For democracy, let’s give up the right to remain silent

Just as our founding document protects against majoritarian hegemony, it implores us to not just go along with the crowd.

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In the study of communication, there is a theory known as the “Spiral of Silence.” Humans dread isolation and rejection, the theory goes. So we often stay quiet instead of voicing our opinions, for fear we will be seen as having views that might counter dominant opinion. The “Spiral of Silence” assumes that we can discern the prevailing opinion in any situation and react accordingly. It was first employed to explain why Germans did not talk about the rise of the Nazis and their atrocities.
The “spiral” is created – and the silence is echoed – when members of the self-professed majority confidently voice what they believe is the dominant opinion. Those who believe they have minority views fear being shunned and become increasingly uncomfortable. As the spiral continues, the hesitation, silence, and fear deepen. Even amid accelerating disruption and fragmentation in our cultural, political, and social climate, this “spiral” is still at work. The mass media cast a powerful image of prevailing opinion, as do social platforms like Facebook, X, and Instagram.
Meanwhile, in real space, we carefully navigate the landscapes of our workplaces, schools, houses of worship, and anywhere our social networks (both formal and informal) take shape. While dominant opinion can certainly shift in times of upheaval, such as the protest-filled summer of 2020, it is dominant for a reason. It is formidable, entrenched, and self-justifying. Plus, our social customs tend to reward civility – from the genteel etiquette of the South to our trademark Midwestern charm – and discourage aggression. This is good news for those who support the status quo.
Still, nowhere does the Constitution give the powerful interests an absolute right to impose their worldview on the rest of us. Just as our founding document protects against majoritarian hegemony on behalf of the minority, it empowers us – beseeches us – to not just go along with the crowd. It implores us to be individuals, to advocate for our beliefs, to stand up and stand out, and to inspire others to do the same. For democracy to flourish, we must work to shatter the “spiral.”
 It is important to consider that the “spiral” may be the product of perception and not reality. This often comes to the fore when a majority opinion is challenged. It may only have become the accepted wisdom because its purveyors were more persistent and louder than the rest. Things are often not what they seem, and standing up and speaking out inspires others to do so, too.
It is also essential that we use our own words. Popular culture, especially TV and film, is full of passionate speech-making and eloquent entreaties changing the course of history. But we don’t have to employ the eloquent rhetoric of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” nor do we need to show the care and heartache of Jefferson Smith on the Senate floor in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” When we use our own words, we are more likely to connect with our neighbors and community members more genuinely. Whether it’s testimony before the City Council, a letter to the editor, or a social media post that urges people to consider something beyond the dominant framework, we can successfully challenge the status quo.
We must also reinforce, reinforce, and reinforce again. For most, going out on a limb once can be plenty frightening. Doing it repeatedly might be unthinkable. But, repetition is necessary to speak up and stand out; messages must be repeated to take hold in our consciousness. It’s only human nature that any message or opinion, no matter how potent, will fade without repetition and reinforcement. A ridiculously obvious example: Think of commercials for the insurance company Aflac. Its mascot, a white duck, has been quacking the company’s name in advertisements for more than two decades now. According to the company, nine in 10 Americans now recognize Aflac’s brand. If the choice is between a clever, complicated message and a simple, repeatable one, we will always choose the latter.
Of course, we should also consider that the majority opinion might be the majority opinion. Yet, this does not mean we should pack things up and concede our principles. If we truly find ourselves fighting the prevailing winds, whether at a town hall meeting or in a Facebook thread, messages can be tailored so that they are more empathetic and more palatable. It also forces us to find common ground with those with whom we disagree. Over time, this leads to trust, which leads to connection, which leads to empathy, which leads to compromise and even change.
 And, of course, we should expect pushback. Unfortunately, our more recent leaders have permitted us to communicate from our worst impulses. Speaking up and standing out can be dangerous when the powerful feel their authority or hegemony has been challenged. They may retreat to calls for “civility” while casting themselves as victims of aggressive words or actions, but they are just as likely to use their power to overwhelm, demean, or even call for violence against others. In every interaction, we must use our best judgment and recognize when discretion is the better part of valor.
Ideas are contagious, and in a democracy – the most adaptive, flexible, and re-inventable system in human history – the exchange of ideas is necessary. If we remain silent we surrender the intellectual marketplace to those who do not share our experiences or represent our views. They may even have a distaste for democracy itself. But by speaking up, we can cast away the illusion of the established order, bring a plurality of ideas to the forefront, and make meaningful change possible. Sometimes, we can even change the world.

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