Pictures in our Heads

I have just read Public Opinion, a 1922 book by Walter Lippmann, the philosopher-journalist extraordinaire of the 20th century.  It strikes me how so much of what he wrote then still applies today, and how he was consciously exploring what it meant to be in a new, modern era, when mass media would break down the barriers of distance and tradition.  Yet Lippmann may also be on to one of the dangers of democracy, reminiscent of Montesquieu’s idea of the “troglodytes.”

Lippmann notes that we make judgments about reality by creating “pictures in our heads,” simplifications of the complexity of the real world, often shaped by external forces who give us narratives and visions already pre-packaged and interpreted.   We then lose sight of the fact that these are just interpretations, and start believing that we are understanding reality “as it is,” certain we have the facts correct, and that our judgments are crystal clear.   This is never the case, and we delude ourselves into false certainty by putting such faith in our biased and stereotyped images.   Perhaps with education and the capacity to engage in understanding multiple perspectives we can at the very least recognize the problem and work against bias, but we are always limited.

A few quotes from Lippmann’s classic (the MacMillian 1957 printing):

“For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.  We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations.  And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage it.” (page 16)

“The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes.   We are told about the world before we see it.  We imagine most things before we experience them.  And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.” (page 90)

“We do not see what our eyes are not accustomed to take into account.  Sometimes consciously, more often without knowing it, we are impressed by those facts which fit our philosophy.” (page 119)

“So where two factions see vividly each its own aspect, and contrive their own explanations of what they see, it is almost impossible for them to credit each other with honesty.  If the pattern fits their experience at a crucial point, they no longer look upon it as an interpretation.  They look upon it as ‘reality.’  It may not resemble the reality, except that it culminates in a conclusion which fits real experience.”  (page 126-27)

“Generally, it all culminates in the fabrication of a system of all evil, and of another which is the system of all good.  Then our love of absolutes shows itself.   For we do not like qualifying adverbs.  They clutter up sentences, and interfere with irresistible feeling…Real space, real time, real numbers, real connections, real weights are lost.  The perspective and the background and the dimensions of action are clipped and frozen in the stereotype.” (page 156)

“Most of this naïve view of self-interest leaves out of account.  It forgets that self and interest are both conceived somehow, and that for the most part they are conventionally conceived.  The ordinary doctrine of self-interest usually omits altogether the cognitive function.  So insistent is it on the fact that human beings finally refer all things to themselves that it does not stop to notice that men’s ideas of all things and of themselves are not instinctive.  They are acquired.” (Page 180)

“But for the political thinkers who have counted, from Plato and Aristotle through Machiavelli and Hobbes to the democratic theorists, speculation has revolved around the self-centered man who had to see the whole world by means of a few pictures in his head.” (Page 262)

“We misunderstand the limited nature of news, the illimitable complexity of society; we overestimate our own endurance, public spirit and all around competence.  We suppose an appetite for uninteresting truths which is not discovered by any honest analysis of our own tastes.” (Page 362)

“The press is no substitute for institutions.  It is like the beam of a search light that moves restlessly about it, bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision.  Men cannot do the work of the world by this light alone.  They cannot govern society by episodes, incidents and eruptions.  It is only when they work by a steady light of their own, that the press, when it is turned upon them, reveals a situation intelligible enough for a popular decision.   The trouble lies deeper than the press, and so does the remedy.  It lies in social organization based on a system of analysis and record, and in all the corollaries of that principle; in the abandonment of the theory of the omnicompetent citizen, in the decentralization of decision, in the coordination of decision by comparable record and analysis.” (page 364)

“It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves.  This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its tradition, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.” (Page 365)

These snippets, which represent part of the theory behind my current research, challenge democracy.    The public cannot be wise, because the public is so easily misled, and through emotion responds to “pictures in our heads” that give a warped and overly simplified vision of reality.   Especially with globalization, it’s hard for the “self-contained society” (as Lippmann puts it) to understand the diverse perspectives out there.  It’s easier to see ones’ own culture as common sensically best and superior.  People believe that their self-interest comes from inside them, rather than recognizing how it is often given to them by the culture and discourse in which they find themselves.

Perhaps the militarism of the past decades, the “something for nothing” mentality of both the rich and poor in our society, the wild consumerism, and the demand that the government spend more and tax less simply reflects public demands shaped by marketers and the media.   The politicians react to this and are caught up in it, believing their own “pictures in their heads.”   Few question their own narratives or, as Lippmann also noted, truly listen to the “indispensable opposition.”   Perhaps our current crisis is as much a crisis of modern democracy as it is a creation of either governments or markets (the left blames the latter, the right blames the former).

As this research project develops, I’ll reflect more on this.  For today, I thought I’d list a few quotes from Lippmann’s classic which people may or may not find insightful.

  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on February 4, 2010 - 00:36

    Lippmann is, at times, an interesting character; at others, an infuriating one. He holds the distinction of perhaps being both the major democratic theorist of the 20th century and the major anti-democratic theorist.

    I find his elitism extremely off-putting. He rejects basic liberal democratic notions that having a say in one’s own government is a fundamental right (he takes the existence of government as a given, and doesn’t address questions of its source), and argues, instead, that people are an ignorant, incompetent herd, who must be led by an elite that knows what’s best for them. This elite manipulates those pictures in the minds of the people to that end.

    This could stand as a workable analysis of how part of the world works, but Lippmann doesn’t present it that way. He doesn’t just say “this is how things are now.” He says “this is how things are,” period, and works forward from the premise that this is how things *will be* and even *should* be (among other things, he’s too conservative to imagine a world without the social conventions and institutions of his time, and projects that on to everyone else). He offers, as a basis for his argument that the public is incapable of ruling itself, the notion that regular people can’t possibly be sufficiently informed to responsibly deal with the multitude of situations that may arise to confront a government. What’s the assumption here? That they necessarily must be–that people have no capacity for adaptation. That’s nonsense, and it’s being used to rationalize a leap that would cover the Grand Canyon.

    Many years ago, I went from being a bit of a Lippmann enthusiast (at a time when I was younger, dumber, and didn’t fully understand him) to a major skeptic. I haven’t read him in a very long time. I don’t feel as though I’ve missed anything.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on February 4, 2010 - 03:10

    I see your points, classicliberal, but I read him a bit differently. First, I put him in the context of a few European theorists, such as Adorno and Horkheimer, and Gramsci. Adorno, for instance, had a similar pessimism about democracy and liberalism, is often accused of elitism, and found solace in the arts. Gramsci, an Italian communist, realized that politics and culture mattered, and jettisoned Marx’s historical materialism for a view that really focused on competing world views. Each of those views I find pessimistic.

    Lippmann, following his mentor William James, seem to offer a more optimistic response to these pessimisms about democracy. There is a way to deal with this. Lippmann did go for a leadership based on institutions that attempt to be rational (something Adorno would have found great problems with). I don’t agree with him there; I think the general pragmatist approach that eschews grand ideological sweeps or notions of “principle” that turn politics into jihadism, makes sense.

    I also think that the current crises and the political discourse around them (including the poll you describe on your blog) show that some of Lippmann’s pessimism about the masses is not misplaced. I don’t share Lippmann’s conclusions, but I think his approach does shed light on the power of media and the way the social-psychological state of humanity limits the capacity of democracy to function well in the modern world. Those limits can be overcome, but I think Lippmann is accurate enough in much of what he says (again, not all — especially his conclusions) that he’s useful to consider, especially given the current situation.

  3. #3 by Striker on February 4, 2010 - 04:52

    Interesting post Scott. I think that I agree with this man Lippmann, if what he is saying is that our society, in a sense, puts images in our head and because those images are so narrow, we have made little head way when it comes to changing the world (in a good way).

    We can let anything narrow our vision. My greatest frustration comes with religion. I consider myself a Christian, but I have a HUGE problem with many of my fellow Christian friends, narrow point of views.

    We can’t help but be impacted by what we have been taught our world looks like. The problem is, if we make the mistake of taking those images as FACT and don’t allow people to change our ideals in life.

    Oh well, these are my thoughts. Interesting blog Scott :/

  1. Vexation » Blog Archive » Lippmann pictures in our heads
  2. Pictures in Our Heads – Council on Foreign Relations Founding Father Walter Lippmann | tomjefferson1976

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