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.

Don’t drink the PC water. It’s poison.

Human beings are always trying to figure out how other people perceive them.  Are they in?  Or are they out?   Will they be accepted by the group?  Or rejected?  We might call it the “crowd’s syndrome” in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

But even if you are one who sticks to your principles and defends your core beliefs when under attack, chances are you have a threshold for doing so.  When the fear of social isolation or ostracism from a group kicks in, you may shift how you express your views.  Or you may choose to remain silent even though your silence implies consent with the opposing view.  If the group appears to be growing in numbers, we become even more susceptible to it.

And when we stop questioning even the strangest of cues from the group think, we’ve reached our threshold. We do this because ostracism is dangerous to our survival.  Resisting it is a primal instinct.   Yet your silence only serves to bury your view from sight. Then your silence serves only to shift all power away from yourself. This adds to a cascade effect in society. Ironically, you will end up even more isolated when your silence has done the work of separating you from others who share your view.

Separating people is the net effect of political correctness. And we’d do well to remember that “political correctness” is actually just a euphemism for thought policing.

The elites who wield politically correct agendas – whether in academia, in the media, or in Hollywood — know these social dynamics very well.  They understand your fear of social isolation perhaps better than you do yourself. How else could they manipulate that fear so efficiently? People who simply wish to live and let live may be the majority, but we’re far less likely to take a clinical look at all of this. So we’re more likely to fall into the PC trap. We need to pay attention.

A fascinating work on this phenomenon is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s book The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion — Our Social Skin”