Manufacturing Fictions

It appears that we got what we asked for. Back in the eighteenth century, we asked for a liberal democratic government that secured and protected personal economic liberty, and that’s what we have. We wanted a government to guard everyone’s freedom to assure that minority interests and concerns would not be trammeled on by the majority. We coveted a political system that had the capacity to resolve conflicts and competing interests while maximizing freedom. We sought a government that we could form and change when it needed changing and keep when it did right by us.

And now, that’s the problem. As citizens who constitute the sovereign in this country, we have subjected ourselves to our governing authorities: ourselves! We asked for it, and we got it, though at the time, we didn’t realize that competing self-interests and group interests, disparities in economic power, economic exploitation, and safeguarding the rights of social, economic, and political minorities would produce such partisan obduracy and personal indifference to practically anything but one’s own well-being.

We could change this situation, but it’s not likely. We have become too partisan in our approach. Politics is now a zero-sum game; in order for there to be winners, there must be losers. In addition to one’s self-interests, there are also group-interests that must be pursued at the expense of other different groups, and this is true of political, social, economic and religious groups; we function as coalitions of the like-minded and similarly situated. We are not likely to have a change in our society and our political culture because partisan identification is about how people think of themselves and how they identify with particular groups. Change is not likely if this alteration is fundamentally about who people perceive themselves to be and how they think about the world around them; individuals in our society have incredible resistance to alterations of this kind.

Let’s pause here a moment and consider something that may have gone unnoticed. The social, political, economic and religious spheres (plural) we live in are human-made; they are not eternal and they have not been forever as they are at this moment—they have, in fact, undergone change. We made the world we live in; our beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors are shaped by and oriented toward this domain, this environment. But let’s be honest: the world outside ourselves is way too big, too complex, too formidable for any one of us to know it fully and truly. In order to function in these spheres, we need to have an impression of the environment and the way it works; we need what many call a “worldview,” or at least, an orientation of some kind. This world-in-our-heads is but a miniature representation of what we know and believe, and what we think others know and believe. It is what Walter Lippman, in his book Public Opinion (Macmillan, 1922), called a “pseudo-environment” a “medium of fictions,” a “simpler model,” “interior representations of the world” that serve as “a determining element in thought, feeling, and action” (10-17).

It’s not as though this inner picture of the world is false, but rather that it truncates and distorts a more complicated social and physical reality outside ourselves. In a sense, this is necessary so we can manage it and ourselves. These “fictions,” representations, or visualizations, for Lippmann, are crafted by us on the basis of what we experience, what others report to us, and what we can imagine. He writes: “The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationships, 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” (17).

How we come to form our “public opinions” is described by Stuart Oskamp and Wesley Schultz, in Attitudes and Opinions (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005), as the product of “social cognition” which refers to “our thought processes about people and social situations. It includes the ways we gather social information, organize it, and interpret it. Thus social cognition processes are important in determining the way our attitudes and opinions are formed, strengthened, and changed over the course of time” (6).

But because the world out there is so expansive and complicated, we end up believing and behaving by seeing what we want to see and knowing what we want to know, and disregarding or rejecting altogether what doesn’t fit within our frame of reference. Lippmann is not the first to note this important function of the pseudo-environment—the pictures—in our social cognition, but he observes with rhetorical finesse how we tend to see what we want to see: “For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusions of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture” (54-55). It is the set of stereotypes that, more than anything else, determines what we see and what we take as facts, as well as what meaning and significance we attach to those facts.

In the final analysis, our beliefs, attitudes, and values—our opinions—are correlative to our self-interests and our group-interests, and we want to think that we ourselves, as individuals, have crafted these opinions. We want to think that we have thought through issues and weighed evidence and assessed alternative points of view before positioning ourselves on a matter of dispute. But this hope is deceptive and our social cognition is itself truncated, especially when it comes to politics and matters of public policy. Whether our particular point of view represents a minority interest or a majority interest, we are much more likely to hold on to it and advocate for it if we know that an important social, political, economic or religious reference group holds and supports that view. And the reason why is essentially because of the way we think about ourselves and identify with particular groups. We want to “fit in,” be part of “the group,” go with “the flow”; we want to identify with particular social groups whose beliefs, attitudes, and values are those we appropriate for ourselves.

The truth is that most people have a belief system that they have been socialized to embrace; they think what they have been taught to think, and to think of it as monolithically true and factual, the only correct interpretation of a given reality or reality as such. This is no less true of those beliefs and opinions held on the basis of one’s own experience. Observing or participating in an event or undergoing a particular circumstance or encountering someone or something does not necessarily assure that one’s rendition of the experience or recollection of it is true to the exclusion of all others or accurate when assessed by the judgment of co-participants. Each one brings something different, observes selectively, processes differently, and walks away with a sense that is as much created as it is creative. The singularity of our experience is, in fact, buttressed and rendered plausible by the consent of others in our reference groups whom we believe to have had similar experiences and who interpret them the same way.

How, then, are our public opinions formed? How and why do we think what we think, believe what we believe, feel what we feel, when it comes to matters of public policy and our politics? How is it that our sociopolitical—and religious—views have a fairly high degree of stability in the face of the ebb and flow of historical circumstances?

Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is not what we might expect. As citizens, we have abdicated our responsibility for the tenor and tone of our politics and the legitimate functioning of government. With diminished social cognition, the body politic has traded its civil birthright for a political mess of pottage. Neglecting to think for ourselves or unwilling to think outside the stereotypes in our minds, we have aped the sociopolitical perspectives of those who offer themselves—or are offered to us—as cognoscenti whose views ought to prevail because of who they are and the positions they occupy in public life. These are the politicians, government bureaucrats, think-tankers, policy wonks, and media personalities who are the “political elite” and who are presumed by vast numbers of our citizens to know better than the rest of us.

We would like to think that our political beliefs, attitudes and opinions are constructed by us on the basis of information we have received and experiences we’ve had, along with a smattering of what we may feel about an issue or those who are the subject of a proposed policy (e.g., taxpayers, uninsured, poor people, homeowners, soldiers, business people, polluters, etc.). And there is an element of truth in thinking this. But as Oskamp and Schultz point out in their book Attitudes and Opinions, most people do not have an attitude or opinion on a matter of public policy until they are asked about it, at which time they literally construct one “on the spot,” using existing information, knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, surroundings, and socioeconomic location as the raw materials (13). Even though such an opinion is formed serendipitously, it tends to be fairly stable if it finds social support.

A somewhat different approach is taken by another social scientist who has investigated the formation of public opinion. In his book, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (University of Cambridge Press, 1992), John R. Zaller shows that it is the political cognoscenti who determine the frames of reference for political issues through their “elite discourse” about matters of public moment. Such discourse is “an attempt by various types of elite actors to create a depiction of reality that is sufficiently simple and vivid that ordinary people can grasp it,” but that invariably this discourse is “unavoidably selective and unavoidably enmeshed in stereotypical frames of reference that highlight only a portion of what is going on” (13).To use Lippmann’s language, it is a “medium of fiction.” Zaller defines “political awareness” as “the extent to which an individual pays attention to politics and understands what he or she has encountered” (21). So when we consider that many citizens in the United States, by many survey measures, have a minimal to non-existent level of knowledge about political issues, vary considerably in their attention to politics, and show up to vote in small percentages, we ought not be surprised that Zaller contends that when most people do express their opinion or make their mark in the voting booth, they are parroting political discourse and channeling the political elite with whom they align by virtue of their “political predispositions” (i.e., their particular interests, values, and experiences).

What we are left with, then, is a rather discouraging picture. Either we form our political opinions and public policy views by constructing them on the basis of partial and distorted information, personal biases, misperceptions and self-interest, or we appropriate them from those we take to be knowledgeable experts and specialists whose messages we think we can trust. Either way, through “pseudo-environment” or “predispositions,” something or someone intervenes between us and the external world we inhabit, influencing beliefs, attitudes, values, and behavior. Either way, we are conditioned to filter social and political arguments and information, and disregard all that do not conform to our existing partisan frame; we accept or reject partisan political messages based on whether they are consistent with our preconceptions and biases. Either way, we begin and end with manufacturing our own sociopolitical fictions.

In the meantime, while politicos and pundits pontificate, others are suffering in a state of inequality that we can change, if we could summon the political and moral will. But that is the subject of the next post in a couple of weeks.

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