they gain tenure—they will have internalized their oppression and been indoctrinated into the dominant culture. The situation for me as an Egyptian at an American University in Cairo is quite different.

Assuming You’re Under Surveillance

First of all, the risks of certain types of speech or research are high. I have to assume that I am being watched by local and international actors, who may judge my political intentions, make correlations between my social media clicks (I am very active on Twitter, now less active on Facebook), and draw conclusions that may lead to more surveillance of my activities (did I say “more”? Am I paranoid? Can you live in this part of the world without conspiracy theories swirling through your mind?) and possibly to arrest or imprisonment. I’ve gotten braver about talking about this. It has never happened to me, but it has happened to professors at my institution. Right now, with so much surveillance possible through digital means, you don’t have to be an activist on the streets to be taking a risk. (See a related article, “Egyptian Human Rights Scholar Detained, Fanning Broader Fears.”)

“You never really know whom you’re talking to. You don’t know the political agendas of people around you, so you don’t know whom to trust with what information.”

Second, you never really know whom you’re talking to. You don’t know the political agendas of people around you, so you don’t know whom to trust with what information. Occasionally, another educator in the United States whom I work with asks me a political question. And I refuse to answer it on public Twitter. They send me a private message, and I refuse to answer there. They ask if email works, and I say no. They ask if I’ll answer if we ever meet in person, and I say no. I am actually a very trusting person by nature, but I’m not willing to take those kinds of risks.

Third, I teach my students digital literacies and they blog publicly. I have to speak to them about the risks of posting on social media about certain topics—we may speak about it in class, but blogging about it in a written, concrete form that is more traceable? We don’t do that. Some political science and social science professors asked me about the risks of discussing certain things online, where it is easier to record and share. I told them, where possible, to create some kind of anonymity (like anonymous discussion forums), but if the risk seems high and they can’t protect students or themselves this way, they may need to skip discussing those topics while we’re fully online. Or do them in a roundabout way like via role play rather than direct discussion. (See a related article, “Freedom of Creativity Is Under Siege in Egypt.”)

When you make decisions like these, you have to ask yourself, why am I discussing/broadcasting this topic/opinion? What do I have to gain, who else has to gain, and what are the risks, what do I stand to lose? Might I be putting other people at risk (family, or colleagues, or students)? Do I have the right to make that decision on their behalf? Would my institution back me up if something goes wrong, and do they have the power to bail me out?

Avoiding Clashing With Authority

“My work is political in that it interrogates power and resists injustice, but, for as far as I can go without directly clashing with political authority, I will do so.”

So here is what I’ve done. I’ve focused my work, which is political, but not political. My work is about education, and social justice in education, sometimes more focused on educational technology, but not only. It is political in that it interrogates power and resists injustice, but, for as far as I can go without directly clashing with political authority, I will do so. I pay very little attention to news, not reading newspapers nor watching news on TV regularly, rarely clicking on news on social media (this is all so traceable). This automatically distances me from certain things, and gives me peace of mind. Honestly, it does. Whenever I’ve touched upon politics, it’s been from an educational angle (like my “Critical Citizenship for Critical Times” article here on Al-Fanar Media), it has been mainly in English, on my blog, in the midst of a broader educational point, or it has been in very private spaces… sometimes confined to my own mind. Always in English. Less threatening, I suppose?

Honestly, in the current polarized Egyptian context post-2011 and post-2013, I have to censor myself at the dinner table with my family because, as an American University professor, people sometimes believe my mind has been “colonized”, and I don’t blame them. We’re those “Westernized elite” that Edward Said spoke of, and as someone who studies postcolonialism and decolonization, I’m hyperaware of how my Western education and context influences my thinking. I’m also aware of the complicated agendas of my work environment and how my hybrid identity affects how people perceive me: woman, head-scarved, claiming to be “liberal” in her politics; writing and speaking and teaching and researching in English. My agenda is questionable and suspicious, sometimes even to my own students. I once had a graduate student accuse my interactive style of teaching as a form of data collection for US intelligence. I was baffled at the time. I get it now, though.

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So yeah. There are many injustices and inequalities in the world, and in education, where I have enough expertise to make a difference. There is enough within my own circle of control and influence for me to make a difference in the world without exposing my family and my colleagues to risk, and so I’ll self-censor and still hope to make a difference. And I’ve internalized this so it just comes naturally to me now.

Maha Bali is an associate professor of practice in the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She is a co-founder of virtuallyconnecting.org and co-facilitator of Equity Unbound.




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