Public Opinion Governing People's Behaviour

(This is an archived page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book.  Current versions are at book contents).

People can influence acquaintances and even total strangers:

·     Imitation can lead to new fashions and behavioural norms, as with the hippy phenomenon in the 1960s.  As described in a BBC article, Did the Hippies have nothing to say?, the movement was influential: “While the hippies have been largely understood as a cultural movement, often infantilised and satirised, they were also highly political.”

·     People can show approval or disapproval of another’s behaviour by words, gestures and body language.  Merely speaking out against unacceptable behaviour can help: it can cause people to reconsider their behaviour.  Conversely, it is possible to argue that failure to speak out is a way of condoning the behaviour.  At the very least, speaking out has the effect of communicating its unacceptability (which may have been unintentional).

·     With improved communications, people can exert global influence – for example by blogs and through social media such as Twitter.  Group identities can be forged and strengthened by using the Internet – as countless organisations solicit people to join them, to contribute money etc. 

·     People can hide behind an alias or false identity when using the Internet to express views.  For example, people with openly racist views in the ‘alt-right’ movement, which is described later (, were trying to remain anonymous but were exposed towards the end of 2016 – as described in an article, The Alt Right’s Anonymity is Failing, and they are Unable to Withstand Exposure.  The ‘Alt-right’ racism is unacceptable to most people; they risk incurring public disapprobation or even sanctions such as losing their jobs.

As an example of the influence of public opinion across an entire society, John Stuart Mill described moral pressure in Victorian England as oppressive, in his book On Liberty:

“there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them”.  (Chapter 1, p. 6)

Such pressure can also be counter-productive, driving those who do not conform to the edges of society and making their behaviour less acceptable to other people.