A conspiracy of silence, or culture of silence, describes the behavior of a group of people of some size, as large as an entire national group or profession or as small as a group of colleagues, that by unspoken consensus does not mention, discuss, or acknowledge a given subject. The practice may be motivated by positive interest in group solidarity or by such negative impulses as fear of political repercussion or social ostracism. It differs from avoiding a taboo subject in that the term is applied to more limited social and political contexts rather than to an entire culture. As a descriptor, conspiracy of silence implies dishonesty, sometimes cowardice, sometimes privileging loyalty to one social group over another. As a social practice, it is rather more extensive than the use of euphemisms to avoid addressing a topic directly.
Some instances of such a practice are sufficiently well-known or enduring to become known by their own specific terms, including Code of silence for the refusal of law enforcement officers to speak out against crimes committed by fellow officers and omertà, cultural code of organized crime in Sicily.
Examples of the use of the term vary widely and include:
An 1854 report on unrest in Hungary said the rulers of the Austrian Empire were powerless because "It cannot keep up its infamous rule, but by terror. There is a conspiracy without any doubt spread over the whole country–the conspiracy of silence and watchful expectation....[W]e will patiently await the right moment, and then rise as one man."
In 1885, London's Pall Mall Gazette reported that prominent men were patronizing brothels. When authorities accused the paper of obscenity and tried to block its distribution, the paper's editors thanked them for "thereby breaking the conspiracy of silence maintained by the press concerning [their] revelations".
A conference of social workers and medical personnel in 1936 urged greater efforts to prevent the spread of syphilis by New York City and state. An official of the federal government said they needed to bring the problems "out in the open" to overcome a "conspiracy of silence" that prevented public education efforts.
In 1945, British writer George Orwell published a novel about totalitarian life, Animal Farm. It soon became famous. He wrote a preface to the novel, but never published it. It first appeared in 1972. Orwell wrote:
The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn't do” to mention that particular fact....At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet regime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet Government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable.
Richard Shaull has described how Paulo Freire discovered the "culture of silence" in the Foreword of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Paulo realized that the ignorance and lethargy in the life of poor and dispossessed are the direct product of the whole situation of economic, social, and political domination and of the paternalism of which they were the victims. Rather than being encouraged and equipped to know and respond to the concrete realities of the world, they were kept "submerged" in a situation in which such critical awareness and response were practically impossible. And it became clear to him that the whole educational system was one of the major instruments for the maintenance of this culture of silence.
Between 1972 and 1994, members of the Charlestown community in Massachusetts were unwilling to share information that would facilitate homicide investigations because of their reliance on vigilante justice, fear of retaliation by criminals, and anti-police sentiment.
Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis (2006), a book criticizing the activities of Christian churches.
Conspiracy of Silence, a 2004 film drama about the sexual activity of some Irish Roman Catholic clergy.
Political adversaries, according to the New York Times in 2013, sometimes agree to avoid topics they all find difficult: "But on one topic, there was a conspiracy of silence: Republicans and Democrats agreed that they did not really want to talk about the Iraq war."
Co-workers avoid criticizing a colleague, for example pilots do not report another pilot's alcohol problem: "There is a conspiracy of silence among macho men: 'Don't rat on your buddy.'"
The unspoken agreement of journalists and media outlets to suppress coverage of topics that their readers, advertisers, or sources prefer to avoid. Chris Lamb's Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball describes the consistent refusal of white sportswriters to report the decades-long efforts to integrate professional baseball in the United States.