American Elephants

Public Opinion Isn’t What Its Cracked-Up to Be by The Elephant's Child

Thomas Jefferson said that our democracy rests on a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” In a long essay Democracy and its Discontents: Reflections on Everyday America, (1971), Daniel Boorstin,  the late Librarian of Congress suggests that “we suffer from a disease different from that which any society before us has suffered. I call it “overcommunication.”

He suggests that we could actually define the rise of civilization as the rise of communication, and sharing of information and knowledge. This is called the information age, and so it is. Communicate means to impart information, knowledge or the like, to impart or convey knowledge of or inform a person of, to tell. But there is an indispensable counterpart, the right to listen – or not to listen – begins to disappear. I am sitting in front of my computer monitor, listening on Tune-in Radio to a local radio station because on the actual radio (which is turned off) there is too much static. I am writing as I listen, but can search for a bit of information I lack, turn to any one of dozens of websites for other opinion or information.

Daniel Boorstin goes on to suggest that we have too much communication, too many opinions, and the good manners that did, or at least should, accompany opinion has gone a-glimmering.You only have to read the comments section on any popular website. It’s not just good manners that have disappeared. Comments are vulgar, ugly, scatological and often ungrammatical, and give opinion a bad name. .

The progress of civilization depends on the ability of people to develop a more self-controlled attitude about what they say – and how, when and where. In the early days, there was a town crier, who called out the important news as he walked around the town. Riders brought the news of an election – days after it happened, depending on how big and important your town was. The news from England in the 1700’s probably took about 6 months. Think the invention of the steam engine, the Panama Canal, the Pony Express, canals, railroads, the telegraph, the telephone, photography. I saw a brief video yesterday of President Trump talking to reporters in the Oval Office. A huge mob of people with microphones on long poles and cameras — and think of all the inventions involved in that brief occasion that was brought across the continent to my desk in the Pacific Northwest, shortly after it actually happened.

Boorstin is right, there is too much opinion, you can’t get away from it. The websites that offer news offer opinions not just from those who make the news and those who record it and disseminate it, but opinions from people who have the opportunity to express their opinions because they are “celebrities”, which means that we know their names because they did something to get their name known, like sing, or tell jokes, or act on television or on the screen. (This is a personal bugaboo.) I don’t think that having their names made public, whether we recognize it or not, qualifies them to have their opinions listened to – nor does the content of their opinions qualify as “news.” So Boorstin is absolutely correct there is way too much opinion, and you can’t get away from it. I would like to know what is happening without the intrusion of Cher, or any of the other formerly famous who cannot wait to get their opinions out there.

It’s opinion that is the problem. Opinion was once something personal, thought (as Boorstin says, “Opinions then, are distinguished by the strength with which they are held rather than the authenticity with which their conclusions  are demonstrable.”) And we have reached the point where there is Big Opinion, or as it is usually called, Public Opinion. Public Opinion is more important and somehow more respectable than private opinion. We have Opinion Leaders, Opinion Writers, huge polling businesses to tally Public Opinion. Opinion has moved from something that should be kept to yourself, to a controlling voice in our society.

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