Friday, July 24, 2009

The spiral of silence

Filipinos have oftentimes been portrayed as “bakya” or tasteless or kitsch for their fondness for things others would consider tacky such as movie idols who don’t know how to act but can sing and dance. Generally, we are also blamed for our “crab mentality,” i.e., the instinctive urge to pull down someone on the rise. Also for our selective display of loyalty or clinging steadfastly to our own groups at the expense of building a bigger and cohesive social unit—we call it “tribalism.” We criticize our government and our political leaders and think of them as corrupt, incompetent and untrustworthy, after we have elected them time and again to office.

Some of these criticisms are well-founded, while others could just be outbursts of frustration from both our national and individual inability to rise to greater heights. It’s quite easy to blame our frailties as a people and use them as a scapegoat for our failures and shortcomings.

Some people find this fault-finding unproductive and would simply be content with even symbolic efforts to improve our lot. They would chastise others for being critical and advise them to stop from further wounding our national psyche. However, this sanguine attitude has its downside because it suppresses constructive criticism and silences those who may have different opinions but who would rather not say them aloud for fear of rejection or isolation, or worse, reprisal.

A German political scientist, Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, propounded the theory that one is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority. She called this concept the spiral of silence.

Let’s examine how this spiral of silence theory works in a chat group, mindful of how the Internet has decreased social isolation by allowing people to expand their social networks and giving them more opportunities to stay in touch with others. We shall assume that the Internet has truly revolutionized the process of communication by making it easier and freer for people to connect with others.

Anyone can post messages in chat groups today, and only an individual’s private notion of taste and decorum would regulate such flow of communication, although this has not prevented others from posting their infantile proclivities. Opinions can be posted in chat groups on issues ranging from the political to the most mundane. Those who are generally highly educated, or who are fluent or more affluent, and the few other cavalier individuals who do not fear isolation, are likely to speak out regardless of public opinion or how the chat group behaves. In a sense, this is a vocal minority. The rest of the members of the chat group may either keep their silence or refrain from airing their opinions because they fear being isolated and rejected by what they perceive to be the “ruling majority.”

Let’s further assume that an opinion was posted in a certain chat group criticizing the Santacruzan and parada ng lechon during the celebration of Philippine Independence Day last June 12 in Toronto. The gist of the criticism was based on the propriety or even relevance of the Santacruzan and parada ng lechon, both being vestiges of the Spanish colonial past and do not portray the true meaning of independence. No comments from the members of the chat group were elicited by the opinion piece, obviously because the criticism’s trajectory was aimed at the organizers of the Independence Day celebration, all prominent members of the Filipino community and some of whom are friendly and quite close to many members of the chat group. One can surmise that nobody dared to comment for fear of isolation or rejection from both the organizers and members of the chat group. Thus, it was easier to embrace the spiral of silence rather than become the object of criticism and rebuke.

Used to its extreme, the spiral of silence theory is as much a measure of protection as it is one of oppression. The theory applies only to moral issues that tend to evoke passionate responses, thus it can be used to contain social unrest over highly controversial topics. On the other hand, when used deliberately, it becomes a method for manipulation, control and coercion.

The Internet is supposed to have overcome the spiral of silence by freeing people from isolation. However, it could also trigger social withdrawal as evidenced by low peer response in the chat group. As others are wont to keep their opinions to themselves for fear of isolation and rejection, this may lead to their eventual withdrawal from participation. The same thing can happen in the larger social setting when people become disengaged from their community; they lose interest and start to withdraw as active and participating members of their larger society.

When people fear isolation, they feel shackled, not free to speak up if they hold dissenting views. Thus, we find people restricting themselves to having conversations with only like-minded individuals, or only about safer issues, or even refraining from joining the conversation altogether. In the end, this hinders diversity and equality of participants and prevents different viewpoints from fully blossoming into a democracy of ideas.

The fear of isolation or even humiliation inhibits others from joining in the discussion especially if there are members of the group who tend to dominate, and to some extent, bully others to submission to their beliefs. Instead of engaging with others in discussing difficult issues, the dissenting members will now feel they don’t belong—they have been cast aside as outsiders—and thus withdraw in silence.

Where there is less taunting among members in the group, the tendency to conform is reduced. People who would like to dissent feel freer, more at ease to express their views because they don’t have to endure the derision and ridicule from the vocal few. Yet, the spiral of silence works because some people believe consciously or subconsciously that the expression of unpopular opinions will lead to negative repercussions, especially if an active subgroup in the chat group feeds on embarrassing and humiliating others with ad hominem arguments, name-calling, or totally inane and irrelevant remarks.

L. Dahlberg wrote in The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Information, Communication and Society that “The blindness of cyberspace to bodily identity ... [is supposed to allow] people to interact as if they were equals. Arguments are said to be assessed by the value of the claims themselves and not the social position of the poster.” His main argument, therefore, is that the Internet has made it possible to liberate people from the social hierarchies and power relations that exist offline or in actual face-to-face communication.

Cross-cultural differences may quite possibly affect one’s willingness to speak out, thus the theory of spiral of silence has some limitations when applied in non-Western cultures. Filipinos for that matter, more than others, are inclined to gauge the opinion climate when deciding whether to speak out. This is also perhaps engendered by some—or the majority among us—who keep people from speaking out believing that doing so is mere rabble-rousing and a negative thing to do. That it is better to act rather than simply talk.

But without criticism or thoughtful analysis of our strengths, weaknesses and differences, we’ll never be able to identify opportunities for improvement. We can’t simply just say “Let's find positive attributes in ourselves rather than flog and inflict wounds,” and expect the magic formula for redemption to appear. I prefer the stance of Hu Shuli, the founding editor of Caijing, a widely-circulated Chinese biweekly magazine when justifying her magazine’s role in acknowledging China’s authority (in relation to freedom of the press) while at the same time fighting prudently to improve it.

According to Shuli, Caijing is like a woodpecker, forever hammering at a tree, trying not to knock it down but to make it grow straighter.

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