The ‘spiral of silence’ which makes Ireland’s referendum result unpredictable


Frank Furedi in reflects on the deeper reasons which might lie behind the collapse of the opinion polls’ authority and reliability in the British General Election. There was nothing wrong with their system of polling. The source of the problem the pollsters now have is the fear, distrust and uncertainty the people have in relation to each other and the bureaucratic idepolgy which is dominating their lives. What he say of Britain may well be reflected to an even higher degree in the outcome of Ireland’s marriage referendum which takes place this day week.

The pressure to conform and the fear of social isolation can lead to what the German social scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann identified in 1974 as a ‘spiral of silence’. According to this theory, people’s assessment of the opinions held by the majority influences and modifies the way they express their own views. Some individuals feel anxious about expressing sentiments that differ from the consensus outlook, as expressed in the political and media realm, and it is thought that, ‘prompted by a “fear of social isolation”’, some are ‘less likely to express their own viewpoint when they believe their opinions and ideas are in the minority’. Typically, the fear of negative social sanctions influences the way people express attitudes about numerous morally charged ‘threats’, such as foreigners, crime or terrorism.

Of course, in virtually every social setting there is always an element of self-censorship. But in contemporary Britain, the all-too-understandable impulse to conform is continually reinforced by the message ‘You can’t say that!’. Regrettably, the only time these insecure voices feel confident enough to express their true opinions is in the secrecy of the polling booth. This is why, from time to time, a seemingly predictable election campaign can result in a surprising outcome.

Sadly, significant sections of the political and cultural establishment would rather that the people always felt that ‘We are not allowed to say that’. This is the 21st-century version of the old oligarchical ideal, ‘Know your place’. Which is why fighting for a culture of tolerance and open debate, and above all for freedom of speech, is so important today.

This tweet says a great deal about this – from the brother of a star footballer who dared to put pen to paper explaining his reasoned convictions which are making him defend marriage as we have known it from time immemorial:


Read all Frank Furedi has to say here.

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