Sunday, November 28, 2004

Opinions

Albert Hirschman has a fascinating discussion of opinions and democracy. He argues that
Recent contributions to the theory of democracy have stressed the role of deliberation in the democratic process: for a democracy to function well and to endure, it is essential, so it has been argued, that opinions not be fully formed in advance of the process of deliberation. The participants in this process -- both the public at large and its representatives -- should maintain a degree of openness or tentativeness in their opinions and be ready to modify them...Without a political process that manifests at least some aspiration toward this admittedly idyllic picture, democracy loses its legitimacy and will thus be endangered
Yet,
given the basic need for identity in our culture, the forming and acquiring of opinions yields considerable utility to the individual. At the same time, if carried beyond some point, the process has dangerous side-effects -- it is hazardous for the functioning and stability of the democratic order. Under present cultural values these noxious side-effects do not enter the individual calculus -- they are what economists call external diseconomies. Hence there will be an overproduction of opinionated opinion.
And then it gets interesting:
our traditional bias in favor of strong opinions ought to be modified, in part because it might be dangerous to the health of our democracy. The question may therefore be raised whether a similar change is to be recommended for the concept of given tastes. To be sure, tastes are different from opinions: to become effective in the marketplace, they do not have to go through the process of deliberation characteristic of opinions in a democracy. But...many entrenched tastes (for tobacco, for cholesterol-laden foods, for using the automobile rather than public transportation and so on) are being questioned...As part of their education for democracy, consumers should be encouraged to look at their tastes in general in a slightly more questioning mood: any single consumption habit may be easier to rein in or give up once people can no longer consider their tastes as proud possessions that cannot be altered or abandoned without some grievous loss of personality, character, identity, or self.
I want to have something grand and interesting to say, for I feel this merits such a response. Perhaps it says something important about civility in public discourse? Maybe that civility is an indication that our opinions are open to being swayed by rational discussion, and that this is necessary for democracy. So maybe I shouldn't have been so vociferous in opposing civility as an outstanding norm. Yet I want to take seriously Hirschman's suggestion that this says something about tastes. Why do we believe that tastes ought to be held strongly? That to be a real person we should have strong opinions? It's certainly the case that funnier people are faster at reaching judgements, have stronger and quicker opinions. But there has to be more...I'm just not sure what...

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