Public discourse seems to be dominated these days by political polarization and extreme positions, but it's largely an illusion.
BERLIN — Climate policy. Donald Trump. The strict use of gendered language. Public opinion seems to be particularly polarized these days — about everything. But polarization within public discourse rarely represents true polarization within society. That's because the moderate majority, not wanting to be pigeonholed, stays quiet.
The truth is that individuals do not always express their true preferences and beliefs in public. This phenomenon is well documented in authoritarian states, where public displays of support for the regime rarely correspond to the unexpressed, private views of citizens. But it can't be ruled out in liberal democracies either. In fact, people keeping their thoughts to themselves should be expected.
Whether a person publicly acknowledges his or her privately-held views and takes part in public debate depends on a few factors, the first being whether there's anything to be gained for the individual by expressing an opinion and vehemently defending a position. The social approval or criticism that an individual may receive for publicly expressing an opinion also plays an important role.
Theoretically speaking, one potential benefit of speaking out is that it may lead to relevant political decisions being taken. And yet, individuals generally have very little influence on public opinion, and public opinion only rarely — if ever — influences policy. Even then the influence tends to be delayed.
It's safe to assume, therefore, that this reluctance to express opinions in public has more to do with the reactions of others. Average commuters, for example, might be wary of publicly demanding a lower road tax even if they privately hold that view. That's because while there's nothing to gain (they know they don't really have much influence on public opinion), there is something to lose in terms of looking like some kind of environmentally unfriendly gas guzzler.
To avoid public censure, in other words, they will stay quiet or even claim that they would take public transport if only it were more frequent and affordable. It is the fear of public shaming that stops them from expressing their true preferences.
Similarly, many German citizens admire certain aspects of American policy, for example tax cuts, and would like to see them introduced in Germany. But publicly calling for Germany to follow the U.S. example in this area would be disastrous for their social status.
Another view of Speakers' corner in Hyde Park — Photo: Scarriot
None of this is to say that individuals never express their true opinions. Sometimes people do speak out, even in the face of possible negative reactions. A case in point is the issue of gendered language (which is grammatically far more prevalent in German than in English, as every noun is gendered).
Many Germans claim that the practice of using an asterisk to include both masculine and feminine versions of nouns is vital for inclusion, while others see it as a butchering of written language. On this issue, people are clearly taking sides, with both groups sticking to their guns.
Society's reaction to an opinion depends on how many other people are publicly expressing it.
For many people, instead, environmental protection may be very important, but they also want the convenience of being able to drive cheaply and without restrictions. Likewise, most people recognize the importance of equal rights for men and women, but may not see how using gender-inclusive language contributes to that, or may even think that it places emphasis on gender where there was none before.
In both cases, though, people tend to hide their true feelings when it comes to public discussions. Having said that, it's also the case that just a few citizens breaking this silence can sometimes change entrenched opinions, especially when there are real costs for large groups in society. The yellow-vest protests in France were sparked by a planned increase in tax on fossil fuels. Privately, many French citizens don't want to pay more for petrol.
In Germany, the group "Fridays for Hubraum," which campaigns against the demonization of car drivers, gained more Facebook members within just a few days of being established than Greta Thunberg's "Fridays for Future" movement.
In certain circumstances, a small section of society openly expressing its opinion can be enough to convince others to change their views. This is at the heart of Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale of the Emperor's New Clothes. It only takes one small child speaking the truth for all citizens to acknowledge what they secretly knew: the emperor is naked.
The incentive to express an opinion publicly is especially strong for those who have simplistic or consciously polarizing attitudes. People who already hold extreme views tend to be more willing to express themselves. The reason why public opinion appears to be polarized, therefore, is that the moderate majority conceals or misrepresents its true views. Just because polarizing views dominate the discourse, in other words, doesn't mean that society itself is polarized.
Many prefer to stay silent, rather than test whether they can say what they truly think.
Established media also contribute to the impression of polarization. First, extreme opinions are often more exciting and therefore get the headlines and space in the papers. It takes more effort, in contrast, to represent moderate views that seek to acknowledge the complexity and diversity in society. Second, many centrists don't express their opinions publicly because they are afraid of being misunderstood and pigeonholed.
Many prefer to stay silent, rather than test whether they can say what they truly think. The echo chamber of social media only heightens the polarization of public opinion, as it is mainly extreme opinions that are expressed online. Large swathes of society opt out of political debate on social media. They post holiday snapshots or cat videos instead.
Calling for free public discourse does not help to reduce the gulf between privately held beliefs and false, polarized public debate. Instead we need institutional arrangements that allow individual citizens to express what they privately believe in a way that has an effect on society, without fear of public shaming.
Private voting in a democratic election is one such arrangement, and it can always be relied on to offer up a few surprises. Another possibility is giving citizens the chance to vote in real, binding referendums. That allows the silent majority to have a true voice in the decision-making process, and can lead to valuable compromises in public discourse — something our society could certainly use.