Pandering To The Masses: The Hypocritical Fixation With Public Opinion

Why do people put so much time and effort into pretending that the opinions of the person on the street actually matter?

Opinions, as the saying goes, are like arseholes – we all have one. In fact, we all have several and for most people, these opinions are blissfully uninformed beyond the confirmation bias of looking at commentary from media sources who pump out shameless propaganda, telling people what they want to hear. Why, then, is so much time wasted on finding out “what you think” – especially from people who really don’t care? You can’t watch a news programme these days without some hapless reporter being sent out to ask passersby for their take on a breaking story. Do we need more or less Covid restrictions? Should Boris Johnson resign? Is pornography harmful? Let’s ask Sheila who is on her way to Tesco for her thoughts on these burning topics.

I understand why politicians give lip service to public opinion – after all, they all want to be elected, and voting is the grandest public opinion poll of them all (and usually driven by exactly the same blinkered ignorance and emotive thinking as any other poll). But even then, you rather hope that at some point in proceedings, these politicians might listen to the evidence of people who know what they are talking about rather than simply following the fickle and changing winds of public opinion. It’s not much of a hope and the fact that we end up with so many bad laws – often named after someone or other to effectively crush criticism under the weight of manipulated public outrage – shows how little governments care about evidence.

When it comes to unelected bodies, though, there really is no excuse for kowtowing to public opinion. As is so often the case, we find ourselves looking at the British Board of Film Classification and their constantly flipping rules. Recently, the press has begun to notice something that the rest of us were already painfully aware of – that the censors are routinely and randomly upgrading and downgrading film ratings for old movies, something that they justify by talking about being in line with public opinion (or ‘concerns’, as they like to put it) – hence a film that was rated U (Universal, for all ages) for decades now needs to be reclassified as PG or even 12 despite no evidence of any problems being caused by the earlier, now apparently too lenient rating. The BBFC are also keen to carry out ‘studies’ that are little more than opinion polls to help set policy. Yet these are the people who tell us that we can trust them because they are experts. Experts who will flip-flop according to the whims of a public that changes its mind depending on what outrage has recently hit the headlines or what cynical media campaign has been manipulating it. Interestingly, as recent job advertisements for new ‘compliance officers’ (that’s censors to the rest of us) have shown, the BBFC’s respect for the opinion of the ordinary man or woman does not extend to actually employing them – to even apply for the job you need to be a graduate or post-graduate with an ‘understanding’ of media research.

That, of course, is the fascinating thing – they don’t really care what we think unless it somehow coincides with what they want to do anyway. Difficult public opinion will always be swept aside if it doesn’t suit an existing agenda and – most important, this – provide an excuse for an organisation to either flaunt their virtuous credentials or push through new restrictions on what we can say, do or see. Public opinion will be swept aside very quickly if it happens to be inconvenient for those who might be affected by it. We would do well to remember that this is all smoke and mirrors anyway – opinion is carefully manufactured, curated and manipulated to the point where it becomes whatever those who claim to be so concerned with it want it to be.

Look, if you want to tweak the advertising campaign for your ruthlessly capitalist organisation to pretend that you are suddenly diverse, inclusive, caring and reflective of the variable whims of passing fancy, that’s fine. If you are an organisation that sets legal and social policy, that’s another thing altogether. Surely the whole reason we have these bodies is to make decisions based on the best available evidence – if they are going to simply bend and twist under the weight of moral panics or simple public opinion or tweak their policies based on populist belief, even at its most insane, unsubstantiated and unscientific, then what on earth is the point of them? We all know how easy it is to stoke moral panic and whip up blind anger – but is that really what we should be basing our laws on? I’m sure most people absolutely support the idea of banning anonymity online because they’ve been told constantly that it is the cause of the worst sort of trolling (and ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’, right?) – but that doesn’t mean that they have looked into the pros and cons or even considered the issue very much. It doesn’t make them right.

The thing is that public opinion flip-flops constantly – it’s rarely always heading in one direction. It’s often based on knee-jerk belief, personal politics and – worst of all –  ‘common sense’, all too often a code word for ill-informed bigotry which we know only rarely has a connection with evidence. It’s dictated and manipulated by the worst people imaginable, across the political divide – ghastly careerist newspaper columnists and YouTube ranters who more often than not don’t even believe their own guff and social media gobshites so convinced of their own importance and superior knowledge of all things – even things that had never crossed their minds for a moment before some current event or other offered another topic to pontificate on – that they never pause to even consider that they might be wrong, let alone look at facts and figures. Social media, we are told, is the great democratiser but of course, that’s nonsense. Some voices are amplified way above others – and it’s rarely because they know more than anyone else.

There is no reason why the public should be hugely informed about everything, of course. Unless you are passionate about a subject, chances are that you won’t have spent much time researching it; it’s even less likely that we’ll have looked at all the evidence – including the evidence from people we disagree with – and weighed it up. That’s fair enough – but it does mean that our opinions on said subject is essentially useless because we literally don’t know what we’re talking about. Gut feelings are not evidence. Yet news broadcasters still love nothing more than to send some jobbing reporter onto the street to ask ‘the people’ what they think about this and that major news story as if any of it matters. These instant opinions are then fed to the nation – after being carefully cherry-picked, of course – as representing what ‘we’ think – and so more people start to think it too because peer pressure ensures that no one wants to be on the wrong side of public opinion.

Look, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be allowed to express an opinion. But there’s a reason why people go on trial with witnesses, defence and prosecution arguments, forensic evidence and cross-examinations – because we know that simply allowing people to declare guilt based on mere accusation is a ludicrous idea. Similarly, we expect doctors to have spent some time actually learning medical skills and don’t allow people to drive cars until they’ve passed a test. We expect people to know what they are doing. Yet we seem to think that opinions plucked from the air still have some significance and play a part in how we live. Willful ignorance is continually presented as being as valuable as carefully researched evidence – and expert analysis and scientific rigour are all too often sacrificed on the altar of populist crowd-pleasing. Is it any wonder that we end up with so many ill-considered laws and flip-flopping regulations that are aimed at placating the torch-carrying mob rather than actually addressing a social problem in any coherent way?


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