Public Opinion (book)
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Public Opinion is a book by Walter Lippmann, published in 1922, that is a critical assessment of functional democratic government, especially the irrational, and often self-serving, social perceptions that influence individual behavior, and prevent optimal societal cohesion. The descriptions of the cognitive limitations people face in comprehending their socio-political and cultural environments, proposes that people must inevitably apply an evolving catalogue of general stereotypes to a complex reality, rendered Public Opinion a seminal text in the fields of media studies, political science, and social psychology.
The world outside and pictures in our heads
The introduction describes man’s inability to functionally perceive and accurately interpret the world: “The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance”, between people and their environment (reality). That people construct a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world; therefore, to a degree, everyone's pseudo-environment is a fiction. Hence, people “live in the same world, but think and feel in different ones”. Human behavior is stimulated by the person’s pseudo-environment and then is acted upon in the real world. The chapter highlights some of the general implications of the interactions among one’s psychology, environment, and the mass communications media.
Approaches to the world outside
The second part describes the social, physical, and psychological barriers impeding man’s ability to faithfully interpret the world; “Chapter II: Censorship and Privacy”; “Chapter III: Contact and Opportunity”; “Chapter IV: Time and Attention”; and “Chapter V: Speed, Words, and Clearness” describe how, for a given event, all of the pertinent facts are never provided completely and accurately; how, as a fraction of the whole, they often are arranged to portray a certain, subjective interpretation of an event. Often, those who know the “real” (true) environment construct a favorable, fictitious pseudo-environment in the public mind to suit his or her private needs. Propaganda is inherently impossible without a barrier of censorship — between the event and the public — thus, the mass communication media, by their natures as vehicles for informational transmission, are immutably vulnerable to manipulation.
The blame for this perceptual parallax does not fall upon the mass media technology (print, radio, cinema, television) or logistical concerns, rather, upon certain members of society who attend to life with little intellectual engagement, because “they suffer from anemia, from lack of appetite and curiosity for the human scene. There is no problem of access to the world outside. Worlds of interest are waiting for them to explore, and they do not enter”, thus:
- The buying public: The bewildered herd must pay for understanding the unseen environment through the mass communications media. The irony is that — although the public’s opinion is important — they must pay for its acceptance. Hence, people will be selective, and will buy the most factual media at the lowest price: “For a dollar, you may not even get an armful of candy, but for a dollar or less people expect reality/representations of truth to fall into their laps”. Hence appears the media’s duality, i.e. their social function of transmitting public affairs information and their business profit role of surviving in the market.
- Nature of news: People publish already-confirmed news that are thus less disputable. Officially available public matters will constitute “the news”, and unofficial (private) matters either are unavailable, less available, or are used as “issues” for propaganda.
- News truth and conclusion: The function of news is to signal an event, and that signaling, eventually, is a consequence of editorial selection and judgement; thus does journalism create and sow the seeds (news) that establish public opinion.
The manufacture of consent
When properly deployed in the public interest, the manufacture of consent is useful and necessary for a cohesive society, because, in many cases, “the common interests” of the public are not obvious, and only become clear upon careful analysis of the collected data — a critical intellectual exercise in which most people either are uninterested or are incapable of doing. Therefore, most people must have the world summarized for them by the well-informed, and will then act accordingly.
That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. . . . [a]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power. . . . Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.
— Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, Chapter XV
The political élite are members of the class of people who are incapable of accurately understanding, by themselves, the complex “unseen environment” wherein the public affairs of the modern state occur; thus, Lippmann proposes that a professional, “specialized class” collect and analyze data, and present their conclusions to the society’s decision makers, who, in their turn, use the “art of persuasion” to inform the public about the decisions and circumstances affecting them.
Public Opinion proposes that the increased power of propaganda, and the specialized knowledge required for effective political decisions, have rendered impossible the traditional notion of democracy. Moreover, Public Opinion introduced the phrase “the manufacture of consent”, which the public intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman used as the title of their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988).
- Chapter XV, “Leaders and the Rank and File”, section 4.
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- Full e-text of the book
- Open Library. Public Opinion. 1922
- Public Opinion at Project Gutenberg
- Public Opinion (Google eBook; 1922 PDF)