The echo chamber that is public opinion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2012, 2:12am

"They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but they that dislike it, heresy; and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion." So wrote Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan.

Here's another quote, from Walter Lippmann, the US journalist: "Where all think alike, no one thinks very much."

When enough people form the same or similar opinions on a subject, it becomes public opinion, a standard or convention of thoughts around which other citizens plead agreement and which opportunistic politicians and power-hungry media barons - in the name of high-sounding principles - seek to exploit. Minority or critical opinions become heresy. Not only must they be denounced, but the people who hold them must be discredited and booed out of court.

In the furore over national education, we have witnessed all these phenomena. It's never good when a journalist finds himself part of the story he is covering. Yet, I found myself embroiled in my own minor row over a column I wrote last week that was highly critical of the students and their supporters for refusing to negotiate with the government and demanding its total capitulation over what they dogmatically claim is a programme of "brainwashing".

My column attracted more responses - many negative - than any published recently in the Post. The column may have been right or wrong, but it was no worse than most other opinion pieces in the media praising the youngsters and goading them on. Yet you don't see those writers accused of immorality, their character and career publicly dissected, along with a few thinly veiled threats. Facebook pages were flooded with messages of denunciation. An ex-colleague who claimed to know me well wrote, anonymously, a widely circulated account about my flawed personality and journalism. I am glad I made them feel superior.

Public opinion may be right or wrong, but it is rarely self-critical. This is why a vibrant democracy must allow for alternative voices and disagreements. Now that they have essentially won over national education, may I suggest it would be an invaluable civic experience for the students to meet officials and negotiate the terms of the government's surrender? Or is that still too unreasonable to ask?