If you think that I'm referring to a specific scenario that you are familiar with – well – you may be right. However you may also be wrong because every concept I discuss I have observed many instances of across different groups.
One fascinating thing I have noticed in political discussion and activity is the extent to which we have distorted perceptions of the power of various players. Sometimes a person or group will have an inflated sense of the power of others. Those of us who want to change the world feel that way. We think the powers-that-be who hold back change are entrenched and monolithic and cannot be shifted despite a history of contrary experiences. However this mindset is also held by groups we tend to oppose. Supposed ‘morality’ campaigners lament that the old standards they defend are slipping away (ironically I think they are more right than us and if they have seemingly become virulent recently it is because they are rightly becoming desperate).
Sometimes this distorted perception of power is a mindset but in other cases it can be part of a deliberate strategy. I have often observed a political party tell its followers that they are facing an overwhelmingly challenging campaign in which much is at risk. This can motivate ones volunteers and give them a sense of the heroic. Everybody roots for the underdog. Inflating the power of others seems to sometimes be a powerful act in its own right.
A Society Of Individuals
Over twenty five years ago then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, made the bold statement that “there is no such thing as society”. That is a ludicrous thing to say. The implication made by this neo-conservative was that at most society was simply the plurality of individuals and that societal forces were a fiction. Most of us accept that just as we compose society so too society shapes who we are. However we can make the opposite mistake of discounting the impact of individuals on society. Particularly in small friendship groups many or most or even all individuals can affect the nature of collective behaviour.
I have made reference to this essay in the past and still find it useful. However it has its limits. The power of cultural memes within the groups I move in exists but I think there is another important phenomenon – the autonomy of every person to make decisions for themselves. I think there is a tendency in the groups I move in to overlook this or to think such volition is only exercised by the occasional 'opinion-maker'. In contrast I think everyone exercises this power for themselves.
I have come across cases in which it is believed that a tiny part of a group can dictate the opinions of the whole. This impression may be formed by looking only at those who are more vocal. What is overlooked is that even those who are silent are still forming impressions for themselves and we cannot simply assume that they are accepting whatever they are told. They may think different things. Or they make think the same things as an alleged opinion-maker but have come to those conclusions themselves.
Lurkers In Life
If you are anything like me then every statement and action and interaction you observe will affect your disposition towards others and help you decide just how close or distant you wish to be to every other person in your group. However if you are like me you will also keep your own counsel on many things. I suspect that many are like me - lurkers in life rather than just online. Possibly we are a problem. Nonetheless we exist and as a result many opinions will be masked by a veneer of polite neutrality.
Most of the time this is fine but in cases of tension or conflict it can make it difficult to discern just how much positive or negative disposition there is in a group towards a particular person or action. One will only factor in those known dispositions whether positive or negative. Changes in the tally of known opinion may however reflect shifts in unknown opinion. And if this body of guarded opinion makes understanding opinions difficult it can also make influencing opinions all-the-more difficult.
Groups As Scenes
What if I did want to influence opinion in a group. The kind of group I have in mind is pretty big and can comprise well over a hundred participants. It is tempting to think that all I need to do is sway the tiny number of opinion-makers or even somehow be one of them. This is wishful thinking because we are all our own opinion-makers. At best I can use opinion-makers to disseminate information widely that all participants will separately assess. But even that ability is limited because a big group is barely a group at all. It becomes more of a scene than a group.
A scene will comprise many inter-connected or overlapping groups distinguished by factors such as generation or behaviour. The young who still attend Uni and sit together most days will be distinct from those who have graduated and only meet on weekends at parties. And then there will be distinctions that exist within generations. I once described one difference in a scene as being between “those who like to drink and dance” and “those who like to smoke and chat”. If a host promotes one kind of activity over another then they will attract a particular selection of guests. How shall I have an impact on the smokers and the drinkers and the chatters and how can I even talk to the dancers as they swish and sway? Information flow in such a scene will be sluggish and sometimes never get to everyone (this is also the case with the much vaunted ‘grapevine’ that I find cannot be trusted to do its job of conveying gossip to all-and-sundry).
The Danger In Power
All these autonomous persons keeping opinions to themselves! All these distinctions that make a group into a diffuse scene! I will need to put a lot of work into having any impact on opinions faced with all this. And will the effort of becoming an opinion-maker be worth the return? Possibly it will be except that there is another problem - the danger of seeming more powerful than I am.
If I somehow manage to get identified as an opinion-maker then others will form an inflated impression of my power. That could make me a target if ever anyone interprets a change to group opinion as due to my ‘manipulations’. I return to my comment that “everyone roots for the underdog”. Conversely an effective way to turn someone into a victim is to cast them as a bully. Everyone forms and (sometimes) expresses personal opinions but my utterances are suddenly acts of power and I become subject to accusations of abusing that power. With this risk in mind the costs of assuming a veneer of power become prohibitive.
Better Look Big!
So why try to be powerful? I am sure there are lots of motivations but I will speculate on just one and it originates in the apprehension that we both lack power and need to be powerful to thrive. Consider this:
In a hostile world it makes sense to look bigger and stronger than you are. So like frill-necked lizards we try and make ourselves look big. Hiss! However we live in a more complex world than that. In this life there are many who try to be considerate and they will be sensitive to hints of vulnerability. Ironically if you present an impervious facade then you will more likely be subject to carelessness from those who think you can endure it.
I am lucky. I have resisted the temptation of bluster and bravado that our culture tells us is necessary for us to do well in life. I suspect that laziness has helped me there because such an act looks like too much work and I am shocking at keeping a straight face. I keep my counsel a lot but will at times express opinions like this in which I draw on many specific experiences and try and suggest some common themes. Others may find some of these reflections useful and if so then I will have had a scintilla of power. On the other hand most will never see it and I will be one of those autonomous persons that frustrate the hope of holding power in a group. And that is just fine by me.