The Illusion of Majority Extremism

We live in a world of extremes. While logical voices while middle ground ideas abound, it often feels like those voices are silenced. The other day, I was watching The Today show, where they discussed a recent poll. According to that poll, most Americans thought they were smarter than the average American. I wonder if that poll is influenced by the personalities in the media. Do you hear anyone voicing a middle ground, try-to-make-everyone-happy solution? If so, I bet they were taken off the air real fast for being extremely boring.

As a journalism major, I love media and news. I can’t imagine starting my day without The Today Show, or at least some NPR. Despite my enjoyment, I still recognize the patterns. There’s always a hot he-said-she-said story to get the nation’s blood boiling. Usually, someone pretty and innocent has had something terribly unfortunate happen to them. While these stories are entertaining enough while I’m getting ready for work, they’re hardly the sorts of stories imperative to my life.

What about what’s happening in Venezuela? Does anyone really know what’s going on down there? When was the last time a major news outlet gave this issue 30 seconds of time on T.V. news? Information is out there, if you understand you have to depend on your Google Search skills to learn anything. The mainstream media isn’t going to tell you anything? And what of Syria? Of India? Of Europe?

This photo, “Which One Is Not Like The Other: Time Magazine’s Four World Issues For a Week in Late 2011” is copyright (c) 2014 Joe Wolf and made available under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

There are real, impactful events happening in the world today, and they are far more important than whatever stupid thing some shock jock said the other night.  Yet, this is what our news is full of. Crazy, outlandish remarks generate better ratings than drab stories from around the world. Not only are some of these stories ‘boring’ old news, but they’re depressing. Why bother the nation with that when Donald Stirling can get their blood boiling?

This is what frustrates me about extreme views and has me convinced that humanity is not naturally prone to extreme opinions. In the context of our media, extreme opinions are used as distractions. Somewhere up the chain of command there is a person who chooses to cover a stories about a rich people making racist remarks over major events shaking up global politics. Today, we might argue that decision is made because media consumers want to hear about racist rich people more than they want to hear about global politics. I have to wonder, if the world really is that way, was it always so?

There’s a debate out there about who dictates the content of our media. Is media reactionary, choosing to discuss stories and ideas the public shows interest in or is the public interested in certain topics because that’s what they see covered by the media? Is media a reflection of our society or does it dictate our society?

The truth is that both elements are at play. Society is influenced by media and media is influenced by society. The difference I  think we’ve seen in these most recent decades is that media has become increasingly selective. On the other hand, most of society is happy to accept whatever they are spoon fed by the media. In this way, mainstream media is able to silence the voices they don’t think will result in good ratings and effectively remove from mainstream society the existence of other ideas.

This phenomena creates the illusion of an extremist society where you can only be fundamentalist Christian or atheist. Were you can only be fat or skinny. Where you can only be a slut or a prude. Yet, I know, based on my own opinions and the opinions expressed by commenters on this blog that there is indeed a middle ground. Unfortunately, many are pessimistic about the likelihood of those ideas to become mainstream in society.

I think one of the big reasons why this pessimism exist is because a part of us wants everyone to accept the world as we see it. The truth is, we don’t have to agree with each other to have a peaceful society. We don’t all have to be the same to live in harmony. Of course, that requires the idea that someone can think and live differently from you and still be a good person. The extreme stereotypes of society might make you think that’s an unrealistic possibility, but it’s really not that unreasonable.

For example, I saw an episode of Sister Wives where the adults of the family were talking with a homosexual college student. They got along just fine. The gay man even commented on how he related to them, saying that monogamous people are just living life, but when you choose to be polygamous, suddenly you’re living a ‘lifestyle.’ That was a shared experience between them, since he was often told he was living a ‘lifestyle’ while straight people are just living. Being fundamentalist Mormons, I think it’s safe to assume the family does not approve of homosexuality. Despite that, they were still able to get a long with this man and made it sound like they’d never support anything to take his rights away.

The extremes of society are an illusion. While there are plenty of people out there who hold those extreme views, I’m willing to bet a majority of Americans support more harmonious, middle ground ideas. Many, unfortunately, have become so pessimistic due to the stories the media chooses to define our world that they don’t even try anymore. Some don’t even bother to vote, thinking it a waste of time.

We don’t have to live in a society of extremes. With a little effort, we can change the dialog. It all starts with a voice. Don’t let yours be silenced by pessimism and illusions.

Do you feel like you hold extreme ideas or moderate ones? Would you compromise some of your more extreme ideas in the interest of peace? What is the most outlandish opinion you have ever heard someone seriously hold? Are you smarter than the average American?

Due to some dramatic changes in my life which you may have heard about on Saturday’s blog, tomorrow’s post may be a little later than usual. I’m taking my own job advice, which means I need to move my schedule around a bit. It also means I might not be able to return to your loving comments until Tuesday afternoon. However, I will have a post for Tuesday and all blogging activities should be back to their normal schedule Wednesday. Please accept my apologies. I love you all and can’t wait to respond to your comments. You know me, I have an opinion about everything.

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60 thoughts on “The Illusion of Majority Extremism”

  1. There is so much I like about this post! Practically every sentence I was nodding along to in agreement. I think the idea that extreme opinions are actually fairly rare is such an important one. It’s always been my belief that if you could somehow poll every human on the planet you’d probably find that the vast majority of people are actually pretty middle ground, laid back, friendly, tolerant. I think you hit the nail on the head that the media has a massive influence on what opinions are generally heard and the fact that extreme opinions tend to be ‘louder’ than sensible middle ground opinions, so tend to get drowned out in typical media fuelled shouting matches. I’ll stop there because I can feel my soap box itching to come out! Again, excellent post 🙂

    1. What more can I say than that I agree? ^_^

      I would bet that even those who have ‘extreme’ opinions would still be willing to concede a few things in the interest of peace. Not all, but many.

  2. Here in England the news is not that bad thanks to the BBC. (Well they tend to be overly PC but atleast there’s less of that useless celebrity crap). You can find a lot of nonsense if you read the papers but if you just stick to the Tv there is less of that nonsense. If I read the news I read it on the BBC site and a little bit of Aljazeera too. As you said most people in real life do not have many extreme views and even if they do, they usually keep it to themselves. I think I might as well be an example of this. I am an atheist but I have got friends from all faiths and to be honest we don’t talk that much about religion and even when we do we normally express our points in a politically correct way (there’s nothing wrong in being pc as long as its to a reasonable level).

    1. Yes, we are very lucky to have BBC news. Actually last time I looked Channel 4 was even better – they tend to cover the less main stream stories like Venezuela. But I think that the independents have the freedom to take that direction because of the standard that the BBC sets.

      1. I know very little about Venezuela but that it’s a problem. I want to know more and I want other people to know more.

        I guess what I want more than anything else is for others to want to know what they don’t know about current global events.

        1. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? And going back to broadcaster responsibility, I do think that a purely commercial broadcasting system is open to “dumbing down” because there is no incentive for people to provide the things that people don’t want to hear. It works for entertainment – the US produces better shows than we do, I think. But not for the things that are harder for us to swallow.

    2. I do like the BBC. It’s my understanding that T.V. is the biggest influence these days, so T.V. news is super important.

      Your example of atheist is a great example. Here’s the thing, if you are atheist, but are happy to accept that people have religions, that’s moderate. However, if you are atheist and want to make laws forcing everyone to be atheist because that’s what you think is best, now you’ve crossed into extreme territory. Despite what we see from many fundamentalist Christians, I would bet most people of any belief have no desire to force people to believe their religion.

      1. Indeed people need to understand that different people have different opinions. (But they don’t necessarily have to respect these opinions.) And they must not try to limit their own civil rights to suppress other peoples opinions.
        And yes it’s true that most people just want to mind their own business and get on with their lives.

  3. Wow….this is a stupendous post!!! I like it!, I like it a lot! C’mon peoples – getchur arses outta the fire and start spreadinin’ some……Get Some! get Some! jason_out.

  4. I consider myself a moderate. And another thing that bothers me about the media is that they beat a story to death. There is so much happening in the world that we don’t need 24/7 coverage of one plane disaster. I want to know what else is happening. Give me a wide variety of news , just the facts, and let me make up my own mind. The minute the extreme talking heads on both sides come on the tv to debate (argue) the issue, I turn it off.

    1. I want to know what else is happening, too! That’s why I think all these extremes are a distraction. It has the added bad effect of striking fear in people. I know many who are convinced the world as a whole is getting more violent while the truth is otherwise. We are just fed so much violence via the media that people have been made to think of the world that way.

  5. Used to be the evening news want a money making endeavor, and there were only 3 channels so you got balance. Now news is a money-making endeavor classified as “entertainment” and everyone can listen only to news they agree with since all the niches are represented.

    1. It’s so very frustrating. No matter what I hear, I’m always left to wonder whether I got the whole story or not. If not for social media, I’d have no idea about many world problems. How weird is that?

  6. The average American is just what is used to create a standard. a normal, if you will. By doing so one creates diversity in an instant.
    With that comes extremes as no one has a normal idea and groups choose a box. Left or right. They take a stand on the side of coin that faces up.

    The box shown on the media is usually one of a different standard and assumed to be most diverted from a average or normal standard who ever created it in the first place.
    We turned ourselves in a society where we are formed by media. Media has become more available from around the globe. It is not local any more and the choice is then made on what makes more money.

    Money is also used to see what keeps the society busy. That information is bought and found on the front page of every magazine tomorrow. Using Google is not a good way as the location it uses shows only what the inhabitant of the IP address wishes to see.
    Searching for something simple as a frying pan can differ in search results per home or place.
    They (google) makes money giving you media that is personalised.
    A magazine does it in bigger scale but they go by an average of all mankind and choose what would make the most money.

    Clearly we are lacking interdependency and individual thinking. we are become more like a bee hive with the media being the queen bee.
    Mind you that with Media it is not just journalism. I know some people writing great articles that unfortunately never make the cut and only see day light online for those who can find it because that to is controlled

    A fantastic piece of journalism..
    I pick a side I think is best for just me. What others think is up to them I won’t force other to change, but happy to teach if they like to learn. You are just like me and yet so different but as long as i know i am no better or less than you and your opinions, we are equals working something out without reaching for a gun.
    we can still learn from each other. choose what is best for yourself without forcing your ideas upon others.

    1. I think we’re in a bit of a flux where the public might regain control of media. I learn a lot about global events over social media and blogs. Many times, mainstream media will cover something after it becomes popular on social media. I’m not saying it will happen fast… but it’s certainly possible.

      1. I think it is good to have A blog like this that is able to show the other side of a story. It is needed.
        That way news comes not just from the media who want to earn money. but also from the general public.
        Fingers crossed we can do this.

        True that media gains and runs faster after what is popular or trending on google. I was surprised a news show here actually use that term.
        Trending on google. still lots of showbizz.
        we are obsessed by idols i am telling you.

  7. Fantastic post. However, I do believe the world needs (at least some) extreme opinions. I think without the extremists, we’d never get anything done; it’d be hard to move away from the status quo.

    1. We certainly do. I’m not trying to say those opinions shouldn’t exist, but that we should be aware there are other more moderate opinions as well.

  8. As a British person who recently travelled to the US, I was a bit shocked by the insularity of the TV news coverage there – there seemed to be next to nothing about events overseas. I know this is not remotely indicative of the views of the many intelligent Americans whose blogs and articles I read every day, which is why it surprised me so much. And as you say, the lack of variation is also pretty boring! Great article 🙂

    1. Right! I love culture and global issues. I really wish the mainstream news had more to say about what goes on around the world.

  9. I just love this. As someone who used to hold extreme views – mostly religious – a lot of what you said really resonated with me. I feel like I hold moderate ideas these days, and I perceive myself to be rather open-minded, so yes, I would adjust extreme ideas in the interest of peace.

    “We don’t all have to be the same to live in harmony.” Agreed!

    I rarely think about how my intelligence compares to others, but I do not believe I am smarter than the average American. Okay, maybe a little bit, but not in a “they are ignorant!” kind of way.

    1. I’m probably guilty of thinking I’m smarter than the average American, but I blame that on the stupid crap I see on T.V. Smart people don’t make the news very often.

  10. Great article! The media very much feeds extremism… Friends and I have had the talk if spouses and children all had to agree all the time there would never be families. For a point my spouse and I have fought like cats and dogs and We’ve been married longer than most couples. 😉 We are on opposite ends of the spectrum on many things.

    1. And that’s okay. Maybe humanity, like individuals in a relationship, can become better if people learn to grow through civil arguments. I’ve always thought how a couple handles arguments to be a good indicator of whether or not they’d work out. Maybe the same can be said for relationships on a global scale.

      1. I would tend to agree. I think we need to be able to disagree or else we would be clones and living in a society no one would ultimately want…. back in the 60’s they used to say live and let live… to each his own etc. sadly somewhere that got lost in the 80’s and forwards i think you nailed it that the media and governement influence on the media and vice versa plays a dramatic part in it.

  11. It also seems that people offer up opinion as news, often highlighted by the headline. I often look for the 2-column inch stories that verify the facts of what the headline says.

  12. I was once eating pancakes with an anthropologist. Her job was to read graffiti (old scripts) off of sacrificial pyres in Mexico. She, said the groups would fight and move away from each other to make larger monuments as a testament to how much greater they were than the other guy. On a timeline, the monuments got bigger and the always wrote on the side of their monuments that they destroyed the other group in flames and destruction. I laughed because 2000 years later we are still doing the same thing. Less people are dying for something I suppose but in the rare instance someone dies we take notice and blame someone.

    1. Everyone takes notice! And it’s not that a single human life is any more or less valuable, it’s just misleading. I wonder how enraged people would have been if there was CNN during the American Civil War or the Crusades.

  13. In the context of our media, extreme opinions are used as distractions.

    I think there’s a lot to that, right there. Perhaps this is by design: those that control the media, those that finance it, those that “have a dog in the fight” have a vested interest to distract us from the real issues that might threaten their power.

    See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_and_circuses

  14. Yes, I’ve heard that statistic about American overconfidence in their intelligence. I do take it with a grain of salt, since as humans we’re somewhat hardwired to have these biases. For example, psychologists often refer to the “overconfidence barrier”, or the tendency of people to have more confidence in their own judgments than is reasonable. (Sorry – as a psychology major, I can’t help but butt in with psychology factoids. All the time. Everywhere. ;))

    But I get what you’re saying, and I do believe there are probably a lot of cultural factors that makes Americans more prone to these biases. I heard an interesting podcast lately by All in the Mind that people are scoring higher on the Narcissism Inventory than we have in prior generations. So there’s probably something at work here, yep.

    I share your general frustration that I have to go online to find any semblance of news, especially international affairs. You know, I turned on the tv the other day and Animal Planet was trying to justify the existence of mermaids. I couldn’t figure out if it was satire or what, and it was so painfully bad I turned off the tv altogether.

    The most extreme idea I’ve ever heard someone admit? In person? Hmm… a fellow student that seemed to feel aliens were responsible for all significant human advancement and that world governments were involved in a giant cover up of this fact.

    1. You know what’s terrible, that alien theory is not the most extreme thing I’ve ever heard, although I think the worst are the ones that require massive deaths. People who seriously want to kill every person of a certain race, religion or opinion scare me.

      1. I agree; while I don’t agree with the alien thing, it’s relatively harmless, and in general the guy was very friendly and open. I can’t comprehend people that wish harm on others in the way you described.

  15. This was a great read, it was a long time ago but this was a topic (ironically) in my marketing class. Media use what “they” consider topics to generate traffic and emotions. How they determine “society” would like to hear bad news more I guess depends on the ratings. It makes me wonder if we can really change the type of news that the media decide to report and what can really make them report the whole truth instead of bits of pieces.

    1. Yeah, I touched on this topic in my journalism classes as well. No one seems to have an answer, though. You would think ratings would mean the public would have more of a say, but at the same time, the public can only demand information they know exist.

  16. A problem is that many politicians have made adherence to party principles the greatest of virtues. The question is too rarely, “Is this good policy,” and too often, “Is he a ‘true’ conservative, liberal, libertarian, etc.”

    1. I really hate that. Politics are infuriating. So long as they’re not affecting someone else’s human rights, people should be able to do what they want.

  17. This blog rings with truth. The world is increasingly being polarised, not only because people may be alarmingly getting more intolerant but because highly polarised opinions are being given more footage. A really relevant blog! 🙂

    1. Thanks. I wonder if the world really is getting more polarized or if it only seems that way because of media coverage…. Just a thought.

  18. Man, this is a good article! I’ll star by answering the prompt, that I’m a live-and-let-live kind of guy; a deep respecter of individual rights over any others’, especially the state on any level. And it’s funny I read this today because I was listening to a podcast about Salt Lake City and the issues they have with homeless homosexual youth; I was reflecting that telling people they can’t be gay and oppressing them in their various ways essentially constitutes a violation of their human rights to the pursuit of happiness, not to mention freedom of expression. The only extreme view that I think I hold at the time is that the news media has too much to say about little to nothing at all, and for that reason I get most of my news through NPR and Podcasts – and honestly, I feel like I don’t know nearly enough about what’s going on in the world. I don’t even know what’s going on in Venezuela, because I haven’t followed your link out yet.

    I like and agree with your views and opinions on what we’re talking about, and I believe that they most likely represent at least part of the story; but I often find myself wondering if it isn’t possible that the spectrum of stories presented in the popular media is largely a decision made by larger yet less well-defined characters involved in world politics whose goal is to give our government and the corporations that control it the freedom to influence politics in other regions without having to answer to American public opinion?

    1. Homosexuality and all various sexualities are close to my heart. I just can’t stand how some people treat them and actively work to remove their rights despite the fact that their actions have no affect on anyone but them. People like to use the freedom of religion argument on me and I always ask them about MY religious freedom. I believe in equal marriage on a religious level. What about my freedom of religion?

      Sorry for the mini rant. That one just hits close to home. I like to think I’m a live and let live type of person as well. As I see it, so long as you are not interfering with another person’s human rights, then I don’t care what you do.

      And when it comes to media, here’s a little hint I picked up in Journalism school. Even reporters who are trying to be fair have an opinion. It was once said to me that you could tell what side the reporter was on by who he or she gave the last word to.

  19. Fabulous and important article TK! I agree with you in so many ways. I do think the ‘average persons’ in societies all across the globe are waking up to the idea that what they see in the news and hear from their leaders is far from the whole truth or the whole picture. Something is brewing. And the pervasiveness of social media is tipping the scales in terms of who holds the “power” so to speak.

    Brilliant piece!!

    Allison

    1. You hear a lot of “we’re not all like that” after the news reports on the radical actions of one or a few individuals. I think those people should be furious and I hope their voices get louder. Every time someone dies in the name of a god, members of that religion should be the most outraged that their religion was used as an excuse for evil. Every time someone claims something outrageous is a common opinion of their race, sex, culture, etc. that group should do all they can to be the first heard speaking their decent. Maybe then we’d really start to see the world for what it is: many people, each unique, all just trying to have a happy fulfilling life.

  20. Having worked in the newspaper industry for several years as a reporter and editor, I’ve seen many publications allow their readership to dictate what interested them as opposed to simply reporting the news. Many have followed suit, which is why you see so much drivel on the front page and events that affect the world buried. I’m not saying everyone is unrealistic, but many pander to their readers because, in the end, the bottom line is all that seems to matter anymore. Sadly, a lot has changed since I left the industry 10 years ago and it has lost much of its integrity in reporting the news in an unbiased manner. I’ve heard many ideas — moderate and extreme — but I won’t get into any of that, just like I won’t get into whether I’m smarter than the average American. In my little ideal world, I wish everyone could just BE. Like you, we don’t have to be the same, think the same — we can be as different as night and day, and that’s OK. Those differences are what make us unique and each of us needs to respect them. It’s OK if we don’t agree. But we tend to make everything harder than it has to be, in my humble opinion. Just my two cents anyway, for what they’re worth.

    1. I still love journalism. I worked with some newspapers while I was in college and would jump at the change to work for one now. I think journalism is going through a transition right now. I’m not sure what will come of it… Maybe @CultureMonk is right. Maybe blogs will be the news of the future.

      1. I think that would be a grave mistake. Not everyone understands the responsibility, integrity and honesty that comes with the job. The trend now is post it now and fix it later. Once that happens, the damage is done and there’s no fixing it. Maybe I’m just too old school in my beliefs, but that’s OK. We don’t have to agree. See? 😉 lol

        1. I don’t mean that all blogs will be respected… I was more thinking along the lines of say, Huffington Post, which is technically a blog. One of my journalism professors started a non-profit watch dog news site on Iowa politics.

  21. Since my “most extreme” views center around the idea that people ought to stop fighting/harming/killing each other in the name of their differences, I don’t see how compromising those views could lead to peace, but sure, of anyone ever showed me proof that compromise would help, I’d at least seriously consider it.

    I don’t know if it’s the MOST outlandish opinion I’ve ever heard (it’s not as if I ever sit down and rank these things, after all), but the one that comes to mind at this moment is “Twins don’t have souls.” More specifically, that whenever identical twins are born, only one has a soul, and the other is inherently evil due to the lack of one, because there’s only one soul allotted for each genetic code, or something like that. *shakes head* I find this belief especially disturbing because the person I know who holds it used to be my sister-in-law… who was at that time married to someone who has an identical twin. Guess which one of us she decided was soulless and evil and damned for all of eternity? (Hint: NOT the one with the “evil twin” goatee.)

    As for whether or not I’m smarter than the average American… Well, once upon a time there was this organization called Mensa that kept pestering me to join. Seems they got the weird notion from somewhere that my IQ is slightly upwards of 160. *shrug* But Einstein said that no one is smarter than anyone else, and he was a genius, so we ought to believe what he said on the matter. (Okay, that part was sarcasm. But a little sarcasm is better than an all-out rant, isn’t it?)

    Unless every person is EXACTLY the same, you’re going to have a bell curve of some sort. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about intelligence or athletic aptitude or how many hours of sleep they need each night. The fact that some people are incorrect in their self-assessment of being above average in no way proves that no one IS above average, only that some people overestimate their own intelligence (just as some people underestimate it). Since a lot of people think that intelligence is the same as education level (or worse yet, wealth — the whole “if ur so smart y ain’t u rich?” thing), or that “intelligent” means “holds opinions I agree with,” it’s no wonder that happens.

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