The forming, and misinforming, of public opinion

THE old writer's joke, ``How do I know what I think until I see what I write?'' ought to be adapted to politics. Does that mean the question should read: ``How do I know what I think until I see how I vote?'' Not at all, alas.

Once, the ballot box may have been the primary expression of public opinion. Now fewer and fewer citizens seem to vote, and those who do are apt to complain that Democrats and Republicans lack philosophical contrast -- and anyway, all candidates are packaged for style rather than substance, aren't they? A campaign is just one more product for a TV commercial to sell.

Whether or not the complaints are valid, public opinion has become a force expressed, first and foremost, outside the political process, often with the random impulsiveness of graffiti.

``How do I know what I think . . . ?'' Instead of voting, we talk to pollsters to see what we think, freely making our opinions public on every subject conceivable. Do we believe in God? What is our favorite television program? How often do we jog? Would we vote for a woman for president?

Once we get started we practically froth at the mouth with opinions, like a talk-show guest. If pollsters won't ask us, we volunteer to the world at large our positions on gun control and nuclear power, not to mention whom we should hug and/or brake for. What else are bumper stickers and T-shirts for?

Should our opinions become, as they say, commitments, we may even demonstrate or march -- cast our vote in the street.

All of life seems to have turned into a question, demanding an opinion or a gesture passing for an opinion.

No topic goes unresearched. No position on that topic, however odd or extreme, goes unexpressed.

Public opinions are everywhere, like billboard ads and honking automobiles. But amid all the loud and gaudy self-assertiveness, something is missing.

For one thing, our endlessly proliferating opinions fail to hang together, to cohere. Indeed they often seem to have nothing to do with one another, even when coexisting within the same individual. One is simultaneously a vegetarian-libertarian-pro-abortionist -- and on and on, liberal here, conservative there, as if intellectually outfitted by half-a-dozen different lobbyists and gurus. This fragmentation, if not self-contradiction, causes us problems in our private life and in our public life. In the one, we tend to lack conviction -- some unifying opinion. In the other, we lack consistent policy.

More than 60 years ago, in a book titled ``Public Opinion,'' Walter Lippmann foresaw the confusions we are experiencing now. World War I had made him realize that, as modern history became more complicated -- as the unknown factors multiplied and the risks got higher -- our recklessness grew, too. Perversely, we took bigger chances with less information.

Lippmann, preeminently a man of reason, was horrified at how casually, how thoughtlessly, public opinion became formed. He warned how selective our bias made us in recognizing the ``facts.'' We turn history, even as it is happening, into an allegory, with ``good'' nations (us and our allies) vying against ``bad'' nations (everybody else).

Lippmann despaired over our tendency to ``think'' in stereotypes: ``For the most part, we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.''

All his life Lippmann wrote with almost quixotic clarity and order about the chaos he witnessed about him, compounded as he saw it by the chaos of public opinion. But in the end, fearing even in 1922 another world war, he too was driven beyond reason to place his hope in something more. ``Where so much is uncertain, where so many actions have to be carried out on guesses,'' he concluded, ``it is necessary to live as if good will would work. We cannot prove in every instance that it will, nor why hatred, intolerance, suspicion, bigotry, secrecy, fear, and lying are the seven deadly sins against public opinion. We can only insist that they have no place in the appeal to reason, that in the longer run they are a poison.''

How desperately, but still hopefully, Lippmann might underline that conclusion if he were alive today in a world that sill struggles for informed public opinion, but would settle any day for an understanding heart!

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