C-25. Public opinion

Like so many other conceptual terms, “public opinion” lacks anchoring.

What are we talking about here? What should we be talking about? Public opinion links two concepts and is thereby twice-flawed. First, like many concepts, it only calls to mind various instances that qualify as members of the category (e.g., votes, opinion polls, anti-government demonstrations), and like many behavioral concepts that is just about all that it does. Second, focused after the fact on particulars of behavior, it does not reach back to behavioral necessity and see that public opinion thus seen is actually the only partially fulfilled need for functional capability, for a community’s minding and its expression. At least that’s what a theoretical perspective would recommend (C-19).

Public opinion is a poorly developed capability. That’s what we should be talking about here: a capability that we have not done very well developing. “Public opinion?” “Oh. you mean democracy.” Yes indeed. For this is what democracy implies: Sovereign people, as a community (App. II; C-10), giving voice to their minding (VII), as instruction to other moves by or for them. (See “realization” in C-22.) Democracy, for all the talk about tools and procedures and the elected officials who use or abuse them in the pursuit of power, ultimately must succeed or fail on the collective capabilities of its members. Minding capabilities, thus public opinion, are an essential part of this. When societal institutions and professions, such as formal education and journalism, do not meet these functional needs, then public opinion may express feelings across an aggregate electorate rather than help compose solutions for a productive path forward together.

We might as well, perhaps better, be talking about public knowing and composing (among other capabilities) here instead of about public opinion as aggregate products like votes, opinion polls and protest demonstrations. Knowing and composing: processes that manifest capability for effective change. The emphasis given public literacy is of interest here. While literacy is critical to processes of learning, how much of public opinion is actually personal and/or public knowledge (IX) of one kind or another? How much is composition, as for policy change? How well does the division of labor work between policy initiative and review, with most of us relegated to (only occasional) review? (Especially in a consumer climate where taxes do not enjoy the respect accorded tithing.) Do we just need an informed public, to make decisions, and not an informing public helping to solve problems?

Consider, for example, the current dynamic (im)balance (XI) aspects for “…of the people, by the people and for the people….” Are we not overly heavy on the “for the people,” and relatively light on the “by the people” capability? Is “of the people” pertinent to individuals and not to a collective capability? Invitations to fascism … and the death of democracy?

Babies cry because they nothing more to say or way of saying it. Can public opinion in a democracy settle for just cries for a change? Crying, calling for a stop to things as they are going (VIII), to be sure, but to think, to compose, when stopped. Not triggering a chain of such cries for a change, back and forth between solutions none of which work.

Formal education could do a lot more to help develop public opinion as a capability than to afford primarily an acquaintance kind of knowledge about society or community institutions and practices – the literacy/learning approach. Journalism too has similar shortcomings. Note, for example, the media willingness – such as it is – to accept responsibility for aiding an informed, if not an informing, public (C-26).

These are crucible times for humanity, with threats of world overpopulation, a polluted earth (e.g., global warming) and exploited, diminishing physical resources. How tragic, then, that we have neglected the development of another natural resource, that of minding. Too much dependence on capacities, not enough on developed capabilities (XI)?

Public opinion, despaired of as it is by those who would lead and/or bring about problem-solving changes, has one indisputable value. It provides a telling, albeit embarrassing measure of just how poorly we have realized, in understanding and in solution, the behavioral problem (I:Pbeh). The community as underdeveloped change agent magnifies the parallel shortcomings in its members.

(c) 2011 R. F. Carter