PUBLISHERS NOTEBOOK: Five decades later, still a silent majority
Tuesday, November 19, 2013 5:47 AM
President Richard Nixon made the phrase "silent majority" popular in 1969 when he referred to middle Americans that he thought were ignored by the media. The term resonated, becoming a popular phrase for many years.
Anti-war demonstrations, the counterculture and large-scale protests have largely faded into the background, but in 2013 our country seems quite split with partisan bickering predominating our discourse. However, it also seems that there is a silent majority today, although not the kind Nixon referenced.
The vocal minority comes from both camps - the left and right - to shout down opinions that may go contrary to their outlook, thus stifling rational public discourse. People are afraid to speak out on issues because they either get attacked, or unfairly labeled, by extremely partisan individuals.
One reason is that so much discourse has trickled over to online, where it doesn't take much effort to hit the keys to attack someone relatively anonymously, or at least without fear of actually meeting the person attacked.
I've seen it on our own news site, where we have received comments that are more personal and combative than anything we receive as a letter to the editor, unless it is during campaign season.
For example, the Affordable Care Act is a political issue that raises strong opinions, but now that it is the law of the land, it is raising concerns among the silent majority, which is just trying to figure out if this is a good thing and what it means in our daily lives. I wrote a column showing my experiences with it, concluding that I didn't have the problems that were so prevalent, even more so after I wrote the column, but it also didn't seem to offer me any benefit as an employer, which I noted is a different role than most people navigating the new program.
I also said that, in judging the program, we need to tune out the political noise that surrounds the issue.
The first comment on that column criticized me for painting such a "rosy picture" for my biased support of Obamacare. That was mild rhetoric, and I should expect that being in my position, but it did nothing to advance the conversation.
One reader did respond with her family's experiences, which we published, and later posted to our website, the following week. The writer admitted that she was a life-long Democrat and supporter of ACA, something that added validity to her criticisms of the program. However, that admission also drew scorn from a couple of people commenting on our website.
One called her a "leftist" and wondered how many people she called "racist" because they opposed Obamacare. Of course, a little research shows that this person has been a conservative Republican candidate for office, making her attack mere political noise.
Another started his comment asking why it is a surprise since it wasn't to him, someone who opposed "this lie," and ended by thanking her for spending this country's future so that "we are simply screwed." This person may not have been a registered politician, but it is a partisan response that doesn't shed any light on the issue.
I've seen it on social media, too, where people comment on something in a more inquisitive or reflective way, bringing a gray area out in an issue, only to get bombarded by extremists with either a black or white answer to a complex problem. Once that happens, the person with the reflective opinion doesn't post anything more to do with an issue that is political or controversial.
So, it isn't only in the political arena that we only hear the extremes. Even in social discourse, the conversation is dominated by the vocal minority.
Quick, easy, unthinking, online discourse is here to stay, allowing the vocal minority even more power to influence. The problem is that we don't ever get a true picture of how most people feel.
Maybe we're fighting a losing battle, but we'll do our best to promote civil discourse because we believe in the old-fashioned concept of the "marketplace of ideas," which is similar to the free market in business. The concept holds that the truth will emerge out of the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse.
We just need to bring more voices into the conversation, or marketplace.