Not All Opinions Are Created Equal

Note: This article was originally published on the NATO Association of Canada's website.

“The orthodox theory,” journalist Walter Lippman wrote in 1922, “holds that a public opinion constitutes a moral judgment on a group of facts. The theory that I am suggesting is that . . . a public opinion is primarily a moralized and codified version of the facts” (emphasis added). His book Public Opinion, from which the above quotation is borrowed, contains observations that are as germane today as they were when he first made them. One of those observations was that stereotypes, a term whose modern sense he coined, exert great influence in shaping a person’s beliefs, “[f]or when a system of stereotypes is well fixed, our attention is called to those facts which support it, and diverted from those which contradict.”

Stereotypes are harmful for their tendency to support bigotry, but they are not the only sort of assumption that can be pernicious. Assumptions displace critical thought, and one who relies more heavily on assumption than contemplation as a matter of habit is likely to be deceived. When we fail to question, we also fail to consider heterodox perspectives that could otherwise amplify the number of possibilities available to us. Our doxa – the full range of conceivable ideas – then remains firmly circumscribed, retarding human progress in every domain.

The prevalence of assumption among a society’s members is what engenders the situation Lippman puts forth, and his diagnosis explains much of the current political malaise in western democracies. The Information Age has only increased the variety of ‘facts’ from which a person can choose as a basis for his or her views. Stranger still, it has been shown that people are capable of shifting their beliefs, and even deeply-held convictions, if those views conflict with the way they would rather behave or the tribal affiliation they find most appealing. Sometimes the only way someone can make such a transition is to cherry-pick the ‘facts’ that best suit one’s fancy, while dismissing the inconvenient ones. This new ‘post-truth’ zeitgeist sews mistrust of information sources, undermining the ability of the Fourth Estate and the judiciary to hold the powerful to account.

Consider the acute case of the Canadian government’s settlement with Omar Khadr. In 2010 the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruled unanimously that

The interrogation of a youth detained without access to counsel, to elicit statements about serious criminal charges while knowing that the youth had been subjected to sleep deprivation . . . offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.
[…] Canada actively participated in a process contrary to Canada’s international human rights obligations and contributed to Mr. Khadr’s ongoing detention so as to deprive him of his right to liberty and security of the person guaranteed by section 7 of the Charter, contrary to the principles of fundamental justice.

Moreover, while many refer to Khadr simply as a terrorist, the obscure and fragmented accounts of the events that purportedly earned him that label are seldom discussed. Readers are invited to evaluate the balance of evidence from that fateful day in 2002 when Khadr was captured by US forces, and decide for themselves whether, given the presumption of innocence, it achieves a certainty of guilt that is beyond reasonable doubt.

It is standard practice to compensate financially the wrongly imprisoned, yet a recent poll indicates that a large majority of Canadians disapprove of the payment to Khadr, and one-third even believes that he has been treated fairly throughout his ordeal. The Supreme Court, which has the best information, plainly disagrees. Here, careless assumptions separate the majority of public opinion from the informed viewpoint.

For another example of how perspective determines belief, take the following excerpt from a speech by US Senator Marco Rubio, delivered as the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2010:

America . . . is the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from. You can be anything you are willing to work hard to be. The result is the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed against rich people in the marketplace and competition.

Such lofty declarations would be inspiring, if only they were true. Rubio was alluding to the American Dream, which is a shorthand for upward social mobility. It is worth noting that he made these remarks in preparation for an eventual run at the presidency, so it is unsurprising that he would invoke the dogmatic myth of American exceptionalism. The substance of his rhetoric stands in sharp contrast with reality, though, as studiesshow that upward social mobility in the US is quite rare, even for those beginning in the middle class. Not only is the US not “the only place in the world” where the American Dream is possible, but the sad irony is that for most Americans it better resembles an ordinary dream than a feasible prospect.

The astonishing level of support in 2016 for a democratic-socialist candidate, and the actual election of an impetuous right-wing populist as president, suggest that many Americans have begun to doubt the American Dream’s idyllic promise. Still, there are millions of others who maintain earnest faith in it.

Social mobility map US.png

The above graphic, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis by way of Business Insider, shows why. The US economy as a whole continues to expand from a macro perspective, but that growth is largely concentrated in privileged regions, and the concomitant opportunities enjoyed by those in upper social strata. It is a forceful illustration of why Donald Trump’s grim message – starkly different from Marco Rubio’s stirring narrative – resonated more with the residents of Appalachia and the Rust Belt than with voters in more affluent areas. These two broad sets of citizens appear to have in their minds competing notions of the world around them, just as Lippman’s theory proposes.

The character of one’s opinion on Omar Khadr and the American Dream hinges on the resolution at which these stories are viewed. Seeking detail before forming an opinion is analogous to viewing a photo at higher definition. A photo composed of fewer pixels is more ambiguous, forcing the viewer to rely more on assumption than reason. Those who rush to condemn Khadr, or who believe that the American Dream is alive and well for everyone, have not done their homework.

The Information Age comes bearing moral hazards along with its benefits. There is money to be made from holding our attention, regardless of how. In an effort to keep users endlessly engaged, social media use complex algorithms to determine what a person is attracted to, and show them more of it. This means that we live in echo chambers as a default. Only those who consciously seek out alternative viewpoints in order to compare them to their own will have a sturdy grasp on reality. It takes effort to be intellectually honest, but that is our best defence against deception and ignorance.