Monday, April 11, 2022

What Does the Public Really Think?

I remember that it was when reading Angus Calder's The People's War that I first encountered reference to "Mass-Observation"--a social research project that was operative in Britain from the 1930s to the 1960s. As the name implied it was an attempt to document what people said, did, thought in everyday life--which object existed because what people actually say, do, think in everyday life is something we rarely understand so well as we think we do. This is especially the case when it is a matter of the broader public--and it seems that in this area we have regressed rather than progressed.

That may seem a surprising statement to make in this "information age." However, the fact is that the "information" in which we are saturated is overwhelmingly the opinions of the elite, who are derived from the very thin and privileged social layer that has access to major media platforms, and virtually no one else's, with the Internet, if anything, increasingly reinforcing that tendency. To go by what the search engines serve up, what the Internet does is amplify those views that were most loudly heard to begin with--those views coming from the most prominent, best established, best resourced platforms--rather than giving others a chance, with the concern for "authoritative sources" amid the alarums over "fake news" an overt commitment to such favoritism. (Search for any information on current events or public issues and then look at the list of results. Your odds of finding anything from outside a major news outlet in the top three hits, or even the top ten--past which point one might as well not put it up at all for all its chances of being seen.)

All of this seems to me to be underlined by the way in which the argument over what undeniable expressions of the public's attitude really mean, as with elections. Even setting aside the way in which these days every vote-count is a nightmare of bad-faith contention, when the numbers are accepted as a settled matter the bad-faith contention becomes about why people voted the way they did. For example, responding to a right-wing candidate selling economic nationalism were they living up to the bigoted, reactionary "hardhat" stereotype or was it because they were self-interestedly responding to the contempt the ostensibly liberal party showed for their economic concerns? The argument goes round and round in circles because, as is so often the case in this age in which postmodernism has become a default intellectual mode those who are in any position to be heard simply don't care to do more than express their prejudices, such that they might as well be Medieval lords arguing over how the serfs see their lot for all their connection with the reality of the lower orders.

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