The Tyranny of Public Opinion

Thoraeu wrote:

I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. As they could not reach me, they resolved to lock up my body. I saw that the State was half-witted, and I lost all my remaining respect for it.

In order to help me transcend my social reality, I have been doing some research about public opinion. My goal is to resist spontaneous violence and to keep from becoming embittered. William Blake (1757-1827) was able to overcome the bad effects of mental isolation since he never doubted that he was right and his critics wrong. His attitude toward public opinion is expressed in these lines:

The only man that e’er I knew
Who did not make me almost spew
Was Fuseli: he was both Turk and Jew
And so, dear Christian friends, how do you do?

(also see They Can’t Stand To See Me Dancing)

Who has this degree of force in their inner life? A person brought up in Smalltown, USA finds himself from early youth surrounded by hostility to everything that is necessary for mental excellence.

Very few people can be happy unless their way of life and their outlook on the world is approved by those with whom they live. A person with given convictions may find himself an outcast in one set of people, although in another set of people this person would be accepted. Through ignorance a great deal of unnecessary misery is endured. This mental isolation is not merely a source of pain, but it also wastes a tremendous amount of energy just to maintain mental independence against hostile surroundings. This hostility will produce a certain timidity in following out ideas to logical conclusions. Some way must be found by which the tyranny of public opinion can be evaded, and by which members of the intelligent minority can come to know each other and enjoy each other’s society.

Unnecessary timidity makes the trouble worse than it need be. If you show you are afraid of the herd, you give promise of good hunting, whereas if you show indifference, they begin to doubt their own power and therefore tend to let you alone. Gradually it may become possible to acquire the position of licensed lunatic, to whom things are permitted which in another man would be thought unforgivable. Conventional people are roused to fury by departures from convention, largely because they regard such departures as a criticism of themselves. They will pardon much unconventionality in a man who has enough friendliness to make it clear, even to the stupidest, that he is not engaged in criticizing them. This method of escaping censure is, however, impossible to many of those whose tastes and opinions cause them to be out of sympathy with the herd.

Hence, we become uncomfortable and lacking in good humor. It is customary to assume that, when a person is out of harmony with their environment, the cause must lie in some psychological disorder (morbidity, misanthropy, anti-social, etc.,). This is a complete mistake! Often, nothing but intelligence is required to cause one to be out of sympathy with the herd.

To be out of harmony with one’s surroundings is of course a misfortune, but it is not always a misfortune to be avoided at all costs. Where the environment is stupid or prejudiced or cruel, it is a sign of merit to be out of harmony with it. It is not desirable that the social sense should be so strongly developed as to cause people with “dangerous thoughts” to fear the social hostility which their opinions may provoke. (Bertrand Russell)

So, how does one escape social persecution? Suppose we are at the mercy of ignorant people who consider themselves capable of judging in matters about which they know nothing?

Bertrand Russell continues:
Many people who have ultimately escaped from the tyranny of ignorance have had so hard a fight and so long a time of repression that in the end they are embittered and their energy is impaired. In general, there is too much respect paid to the opinions of others. One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.

I am astonished when I become annoyed and pained by any slight or disregard. How can we diminish the sadistic pleasure which the conventional at present derive from having the unconventional at their mercy? Fear of public opinion is oppressive.

Schopenhauer On Public Opinion

Schopenhauer wrote:
People think too much about the opinion which others form of them; although this opinion is not essential to happiness. What we are for other people is in the sphere of their consciousness, not ours; it is the kind of figure we make in their eyes, together with the thoughts which this arouses. But this is something that has no direct and immediate existence for us, but can affect us only mediately and indirectly. What goes on in other people’s consciousness is a matter of indifference to us; and in time we get really indifferent to it, when we come to see how superficial and futile are most people’s thoughts, how narrow their ideas, how mean their sentiments, how perverse their opinions, and how much of error there is in most of them; when we learn by experience how the greatest minds will meet with nothing but slight from half-a-dozen blockheads, we shall understand that to lay great value upon what other people say is to pay them too much honor.

A man is in a bad way who seeks happiness in public opinion. How many people devout their lives to raising themselves in the estimation of others? I hear people “work very hard every day” so that they might one day be someone. Do they assume the intelligent progressively educated bum is not someone? Perhaps the new chiefs are waiting for us in the streets.

Anyway, the desire to be someone, to have social status, is really this erroneous thinking, this idea of honor, duty, and BEING SOMEONE SPECIAL (a hard worker who earned the right to live, who can afford the COST OF LIVING). What is at the root of this common error, this living life to merely cast an “admirable” picture of oneself into the heads of others? Is it the result of civilization and social arrangements?

The king enjoys leisure, but the non-working peasant is considered “lazy”; people are proud of themselves when they make a good impression on their masters. They resent those who stand up to their own masters.
We find in schemes for training humanity the maintenance and strengthening of the feeling of honor.

Schopenhauer wrote:
This slavish regard for what other people will say is a very convenient instrument in the hands of those who have the control of the masses. The natural order of the universe seems to be reversed by fear of public opinion and this foolish concept of honor.

Setting value on what other people think instead of what goes on in their own consciousness is foolish. Regarding the opinions of others as real existence and their own consciousness as something shadowy, people turn the secondary (the derivative) into the primary (the principal). AGAIN: How can the picture we present to the world be more important than our own subjective inner life? This folly is called vanity – the term for that which has no solid or intrinsic value.

Schopenhauer continues:
This attention to other people’s attitude may be regarded as a kind of universal mania which every one inherits. Our feeling of self-importance is mortified because it is so morbidly sensitive to what others may say. Envy and hatred are traceable to this morbid sensitivity.

So, how do we go about reducing the impulse to respect public opinion? How do we put an end to this universal folly?

Schopenhauer replies:
The only way to put an end to this universal folly is to see clearly that it is a folly; and this may be done by recognizing that most of the opinions in people’s heads are apt to be false, perverse, erroneous and absurd, and so in themselves unworthy of attention; further, that other people’s opinions can have very little real influence upon us. It would worry a man to death to hear everything that was said of him, or the tone of which he was spoken of. Honor itself has no direct value.

Doing away with the concept of honor, we would behave with less embarrassment and less restraint. We need to de-domesticate ourselves. Can we escape having to live constantly in the sight of others and having to pay everlasting regard to their casual opinions? Can we return upon ourselves? So, how can we diminish the sadistic pleasure which the conventional at present derive from having the unconventional at their mercy?
Whether it is the arrogant smirk of a TV-news anchor-person or just some strangers who think they have you pegged, there is a sadistic pleasure derived at being in a position to ridicule, harass, or simply slight the unconventional. Sure, it is easy to say, “Ah, ignore it.” The newspapers and tv-media have the power to destroy people. Public opinion works that way too. Can we escape what others think of us? We’ll see.

RELATED:

1. Trees With Knots Do Not Make Good Lumber

2. On Public Opinion (whywork.org)

3. Unemployable Personality (whywork.org)

Those posts at whywork.org were no joke. We seemed to be joking, but we have proven to be dead serious!

Deleuze and Guattari write,

After centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate still being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery, not only for others but for themselves? Reich is at his profoundest as a thinker when he refuses to accept ignorance or illusion on the part of the masses as an explaination of fascism, and demands an explanation that will take their desires into account, an explanation formulated in terms of desire: no, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism, and it is this perversion of the desire of the masses that needs to be accounted for.

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One thought on “The Tyranny of Public Opinion

  1. Pingback: Touché | STICKS & BONES

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