Home / Personal Development / Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion, Our Slippery Grasp of Truth, and the Discipline of Apprehending Reality Clearly – Brain Pickings

Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion, Our Slippery Grasp of Truth, and the Discipline of Apprehending Reality Clearly – Brain Pickings

Anatomy of Deception and Self-Delusion: Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion, Our Slippery Grasp of Truth, and the Discipline of Apprehending Reality Clearly

“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion,” Kierkegaard wrote in his journal in the middle of the nineteenth century as he tussled with the eternal question of why we conform. Around the same time, across the Atlantic, Emerson fumed in his own diary as he contemplated the supreme existential challenge of individual integrity in a mass society: “Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence… I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.” A century later, Eleanor Roosevelt would sharpen this sentiment in her abiding meditation on happiness and conformity: “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else, you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Why even the soundest-minded of us are so susceptible to such unconscious surrender and what it takes to uphold a clear view of reality is what the great writer, media theorist, and political critic Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) — whose moral courage of shedding light on the pitfalls of society and the human psyche Eleanor Roosevelt greatly admired, and whom Theodore Roosevelt considered the “most brilliant young man of his age in all the United States” — explores in his timelessly insightful 1922 book Public Opinion (free ebook | public library).

Walter Lippmann

Lippmann — who coined the word stereotype in its contemporary sense — begins by considering just how porous to ambient information we are in the constitution of our inner landscape opinion, and how absurd it is to regard ourselves as having firm and final grasp of reality when the entire history of our species is the history of misapprehension and pseudoreality tightly held as truth. He writes:

Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live. We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself. It is harder to remember that about the beliefs upon which we are now acting, but in respect to other peoples and other ages we flatter ourselves that it is easy to see when they were in deadly earnest about ludicrous pictures of the world. We insist, because of our superior hindsight, that the world as they needed to know it, and the world as they did know it, were often two quite contradictory things. We can see, too, that while they governed and fought, traded and reformed in the world as they imagined it to be, they produced results, or failed to produce any, in the world as it was. They started for the Indies and found America. They diagnosed evil and hanged old women. They thought they could grow rich by always selling and never buying. A caliph, obeying what he conceived to be the Will of Allah, burned the library at Alexandria.

Nearly a century before the Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman came to study how our minds mislead us and observed that “the confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct,” Lippmann illustrates this elemental human tendency with the example of the sixth-century Alexandrian monk Cosmas, who set out to disprove pre-Christian geographers’ assertion that our planet is spherical.

Cosmas’s map of the Earth

Although the belief that Earth is flat had been steadily falling out of favor over the preceding three centuries, Cosmas held tightly to his religious mythology, positing that Earth was structurally modeled on the house of worship God describes to Moses during the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. Determined to reconcile reality and religion, Cosmas devised a theoretical model of the universe he called “Christian Topography.” Drawn centuries before the development of perspective, his map depicts the world as a flat parallelogram, twice as wide from east to west as it is high from north to south, containing the Earth at the center, surrounded by an ocean, in turn contained by another Earth, where humans lived before the flood of the Genesis myth. Atop this other Earth — Noah’s point of embarkation — is a conical mountain, behind which the Sun and Moon revolve like a celestial chandelier spinning to turn day into night. Specific compartments of this universe-within-a-world are allotted to the mortals, the blessed, and the angels.

Mountain detail from Cosmas’s model of the universe

Cosmas enfolded the map into his treatise Christian Opinion Concerning the World, and yet he seemed unwitting of the fact that the map was indeed an opinion rather than a representation of reality. He did what we have always done as human beings — mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves. In the ancient monk, Lippmann finds a living allegory for the human pathology to see what we wish to believe:

For Cosmas there was nothing in the least absurd about his map. Only by remembering his absolute conviction that this was the map of the universe can we begin to understand how he would have dreaded Magellan or Peary or the aviator who risked a collision with the angels and the vault of heaven by flying seven miles up in the air. In the same way we can best understand the furies of war and politics by remembering that almost the whole of each party believes absolutely in its picture of the opposition, that it takes as fact, not what is, but what it supposes to be the fact.

Our opinions of the world and of other people, Lippmann argues, form much the way Cosmas constructed his map — governed less by a clear view of the relevant facts and the inner motives of others than by our theoretical models of what happened and why it happened, informed largely by our own beliefs and feelings. Decades before neuroscientists located the central mystery of consciousness in qualia — the subjective interiority of any human experience, so opaque to outside observers — Lippmann writes:

The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event. That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts.

(A century later, that impossibility stands as the greatest challenge to artificial intelligence.)

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

The most interesting question, then, as well as the most pressing in matters both political and personal, is what makes us vulnerable to such self-inflicted blindnesses and delusions, and what can be done about it. Lippmann writes:

It is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.

[…]

In [such] instances we must note particularly one common factor. It is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world. But when the stimulus of the pseudo-fact results in action on things or other people, contradiction soon develops. Then comes the sensation of butting one’s head against a stone wall, of learning by experience, and witnessing Herbert Spencer’s tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts, the discomfort in short of a maladjustment. For certainly, at the level of social life, what is called the adjustment of man to his environment takes place through the medium of fictions.

Fictions, Lippmann is careful to point out, need not be blatant lies — they can be, and most often are, the subtle deformations of reality in which a sapling of truth is grafted onto a robust trunk of Cosmian interpretation to produce a bramble of pseudo-reality. Three centuries after Galileo admonished against the folly of believing our preconceptions, as he defied the geocentric model of the universe nearly at the cost of his life, Lippmann writes:

By fictions I do not mean lies. I mean a representation of the environment which is in lesser or greater degree made by man himself… A work of fiction may have almost any degree of fidelity, and so long as the degree of fidelity can be taken into account, fiction is not misleading. In fact, human culture is very largely the selection, the rearrangement, the tracing of patterns upon, and the stylizing of, what William James called “the random irradiations and resettlements of our ideas.” The alternative to the use of fictions is direct exposure to the ebb and flow of sensation. That is not a real alternative, for however refreshing it is to see at times with a perfectly innocent eye, innocence itself is not wisdom, though a source and corrective of wisdom. For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. To traverse the world men must have maps of the world. Their persistent difficulty is to secure maps on which their own need, or someone else’s need, has not sketched in the coast of Bohemia.

‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’ (1580–1590), from Cosmigraphics

And yet the maps two people make of the same reality may be so staggeringly divergent as to lead us to believe that the mappers inhabit different worlds. Once again anticipating the notion of qualia, Lippmann refines the sentiment by pointing out that “they live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones.” It is through this draughtsmanship of thought and feeling that we draw the highly subjective maps by which we navigate the real world:

What each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him. If his atlas tells him that the world is flat he will not sail near what he believes to be the edge of our planet for fear of falling off. If his maps include a fountain of eternal youth, a Ponce de Leon will go in quest of it. If someone digs up yellow dirt that looks like gold, he will for a time act exactly as if he had found gold. The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do. It does not determine what they will achieve. It determines their effort, their feelings, their hopes, not their accomplishments and results.

[…]

The very fact that men theorize at all is proof that their pseudo-environments, their interior representations of the world, are a determining element in thought, feeling, and action. For if the connection between reality and human response were direct and immediate, rather than indirect and inferred, indecision and failure would be unknown.

Our inferences about and representations of reality, Lippmann observes, are so misshapen because the world we try to apprehend is invariably “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind” — a world that, especially politically, must be “explored, reported, and imagined” in order for us to have any picture of it at all. (Trailblazing astronomer and key Figuring figure Maria Mitchell captured this native limitation of the human mind exquisitely: “We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”) Lippmann writes:

Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time are but a few moments of insight and happiness. Yet this same creature has invented ways of seeing what no naked eye could see, of hearing what no ear could hear, of weighing immense masses and infinitesimal ones, of counting and separating more items than he can individually remember. He is learning to see with his mind vast portions of the world that he could never see, touch, smell, hear, or remember. Gradually he makes for himself a trustworthy picture inside his head of the world beyond his reach.

But the pictures our mind’s eye constructs by inference and common sense — that most pernicious traitor of reality — are inherently untrustworthy. They are always partial and gravely warped by the illusion of completeness — especially when it comes to what we call public opinion. Lippmann anchors his argument to a definition:

Those features of the world outside which have to do with the behavior of other human beings, in so far as that behavior crosses ours, is dependent upon us, or is interesting to us, we call roughly public affairs. The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship, are their public opinions. Those pictures which are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion with capital letters.

Considering why our mental pictures so habitually misrepresent reality, Lippmann identifies our limited access to facts as the key factor — we simply don’t have the time and opportunity to take into account every relevant data point and contextual quotient in forming our opinions about a person or situation. Half a century after the English mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford extolled the discipline of doubt and plainly observed that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence,” and nearly a century before our so-called social media, Lippmann laments “the distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages,” compounded by the flattening of dimension and the erasure of nuance induced by compressing a complex world into a limited vocabulary. More than half a century before James Baldwin admonished that “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” Lippmann observes that these distortions and deceptions converge to foment a “fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of men’s lives.” In other words, we instinctively partake in willful blindness, attending only to those facts which corroborate our existing model of reality — the model by which our lives operate with the lowest degree of friction.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

Lippmann returns to the central causality of our misapprehension — our limited access to facts, barred from us by various layers of circumstantial opacity and deliberate privacy — and offers a vital calibration of the confidence we have in our world-picture:

Whether the reasons for privacy are good or bad, the barriers exist. Privacy is insisted upon at all kinds of places in the area of what is called public affairs. It is often very illuminating, therefore, to ask yourself how you got at the facts on which you base your opinion. Who actually saw, heard, felt, counted, named the thing, about which you have an opinion? Was it the man who told you, or the man who told him, or someone still further removed? And how much was he permitted to see?

[…]

You can ask yourself these questions, but you can rarely answer them. They will remind you, however, of the distance which often separates your public opinion from the event with which it deals. And the reminder is itself a protection.

In a single succinct prescription for effective critical thinking, Lippmann distills the antidote to our susceptibility to outside manipulation and our propensity for self-deception:

In truly effective thinking the prime necessity is to liquidate judgments, regain an innocent eye, disentangle feelings, be curious and open-hearted.

In the remainder of Public Opinion — a sobering and immensely insightful read in its entirety — Lippmann goes on to examine “how in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them,” “how opinions are crystallized into what is called Public Opinion,” and “how a National Will, a Group Mind, a Social Purpose, or whatever you choose to call it, is formed.” Complement it with James Baldwin on resisting the mindless majority and Egon Schiele on why visionaries tend to come from the minority, then revisit Bertrand Russell on our most effective self-defense against propaganda and Karl Popper on seeking truth over certainty.



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