How to avoid the spiral of silence? First, understand it.

Let’s take in this quote:

“The climate of opinion depends on who talks and who keeps quiet.”

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916-2010) wrote those words in her ground breaking book The Spiral of Silence, which was published 30 years ago. She was a German immigrant and an astute scholar of public opinion at the University of Chicago. Her words continue as follows:

“The hypothesis [of silence] came to me out of the student unrest at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. I probably owe it to one particular student. I met her one day in the hall outside the lecture room and noticed that she was wearing a Christian Democratic button on her jacket.

“’I didn’t know you were a Christian Democratic supporter,’ I said to her. ‘I’m not,’ she said, ‘I just put the button on to see what it’s like.’

“I met her again at noon. She was not wearing the button, and I asked about the change. ‘It was too awful,’ she said. ‘I took it off.’”

Noelle-Neumann’s student was experiencing the pain of social ostracism. She likely felt she was a minority of one, even though the Christian Democrats in West Germany at the time were equal in numbers to the Social Democrats. Yet, she felt isolated. All alone. Why?

Noelle-Neumann goes on:

“. . . Those who were convinced the new Ostpolitik was right thought their beliefs eventually would be adopted by everyone. So these people expressed themselves openly, and self-confidently defended their views. Those who rejected the Ostpolitik felt themselves left out; they withdrew, and fell silent.

“This very restraint made the view that was receiving vocal support appear to be stronger than it really was and the other view weaker. Observations made in one context spread to another and encouraged people either to proclaim their views or to swallow them and keep quiet until, in a spiraling process, the one view dominated the public scene and the other disappeared from public awareness as its adherents became mute. This is the process that can be called a ‘spiral of silence.’”

If we hope to rebuild a civil society in which we are free to express our opinions and exchange ideas with others, we must first understand this feeling of isolation that causes us to be silent.

Let’s start noticing this spiral of silence when we see it in motion. And let’s not get sucked into this trap. Then let’s learn how to best push back against it.

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