Ülle Madise: The vicious circle of silence

Ülle Madise.
Ülle Madise. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Critical questions and different opinions are the most useful. Of course, this is only true when one is prepared to alter one's own convictions or go to the trouble of convincing those who disagree, Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise writes in a comment originally published in Sirp magazine.

The last ten years have created a lot of garbage, including digital garbage. Rumors, bursts of rage and simple nonsense is disseminated without heed. It is often the conclusion of people caught in such an information avalanche that it must be true if so many believe it.

Aggressive minorities have led more than a few countries into a vicious circle of silence: the voice of reason is drowned out with encouragement from social media, and people still looking to debate matters calmly and based on science and logic are becoming increasingly hard to find. Things aren't nearly as bad in Estonia as they are in the United States, for example, while the wise learn from the mistakes of others.

American researchers have found that institutions that are important for the prosperity and success of societies, including scientists, quality media and independent officials, have already lost a good deal of their independence and influence. We have all heard of professors canceled after they have dared voice presently unfashionable positions.

There was a time when "festivals of a single opinion" and "lexicons of permitted phrases" sounded ironic. This no longer seems to be the case in a situation where arguments that require cognitive analysis get on people's nerves and make them angry. Science should be policy! End to independence! Let us pit the camps against one another and see which is stronger, whereas those who fail to vociferously pick a side are the enemy!

Of course, no one is stopping officials, scientists, journalists and judges from seeking the truth that the – hopefully seeming – majority dislikes. They can still do it, while we need to ask what is the price? This is very likely the reason why people increasingly choose to remain silent or support lies, including those whose professional ethics prescribe aspiring to be unbiased.

Even if the reigning (mis)conception is challenged, it is done clannishly and hysterically to rule out any and all debate. This way, the attitudes of the imagined majority yield foolish political decisions sometimes and ones that infringe on fundamental rights at others.

A statesman talking about alien or simply inconvenient facts is quickly drowned out, with the rules of engagement of political competition doing nothing to defend balance or the truth. It might be embarrassing, while everyone else seems to be doing it too and has little choice if it translates into votes at elections.

And yet, a true statesman, scientist or public official should dare say that the emperor is naked, following the example of the child in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale yet unspoiled by hypocritical bootlicking and the fear of their name being trampled in the mud.

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who studied human relationships, published her public opinion theory called Schweigespirale (which we could translate as the vicious circle of silence) as far back as the 1970s. She describes a situation where a single and often inaccurate opinion is supported by the people, social pressure silences the skeptics unto a point where calmly moving toward a better solution without causing harm becomes impossible.

The vicious circle of silence is damaging because unwillingness to clash with public opinion that has been amplified and set in stone robs the truth of so much as a chance.

Let us calmly consider which is better, a guilty person at large versus an innocent person in jail. Should we really be testing and quarantining healthy schoolchildren with no symptoms of the sniffles, cough or fever just in case?

The more people decide to remain silent to avoid furious accusations and derogation, the more deeply the misconception takes root. The smaller the chance the emperor will ever put on their clothes again.

Prejudice and rumors have always existed in societies, the late Marju Lepajõe taught us. The difference is that malicious rumors and damaging lies are now disseminated by machines.

The vicious circle of silence also supports authoritarian tendencies making their way into political culture. Propaganda and intimidation have often been used to keep a society without liberties on a short leash.

Democratic states based on the rule of law have in a few short years learned how to force ideological positions on populations with the aim of rendering the majority obedient using propaganda. At worst, this fear makes people say and do things they would not do in a state of peace of mind. For example, attack everyone aspiring for the truth. Unfortunately, aggressive minorities also tend to pull good people off the straight and narrow.

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes in a brilliant essay equal cruelty at both extremes of the traditional left-right axis. Neither tolerates independent institutions, free debate or the search for the truth, while both are threats to a better future.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the conservative right tried to suggest it was no big deal and that vaccination was unnecessary. Progressive liberals, on the other hand, set about exaggerating the threat and fueling fears, calling for the toughest restrictions. I'm sure you remember how states that were until recently believed to have rule of law banned people from walking on a windy beach by themselves…

Neither position is rooted in knowledge, while both did plenty of damage.

A German professor dared explain that restrictions need to be constitutional and knowledge-based also during Covid. This view, which I happen to fully share, cost my colleague their university job, with their reputation destroyed on social media. This despite the fact that as a scientist, they were right.

Why did it happen? Because galvanized radicals increasingly go after the person and not their position. It is no longer debated whether one's position is right or wrong. Instead, a person is deemed bad if their professional ethics cause them not to fall in line with the prevailing opinion.

Online conviction ignores context, truth and mercy, not to mention the constitution in the presumption of innocence. At worst, an imaginary transgression is enough to merit a punishment.

We might suggest people grow thicker skin or ignore Kafkaesque virtual trials. And some do feel it is all just a game.

But it is not. Virtual trials lacking fair rules tend to have tragic consequences in real life. Victims of unjust and excessive shaming, often children and young people, may end up losing their mental health and then their life. Others a beloved job or its prerequisite – their good reputation and name.

Online executions can follow independence, staying true to the facts and the truth. Even mercy.

Ideological attitudes that are completely intolerant of doubt or criticism work to destroy scientific thinking in society that is built on skepticism, investigation, precision and plurality of nuances. Without critical scientific thought, society's hopes for success are dashed. It is no accident that authoritarian societies built on propaganda, myths and fears hardly ever shine in the arts and sciences.

The vicious circle of silence renders everything blunt. That is why it is always sensible to hire people who are smarter than you, with critical questions and different viewpoints the most useful of their kind. Of course, this is only true when one is prepared to alter one's own convictions or go to the trouble of convincing those who disagree. The ability to agree to disagree is also enough.

A free and successful society requires fair rules and independent institutions: ethical and bold scientists and universities, free press to separate fact from opinion, honest elections, independent and professional courts and officials.

The eternal struggle between the mind and emotions must always be resolved in the favor of the former, especially when talking about matters of the state and other people's fate. Bitter folk wisdom according to which telling the truth more often than not ends in a beating must not be allowed to unhorse independent institutions. There is no sense in racing toward the edge of oblivion or to overtake others on the path of foolishness.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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