Disclaimer: One should interpret this article from a political science perspective, as I sometimes pretend to have. The reason I chose this topic is because it has been on the back of my mind quite a while. And I need your comments to improve my understanding of the matter. And though I am no sociologist or public opinion expert, I do hold my Constitutional right of free speech as a right to debate on issues of interest. All opinions belong to the author.
I use the term public opinion here to describe the view of a majority of individuals belonging to a group. It forms as a result of an event (the death of a royal figure, a snowstorm in the mountains, a crocked person reaching behind bars) which is brought to the attention of the public by means of mass communication (tv, radio, internet, street manifestation, visual art etc.).
Our old friend Walter Lippmann says public opinion is a force people take for granted, and that some “skilled organizers of opinion” have a sixth sense that enables them to interpret this mystic force and translate it into majorities in elections.
He says that the media through cherry picking its stories has the power to shape what topics get to the public. By doing that, Lippmann says, the media sets the trend for what people debate in the society and how they form an opinion on events. Little could Lippmann anticipate back then the creation of Twitter and Facebook.
A more recent date author -Gerard A. Hauser- focuses on how public opinions create and travel around members of the society. He argues that in the society there is no single public, but rather publics. He also puts forward an interesting idea: we normally measure public opinions with quantitative tools such as surveys and polls but Hauser says they do not entirely caption all variations of public opinion.
“The average person on the other hand, without the assistance of a personal opinion poller, must engage in daily acts of surveillance to know where matters stand in the community.”
In totalitarian regimes for instance, there is a high level of secrecy in state affairs, which beholds people from talking freely in the public space. The secrecy is in most of the cases doubled by the regime’s backlash on critics. In Aristotelian terms, the regime strips away from the bios politikos (the all of what concerns politics) the speech part (lexis). As a human being living in a totalitarian regime, you are not entitled TO KNOW, which means you are not allowed to debate.
The topics which reach the public are important because they allow the society to reflect, debate and form an OPINION. We need our media to expand its agenda setting pattern to incorporate other kinds of topics. Likewise, we need opinion makers to concentrate their efforts in wider directions as well. By doing so, we as a society grow into a more mature, better educated public.
For instance, the group of people dealing with school dropouts consist of professors, parents, minors, a handful of psychologists, NGOs and some concerned people.If the group wants more attention from the public or from the political, they need to lobby. But why struggle to get more prime time when school dropout is such a red flag for our society? By not publicly addressing an issue, we indirectly help continue a dangerous trend.
When we occupy public space with similar topics over and over, we fail to develop new opinions. However, there are many situations which require the society to have a general view. And if the society does not have a general view about a topic, then the society:
1. either borrows it from somewhere else (e.g.: some politicians easily supported Donald Trump’s decision to move the USA Embassy to Jerusalem) or
2. adopts a conservative trend (e.g.: if the public does not talk enough about domestic violence, the violence goes unnoticed and the trend perpetuates because there is no pressure from the collective to change)
On the other hand, public opinion should grow organically, meaning we cannot really impose topics which feel strange for the wide majority. Here lies the trouble. But maybe spoon feeding the public step by step with challenging issues will help. Maybe slowly we will outgrow the taboo phase to talk more about domestic violence, prostitution, minority rights, European politics, climate change, recycling, religious freedom. I definitely believe the society is ready to take on these new challenges. And by society I mean the majority of the people, not just micro groups of college educated people from urban or preurban areas.
A wider public agenda will help inform, debate, choose sides on MORE relevant issues. It will ease the imbalance between us and other EU countries in terms of societal debates. Despite the fact that I used the example of school dropouts, I believe it will also help ditch off some of the negativity in news and social media. In the meantime, what we can do is challenge the people around us with daring topics for debate; I am entrusted the result will be quite interesting.