The Emperor's New Clothes and Pluralistic Ignorance05-27-2014
“Men who no longer can make sure of the reality which they feel and experience through talking about it and sharing it with their fellow-men, live in the same nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty which, in a normal world, is the terrible fate of insanity.”
--Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Propaganda”
Who could forget the story of the Emperor’s new clothes? A pair of scheming tailors promise the ruler of a rich kingdom a suit of clothes woven with a magical property: only truly worthy individuals can see them. The Emperor accepts, but when the enchanted robes arrive he finds he cannot see them. Neither can his advisers. Neither can any member of his court.
Secretly ashamed, the Emperor and his retinue proceed to parade through the streets. The many subjects who have assembled there in order to catch a glimpse of the robes find their own proud hopes embarrassed. The farce reaches its peak when an uninhibited youth finally points out the obvious: the Emperor is wearing nothing.
Hans Christian Andersen’s fable skewers social pretension, not political domination. It cautions against face-saving falsehoods, not forced untruths. Nevertheless, the story of the Emperor’s new clothes highlights political hazards quite similar to those discussed by Hannah Arendt in her 1950 lecture, “Ideology and Propaganda.” In particular, both texts focus attention on the threat of pluralistic ignorance that arises whenever free public discourse is throttled by convention, or prohibited by law.
Pluralistic ignorance is a particular kind of popular delusion. It occurs when the various members of a group or population (1) do not know some fact or accept some principle, (2) do not know that their peers do not know that fact or accept that principle, and (3) act in such ways as to avoid revealing their lack of knowledge or acceptance to their peers. In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, as Cristina Bicchieri has pointed out, the condition of pluralistic ignorance explains why, though neither the emperor nor his subjects can see the magic robes, all act as if they can. Many may doubt the reality of those robes, but fear of public degradation prevents any from airing these doubts before the bold child speaks out.
States of pluralistic ignorance can be sustained by sterner forces than fear of public disgrace, as Hannah Arendt’s 1950 lecture explains. The basic subject of Arendt’s talk is familiar from movies like The Lives of Others and books like 1984. She is concerned with the straitened states of mind that systematic surveillance and severe curtailments of freedom of expression can produce. Arendt’s analysis of the “nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty” induced by totalitarian forms of government and social control suggests that the cumulative effect of such repressive policies is to uncouple belief from judgment, conviction from action. But this is just what characterizes the condition of pluralistic ignorance.
Arendt did not think that loneliness was exclusively a product of totalitarian modes of government. She believed this estranged state of mind could also be non-coercively induced by long exposure to commercial standards and patterns of life in liberal societies. To understand this view, we should distinguish loneliness from a similar concept to which Arendt assigned very different meaning, namely, solitude.
Loneliness, on Arendt’s view, is the condition of persons whose beliefs, formed by active or passive processes, remain largely privately held, and are rarely submitted to the scrutiny of others in the form of judgments, or tested more rigorously still in the form of action. Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political – and overvalue social or commercial –interactions.
Against loneliness, Arendt opposed the condition of solitude. This is the condition of isolation that thinking persons temporarily enter in order to review their beliefs or principles undistracted by the tumult of social and political life. Solitude is distinguished by loneliness insofar as the beliefs or commitments formed in this condition of temporary retreat are expressly intended for eventual exhibition in the political sphere in the form of judgments and actions.
If loneliness aligns with pluralistic ignorance by signifying a gap between belief and action, solitude provides a check on pluralistic ignorance by enabling individuals to revise their beliefs and prepare their judgments in isolation from forces that might repress or distort them. But solitude only fulfills this purpose when the isolated individual returns to political life and expresses a judgment or performs an action in which the connection between private belief and public undertaking is manifest. In this way the forces that sustain pluralistic ignorance are undermined, or overcome.
We might ask what the predominant causes of loneliness and pluralistic ignorance are today, seven decades after Arendt’s lecture. Recent revelations concerning the operations of the National Security Administration show that active, systematic surveillance of citizens’ personal communications is no Cold War relic, but rather a present reality. Within some communities, at least, awareness or suspicion of direct government surveillance will likely inhibit free expression, and bar open discourse.
At the same time, developments in technology and the rise of mass participation in social networks may also contribute to the growth or persistence of loneliness, in Arendt’s sense. Such technologies certainly make it more difficult to achieve the kind of solitude recommended by Arendt as the condition for effective contemplation – as anyone who owns a smartphone knows. Additionally, the tendency of participants in digital communications to cluster amongst like-minded peers, and to expose themselves only to opinions likely to match their own, limits the chances of encountering checks or dissensions from one’s judgments that could effectively alter one’s beliefs, or expose a gap between conviction and action. In light of such facts, we might alter Arendt’s phrase to speak loneliness and certainty as states of mind characteristic of our present age.
[caption id="attachment_13223" align="alignnone" width="330"] Source: Spideroak.com[/caption]
It would be a mistake to end on such a gloomy note, however. Digital technologies have also created powerful new means of expressing judgments, or organizing actions that are truly political, in the sense that their conclusion is not pre-determined, their progress not fixed in any one direction. Although the ‘Twitter revolutions’ of the last several years have disappointed the hopes of many of their proponents, their unanticipated paths of development have helped to make vivid the risks imposed by action, and the radical openness of politics. These are topics worthy of contemplation; they are also topics that demand debate.