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Blupete's Weekly Commentary

September 5th - 19th, 1999. 1

"Public Opinion."

"The pressure of public opinion is like the pressure of the atmosphere; you can't see it - but, all the same, it is sixteen pounds to the square inch."
(James Russell Lowell, 1819-1891.)

"In the crises, however democratic officials - over and above their own human propensity to err - have been compelled to make the big mistakes that public opinion has insisted upon. Even the greatest men have not been able to turn back the massive tides of opinion and of sentiment."
(Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy, 1955.)

"We flatter ourselves by claiming to be rational and intellectual beings, but it would be a great mistake to suppose that men are always guided by reason. We are strange inconsistent creatures, and we act quite as often, perhaps oftener, from prejudice or passion. The result is that you are more likely to carry men with you by enlisting their feelings, than by convincing their reason. This applies, moreover, to companies of men even more than to individuals."
(Sir John Lubbock's on "Tact".)

It was Holmes (the father or son, I forget which) who said: "The feeble tremble before [public] opinion, the foolish defy it, the wise judge it, the skillful direct it." And John Stuart Mill who defined it simply, "a few wise and many foolish individuals." (On Liberty.) It would be mere coincidence if the statistical sum of people's opinions were to be in the public interest (to be distinguished from sectorial interest, or in the interest of a particular group). What is, and what is not, in the public interest is always something that might be debated; it is, as Walter Lippmann said to "be presumed to be what men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently."

To the politician, public opinion is everything. The people who mould public opinion, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out, are more powerful than those "who enact statutes or pronounce decisions."

The history books will show the moving power is usually that of a single mind; and, all the great power hungry leaders of history were champions of public opinion. They knew that the power of a single mind comes from melding it to the minds of the people; one needs to read public opinion so to secure power in the first place; and, then, to change public opinion to suit the mind of the leader: the effect can be awesome.

"There is in nature no moving power but mind [and] in human affairs this power is opinion; in political affairs it is public opinion; and he who can grasp this power, with it will subdue the fleshly arm of physical strength ... those statesmen who know how to avail themselves of the passion and the interest and the opinions of mankind are able ... to exercise a sway over human affairs far out of all proportion greater than belong to the power and resources of the state over which they preside." (Palmerston, the 19th century English Prime Minister.)

"The Public ... is so in awe of its own opinion, that it never dares to form any, but catches up the first idle rumour, ... and echoes it till it is deafened with the sound of its own voice. The idea of what the public will think prevents the public from ever thinking at all, and acts as a spell on the exercise of private judgement, so that in short the public ear is at the mercy of the first impudent pretender who chooses to fill it with noisy assertion, or false surmise, or secret whispers. ... [The large mass of people, the public, are like] puppets at work ... [and he who has] the art or power to get the management of it, he shall keep possession of the public ear by virtue of a cant phrase or nickname; and by dint of effrontery and perseverance make all the world believe and repeat... So far then is public opinion from resting on a broad and solid base, as the aggregate of thought and feeling in a community, that it is slight and shallow and variable to the last degree - the bubble of the moment; so that we may safely say the public is the dupe of public opinion, not its parent. ... Every petty caviller is erected into a judge, every tale-bearer is implicitly believed. (William Hazlitt, "On Living to One's-Self.")

"Society has at its disposal two great instruments by which vice may be prevented and virtue promoted -- namely, law and public opinion; and law is either criminal or civil. The use of each of these instruments is subject to certain limits and conditions, and the wisdom of attempting to make men good either by Act of Parliament or by the action of public opinion depends entirely upon the degree in which those limits and conditions are recognized and acted upon. ... People form and express their opinions on each other, which, collectively, form public opinion, for a thousand reasons; to amuse themselves; for the sake of something to talk about; to gratify this or that momentary feeling; but the effect of such opinions, when formed, is quite independent of the grounds of their formation." [Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873); (University of Chicago Press, 1991) at pp. 150-1, 158.]

Historically the forces which moulded opinion were the pulpit and the political platform, but that is less the case these days; more powerful now are the forces of the Press and the Electronic Media. (See my observations on Politics and Politicians.)


[1] I am taking a little time off to tour the Hebrides.

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[Thoughts & Quotes of blupete]

Peter Landry

September, 1999 (2019)