Unraveling the Spiral of Silence
with Lex Fridman
Recently, I appeared on the podcast of Lex Fridman, a computer scientist who has worked on AI at places like MIT and Google. He’s a virtuosic interviewer who seems to be interested in pretty much everything. Go check out his YouTube channel, and you’ll likely be impressed by his range of guests and his ability to engage them in deep conversations about their lives and areas of expertise.
I made the trip out to Lex’s studio in Austin, Texas, and it was well worth the journey. Our conversation ranged from my own personal experiences to economics to race and politics to the really big questions, like death and the meaning of life. We talked for four hours, and he posted almost the entire thing. I must say, I think it’s one of the best recorded conversations I’ve ever engaged in.
The excerpt below is taken from that conversation, and in it Lex asks me about the effectiveness of accusations of racism. We see this everywhere. A professor or politician or some other public figure is accused of racism, and before the charges can even be investigated, poof. Their career goes up in smoke, whether or not they’ve actually done anything worthy of censure. Often it turns out they’re guilty of little more than choosing their words carelessly, and just as often they’re guilty, at least in my view, of nothing at all. This state of affairs is untenable, and I have no problem saying so. Others feel the way I do, and you’re now seeing more of them speak out against specious accusations of racism.
But there are still many, many people who recognize the terrible injustice of these accusations but fear the repercussions of defending the accused. It’s understandable. They don’t want the mob to direct its ire at them, and they may be in a position where they have much to lose and little to gain by speaking out. I worry that this widespread suppression could create conditions ripe for exploitation by some canny demagogue who could harness the resentments of a stifled electorate and, in the process, unleash something very ugly on this country. The political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann theorized the mechanisms that could bring this state of affairs about. She called it “the spiral of silence,” which I explain below.
We know the costs of remaining silent in the face of injustice. When that silence is broken, as it inevitably will be broken, are we prepared for what else may break along with it?
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LEX FRIDMAN: If I can get your comment, maybe you have ideas. Because it does seem that this kind of attack works, of being called a racist, being called, maybe not sexist, but somebody—we’re going through a Johnny Depp trial now, right? It’s a defamation trial, and the reason it’s a defamation trial is because all it took was a single accusation of Johnny Depp being somebody who sexually and physically abused Amber Heard, and all it took was just a single article. No proof was given except the accusation itself, and the world believed it. So it’s effective.
How do you fight back if it’s so damn effective that you can just call anybody a racist, and it works? It’s hard to wash off. You’re not proven in the court of law or anything like that, but we get those articles, we get that label, and then the world moves on and just assumes that person is racist. Do you have any ideas how to fight back?
GLENN LOURY: No, I don’t, frankly. Was it Roseanne Barr, who made the statement about Valerie Jarrett? She made some kind of ape-like reference to whatever, and her show got canceled, and she’s a racist.
So first of all pointing it out I suppose is one of the most powerful things. The hypocrisy of it, the—
You say it works, I guess you’re right. It used to be that calling someone a communist worked. I mean, going back to the late 1940s early 1950s, Red Scare, McCarthyism, and whatnot, and the person might have belonged to a club that was pro-Soviet Union in the 1930s when they were in college, they might have voted for the socialist candidate Henry Wallace in the presidential election of 1948, they might belong to the Communist Party, they might think Karl Marx was right about a whole lot of stuff about capitalism and whatnot. And they got called a communist or a Marxist, and it could have ruined their career, it could have ruined their lives. A lot of people shut up about it, and it went on for a long time. In a way, it kind of still is going on. I mean, you call somebody a Marxist, if you can make that stick, they’re certainly not going to get elected President of the United States.
But I don’t know about this. I once read this book by a German political scientist called Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. That was the writer’s name, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. The book was called The Spiral of Silence. And the argument was, there can be some views, some issues in society that get defined in such a way that it’s inappropriate to hold those views. And as a result, people who don’t want to be shamed, who don’t want to be ostracized, don’t express those views. And when they don’t express them, anybody holding the view, because they don’t hear it said by others, think that they’re the only one or one of the few who hold the view, and so they don’t want to be the only one out there saying something. So they keep it to themselves.
Now this view, this attitude in society, could be held by a large number of people, but because of the fear that if they were to express it, they’d be ostracized, no one says it. And since no one is saying it, the others who hold the view don’t know that they’re not alone, that they are not the only ones that hold the view, and hence they keep silent. That could be an equilibrium, it could be a relatively stable situation in which the emperor has no clothes, everybody can see that this dude is naked, but everybody thinks that, “I don’t want to be the only one to say it.” And so we all kind of collaborate in this charade of keeping the view to ourselves. Then along comes an event that somebody decides to defy the consensus and to speak out. It could be a little kid who, in the story of the emperor has no clothes, doesn’t realize that he’s not supposed to say that the emperor is naked.
The thing about the kid in the story who says that the emperor is naked is not that he’s saying it, it’s not even that other people hear him saying it. It’s that everybody knows that everybody else heard him say it. The kid who speaks out and says the emperor has no clothes creates a circumstance in which it’s common knowledge that the emperor has no clothes. Now, common knowledge does not just mean knowledge. It does not even mean widespread knowledge. It means comprehensive knowledge of other person’s knowledge of the thing.
The spiral of silence is an equilibrium that is susceptible to being undermined by a process, a kind of cumulative process, a snowballing process of revelation, that you’re not the only one who thinks this way.
It’s fascinating to think that there’s an ocean of common knowledge that we’re waiting for the little kid to wake us up to, different little parts of it.
That’s correct. And the little kid, by the way, could be somebody like Donald Trump, only more effective than Donald Trump. Somebody who is smarter than Donald Trump, somebody who is shrewder than Donald Trump, somebody who figures out that when Colin Kaepernick takes a knee at a football game and says, “I’m not going to stand for this pledge of allegiance,” that a vast number of people are very unhappy about that, somebody who understands that when a Black Lives Matter activist stands up with his balled fist and says, “Burn this bitch down,” about a city in the United States of America, that a lot of people are upset about that. A lot of them. A person, a shrewd politician, a shrewd manager of public image, could build on and create a circumstance in which more and more people will feel safe to express that view. And the more who express it, the safer those who have yet to express it but who hold it will feel in expressing it.
And to the extent that the view is very widespread but is kept under wraps, an explosion could happen, and you could look up tomorrow and have a very different country than you had today because the conspiracy of silence, the spiral of silence, ends up getting unraveled by somebody who steps out away from the consensus, dares to take the slings and arrows of exposing themselves as a naysayer, but taps into a sentiment that’s very widespread. I fear that with respect to many racial issues, this is the situation that we actually confront, that it could unravel in a very ugly way.