Saturday, August 18, 2007

Changing entrenched attitudes

Yirmiahu wrote:

Recently, Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn mentioned that he was interesting in exploring “how to actually change entrenched attitudes which have no halachic basis.” As it turns out I had recently been skimming a book from fifty or sixty years ago on Public Relations, called “Public Relations”* which addressed this issue (albeit without direct reference to ideas without halachic basis).

Public Opinion is not a mere collection of individual opinions. It has its own dynamic which should be taken into account if one hopes to be an influence. While we are interested in how these principles are applicable to a specific sociological group, we should bear in mind that they apply generally as well. Indeed as individuals these principles likely factor into our opinion making more than we would like to imagine, and almost certainly factor into how many who share our opinions reached their conclusion. Hopefully such a recognition will help us consider the role of these principles in Public Opinion without developing a spirit of condescension.

Initially we need to consider what we mean by “public”, “A public is comprised of people who are engaged in a common enterprise with similar interests and are conscious of their mutual dependence” (page 26). Public Opinion is the position taken on a controversial issue by the public. In any given public there are members of various education, aptitude, and temperament. At times Public Opinion is driven by the higher, more reasoned opinions of the knowledgeable and educated. But even the knowledgeable and educated can be swayed by emotion or otherwise make poor judgments, and as a result direct Public Opinion, or allow it to be directed by those less equipped to make such decisions, in a less well thought out direction.

Now people display certain patterns of thought and behavior with respect to the “public” they identify with which influences how “Public Opinion” is developed:

Identification: The group becomes an extension of one’s self. One’s willingness to “take one for the team” can extend to subjugating one’s own opinion in favor of the collective opinion.

Conformity: It is easier to go with the flow. On a more charitable note, not everyone is a born leader. Going against the tide can require more confidence in one’s conclusion, and ability, than many people have.

Anonymity: It seems to me that this is a bit of the reverse of the prior example. In some instances individuals who would otherwise be unwilling to voice their opinion are able to make their views heard via the group, sparing themselves personal scrutiny.

Sympathy: Members of a group take what happens to each other personally. While in many different contexts this tendency has been noted and criticized as a limitation on who we care about, it is in fact more of an extension. Especially in the era of mass communication we hear about more misfortune than anyone can handle. To take it all personally could emotionally crush a person. Personally, it is not unheard of for a news story to put me in tears, but such stories typically involve Yidden, or children (appealing to my identity as a “parent”). The tsunami in the South Pacific a few years back was very difficult emotionally even without any personal connection, but to react to each and every case is such a manner would be crippling. I’m inclined to believe that our natural tendency is to close ourselves off to such unpleasant emotions but our group identity allows us make ourselves vulnerable to experience empathy and compassion in some cases.

Emotionalism: Group opinion is seldom the result of detached and calculated logic, but the extent to which emotion drives the discussion varies. An issue which effects the communities lifestyle, health, parnassa, or safety are going to be more emotionally charged than peripheral issues.

Nobility: Public Opinion means that one’s positions are going to be known and shared so one is going to [tend to] put their best foot forward. Opinions will be influenced by the higher values which they share. I would add, however, that consciously or not, less noble intents will likewise be channeled into a more “noble” presentation.

Oppression: The work Public Relations writes “Oppression is a common delusion” (page 36) but I think that many or most of us would recognize that it is not uncommon for a group, a public, to have been treated unfairly. Mainstream society, particularly in the information age, tends to have a short attention span on such mistreatment, even when mainstream society is itself the subject of mistreatment. Other, “minority” communities do not tend to forget so quickly. This has a very real impact on Public Opinion and must be taken into consideration. I should note that while this consciousness of past wrongs may make it difficult for a community to adapt to new realities, the lack of such consciousness tends to make mainstream society complacent and unwilling to safeguard against further assault.

Symbolism: Symbols are employed to represent values and ideals of the group, or to represent the opposition against which the group struggles.

Rationalization: As we noted earlier with respect to nobility, at times reasons are given for taking a particular position which serve as a smoke screen to hide ulterior motives.

The goal of Public Relations, as opposed to mere propaganda, is to inform the public on a given topic so that they have the ability to make a better decision. We can safely assume that not every individual will ultimately be persuaded by proper evidence, but we have to trust that most people will be inclined to make better decisions if given the chance. Additionally, certain people are “opinion leaders” on certain issues. These individuals are not identified by their position or title, but one can expect to find them involved in activities which promote the welfare of others. Reaching such people with the appropriate information is a significant component of influencing public opinion.

While we have always had our ups and downs, it seems to me that the last few years has been a difficult period for the frum world, with what seems to me to be an large increase in members of our community making headlines for things we may not be proud of. Often we hear of calls for “moderation” but this is, effectively, equivalent to calling for less motivation. I do not think that this is the correct, or desirable approach. If, or rather Since, we are correct in asserting that the ways of Torah are “Darchei Noam” then we need work on publicizing relevant Torah material which will make it easier for Yidden to come to appropriate conclusions, and more difficult for people to rationalize positions which are in fact not based in halachah. And we should, at least now and then, go out of our comfort zone and challenge popular misconceptions with halachic sources. And the effort to get our own “Public Opinion” in check is the most significant hishtadlus to influence the “Public Opinion” of the outside world.

*Public Relations: Principles, Cases, and Problems, 3rd Edition, Bertrand R. Canfield, 1952, 1961

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