The Risk of the Minority Viewpoint

In Part 5 of Beck’s series, Sameness and Shouting, he warns of group polarization, the “tendency of groups to act more extreme than individuals. Basically, groups radicalize. This is particularly the case when groups are homogenous, ideologically speaking.”

As a group polarises, the minority voices within it are usually self-silenced, and those folks may go elsewhere, forming their own groups. What happens then, as described in The Big Sort, is that “majorities have their beliefs reinforced by seeing and hearing their inclinations locally repeated and enhanced. Self-reinforcing majorities grow larger, while isolated and dispirited minorities shrink.” Beck calls these groups “self-selected echo chambers.”

My experience is that these groups can occur in faith communities,  civic organisations, corporate and non-profit workplaces, political groups, within circles of friends, ad hoc groups, and in online forums, chat rooms and comment sections, among other places. Those with minority opinions feel it’s a risk to voice them in the midst of a group (one might say mob at this point) that seems confident that it’s right, even if the risk to the one with a minority view isn’t physical or doesn’t seem particularly strong, as, for instance, when the majority seems to invite minority viewpoints. (If you read Dilbert, you can usually guess how that will end!)

Two things occur to me here:

(1) Often in such a group, not even 50% of the members really take such a radical or polarising view as the one that ‘the group’ seems to hold. Sometimes it’s only a few people who take the lead and the others just follow, caught up in the feeling of power or belonging to a greater cause, or maybe simply because it’s easier to follow someone else’s lead. As Beck says, groups tends to be more extreme than individuals. There is not only physical safety in numbers but also existential safety in numbers, because in a group our views can be validated by others.

(2) What is the nature of the risk that the minority member feels? It could be a threat to life and limb in some cases, but usually it’s ‘just’ the risk of being seen as wrong, or stupid, or cowardly, or naive, or unjust, or some other view that another might have of one. The risk is to the self, and it could result in the feeling of conflict, a sense of  insecurity, the urge to violence (again, physical or existential, a blotting out of the self or other), even perhaps an unraveling of one’s belief systems and one’s way of operating in the world.

Then, too, the one with a minority view might be ambivalent, whereas the influential majority leaders probably either don’t feel ambivalent or they silence their own ambivalent feelings in order to be seen as stronger leaders. Ambivalence makes it harder, in my experience, to make a cogent and persuasive argument than a strong feeling one way or the other.  It’s those who feel strongly, most extremely, that likely end up persuading others of the rightness of their opinion, and so the moderate view languishes.


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