The Spiral of Silence and Public Opinion on Affirmative Action

Article excerpt

This study sought to more fully explicate the key variables involved in Noelle-Neumann's spiral of silence theory, which states that fear of isolation keeps individuals from expressing opinions perceived to be in the minority. We tested the theory in the context of public discussion about affirmative action policies, a domain seemingly ideal due to its moral and value-laden characteristics. Data from 217 randomly selected adults in October 1998 indicate that fear of isolation indeed prevents one from publicly voicing perceived minority opinions. Willingness to speak out on a controversial ballot initiative was predicted also by demographics, media use, and importance of the issue. However, it was perceived consonance of one's opinion with family and friends-rather than society at large-that predicted willingness to speak out.

In recent years, citizens in several states have voted to repeal affirmative action laws and policies that had been enacted in the 1960s and 1970s with the goal of ensuring equal opportunity regardless of race and gender. This trend, which began with the passage of Proposition 209 in California in 1996, reflects a sentiment among some individuals that such statutes do more to harm than help contemporary race and gender relations; others disagree, arguing that affirmative action policies may not be perfect but that the best approach is to revise, rather than eliminate, these laws.1 This public debate about affirmative action continues, with many Americans deeply divided about appropriate strategies to implement and/or maintain race and gender equality.2

Public discussion about affirmative action is rife with conflict, competing moral claims, and extreme sensitivity as to which views are socially acceptable. As Alvarez and Brehm contend, "Few contemporary policy debates are as conflictual as the debates over policies intended to redress racial inequality."3 Of course, affirmative action policies encompass concerns about both race and gender, which only further heightens the conflict. Such an issue, therefore, provides an ideal context in which to test hypotheses derived from the spiral of silence theory. This theory, as formulated by Noelle-Neumann, suggests that with respect to issues that are morally laden and controversial, people refrain from expressing opinions they perceive are or will be shared by a minority of the public.4 This process is thought to occur because individuals fear isolation from the broader society. Some scholars have argued, however, that the isolation feared by individuals is from reference groups, not society at large.5 Insight into these differing opinion climates seems likely in the context of affirmative action, in which social rejection may very well occur if one says the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person or group. Further, given the sensitivity of this long-standing issue, most people likely would be aware of the risks of being ostracized for holding a socially unacceptable view. At the same time, a variety of other factors, including the importance of an issue, one's level of education, and exposure to news coverage, may influence a person to speak out about a topic.6

With this in mind, this study explores the factors contributing to people's willingness to speak publicly on controversial topics, with a particular focus on the concept of fear of isolation. We examine these relationships by assessing individuals' outlooks on Initiative 200, a Washington state ballot initiative in fall 1998 that proposed to end considerations of race, ethnicity, and gender in public employment, education, and contract decisions. Initiative 200 was an issue of substantial conflict, generating considerable news coverage, public demonstrations, and political advertisements, and was the subject of numerous polls during the campaign. Our analysis focuses on data collected in a survey of adults in King County (which includes Seattle) during the final weeks of the election season. …