The Illusions of Opinion

By Neumart, Paul | Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The Illusions of Opinion


Neumart, Paul, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology


If public opinion is a matter of conditioning by propagandists, how does the free individual determine which opinion is integrally his? Think of living in a culture in which political opinions are formed by psychologic conditioning and made the basis for political power. Mass persuasion has been developed to a fine art by the modern politician. By leaving politics to the politician we have allowed it to degenerate to personal opportunism. It is the arena where prejudice thrives; where passion and glory subvert reason; where the all or nothing reactions of primitive mentality operate--in short, where rhetoric and invective take hold. To the politician the democratic process of vote getting is mostly an appeal to the emotions of fear and hope, presenting himself or herself as benign, benevolent, honest, hardworking--a father or mother symbol who eats hot dogs and kisses babies.

The tendency to make sweeping generalizations about liberals and conservatives suggest that a person who is considered liberal about some things cannot be conservative about others. Many professed political liberals are rapidly reactionary about freedom of literary obscenity. On the other hand, there are conservatives who express abhorrence at any limitation put on freedom of speech per se. By limiting our conception of these political labels to the meaning of the label alone, we have created more confusion and less understanding of the nature of one's political beliefs. Because there are emotional values attached to radicalism, liberalism, and conservatism we tend to react only to the label and ignore the state of mind behind the label.

Our tendency to dehumanize and depersonalize political and social ideas puts aside the human personality expressing his or her deeper feelings and desires. Politics and economics are ways of satisfying human desires and needs, whether food, shelter and clothing; or work, play and creativity--what Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness. Beyond this there are also aspirations for security, liberty, and other human rights, including the conditions for a growing consciousness and individuality. These political aspirations are humanistic; consequently, such terms as radical, liberal, and conservative are only word-symbols for human impulses which dispose each individual toward one of various creeds or modes of action. We can see, therefore, that a social creed may become the symbol for a great variety of feelings and emotions. A fixed opinion that never alters is like a cesspool that keeps on breeding more of its own matter.

The First Amendment protects all speech, all opinions, especially the unpopular, as there would be no need for protecting popular opinion. The mass mentality would be on the side of popular opinion. The unpopular never has much support, but the popular variety, as Voltaire points out, " ... requires ages to destroy ... Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth," Voltaire wrote, "than plagues or earthquakes."

According to the English statesman Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), "Public opinion is a compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs." There is no doubt that the cornerstone of any democratic government is an enlightened public opinion. This is never possible when prejudiced opinions are accepted as principle. While it is true, as David Hume said, that "all human affairs are entirely governed by opinion," it is also true that a better governing of human affairs comes from a better understanding of how opinions are formed, and how they should be developed. A capricious public opinion is a false and uneducated one and should not be the basis for governing human affairs.

Because an educated public opinion is a first requisite for a truly democratic society, it is also required that the individual be educated both in feeling and intellect. Feeling often determines the quality of the intellect. …

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