The Spiral of Silence Print
Written by Sherry   
Sunday, 30 September 2007 12:09
As those of you who have read ID for a while know, I have often written about the "don't ask, don't tell" culture of Catholicism. We don't ask where people are in their lived relationship with God and we don't tell them the good news of Jesus Christ.

So I was fascinated to come across Communication scholar Elisabeth Noelle-Neuman's theory of the “spiral of silence". You can tell that I didn't major in communications because Neuman published this theory 25 years ago and it has been talked about endlessly since.

Neuman's idea is that most people have an intuitive awareness of the majority sentiment within a group, and most are less likely to speak up when they find themselves in the minority. The silencing effect thus reinforces itself: if a 40% minority does only 20% of the talking, they perceive themselves to be even more outnumbered than they truly are and are thus even less inclined to speak. Hence, the spiral into silence.

Neuman found that individuals avoid speaking out on controversial issues due to an innate fear of social isolation.

Because of this fear of isolation, people continuously scan their environment to try to assess the climate of opinion at all times. This would includes current and future distribution of opinion. If we think that our opinion is shared by the majority or that it is gaining ground in our culture/group, we are much more likely to talk about it openly.

And this is fascinating: If people find no current, frequently repeated expressions for their point of view, they lapse into silence; they become effectively mute. In other words, if we don't hear people about us or in the media talking about something, we literally don't have the language to think or talk about it ourselves. Most of us don't think completely original thoughts in completely original language. We are given categories and frameworks and language with which to think and talk about the world from those around us.

Neumann was concerned primarily with the role of the media in establishing the impression that certain beliefs are the belief of the majority but she also studied the role of interpersonal support in enabling people holding minority opinions to hold to them and talk about them openly. If interpersonal support decreases, the number of those who will talk about a minority opinion and eventually, even hold to it also decreases. A Christian culture that is silent about fundamental things produces Christians who will also be silent about these things with their families, their friends, and in the marketplace.

•Noelle-Neumann quotes Tocqueville about this dynamic in regard to the Catholic faith in revolutionary France.

People still clinging to the old faith were afraid of being the only ones who did so, and as they were more frightened of isolation than of committing an error, they joined the masses even though they did not agree with them. In this way, the opinion of only part of the population seemed to be the opinion of all and everybody, and exactly for this reason seemed irresistible to those who were responsible for this deceptive appearance.

The combination of our secularized post-modern culture without and our "don't ask, don't tell" culture within the Church has helped ensure that the Church's teaching on evangelization is a dead letter on arrival.

If we are to enable Catholics to buck the cultural tide and not only hold onto their own personal faith but share it eagerly with others, if we are serious about evangelization at all, we have to start talking about following Christ and intentional discipleship explicitly in our parishes. We have to both ask and tell on an on-going basis.