In my own work and in my own studies, I think about public opinion as a critical force in politics and, therefore, in governance. Readers of this blog know that. But what we see working in the crisis around the personal life of the golfer, Tiger Woods, is an older, ever-present sense of how public opinion works; yet it is working in a new, globalized media environment, around an iconic sporting superstar.
In a supra-political context, public opinion works as a force for social control. In An Essay concerning Human Understanding, the philosopher, John Locke, calls public opinion 'the law of opinion and reputation'. Locke argues that you know little about 'the nature and history of mankind' if you do not know that 'commendation and disgrace' are strong motives for human beings, because human beings strive 'to accommodate themselves to the opinions and rules of those with whom they converse'. So, even if a pattern of conduct is in your view nobody's business, if the general opinion in your community is against it you do have a problem. You will have to endure ridicule and shame. Your society will bring pressure to bear to bring you into line.
Which is why the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, in his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, calls public opinion 'the moral or popular sanction'. As a Utilitarian, Bentham thinks in terms of how pleasures and pains, and combinations thereof, shape human behavior. Thus, a good name, a good reputation confers pleasures. In our era of marketable brands and product endorsements you can even make a billion dollars out of a good reputation, a so-called 'platinum brand'. What is the source of that? Public opinion. So, you can trust human beings to want a good reputation in the circles/communities they are a part of because we are all too aware of the pains that the moral or popular sanction can inflict. In Bentham's words, we all have 'the fear of dishonour, the fear of disgrace, the fear of infamy, the fear of ignominy, or the fear of shame'.
This is why in his Constitutional Code, Bentham talks about public opinion as the Public Opinion Tribunal. It is like a court. Publicity is its main instrument. The Tribunal takes evidence of any misconduct in the public realm, assesses the evidence and hands down a judgement.
In our era, the main instrument of the Public Opinion Tribunal is the media frenzy. When a scandal breaks, a media frenzy explodes. So-called old and new media converge around the lurid details of the scandal. For a while the media coverage is utterly suffocating. A media frenzy is a ravenous beast. It must be fed blood. Once it arises, it is like unleashing a pack of famishing hounds. Someone, somewhere has to pay a price of some kind. In politics, the beast demands that somebody must be fired or resign. For a celebrity, it seems public humiliation is the requirement, an act of contrition, some kind of confessional moment on television, a plea for forgiveness, a promise to be a better human being in the future [see A Pound of Flesh by Lane Wallace]. Then the frenzy dies down. Until next time...
Photo Credit: Flickr user Ernst Moeksis