ms. fresh fish

Pluralistic Ignorance (or: Why FB “liking” and retweeting are valuable)
March 18, 2013, 7:26 pm
Filed under: Guest Contribution

(Note from Lori: This is a guest contribution from Aven McMaster, someone I met on Twitter, who needed somewhere to put her cogent, thoughtful opinion on this matter. In light of the news today, we thought it particularly well-timed. People, your voice, no matter how quiet, makes a difference.)

I often see a certain amount of wearied, sometimes cynical disparagement of “Twitter outrage”, when there’s a flurry of retweets and comments about a particularly egregious example of sexism or racism or homophobia, or a particularly cruel governmental policy, or media or pop culture crassness. The argument generally seems to be that such reactions are pointless (and often overreactions), and that signing epetitions or hashtagging one’s protests will do nothing to change the minds of those who perpetrate the injustices and discrimination. Although I myself don’t tend to engage in a great deal of overtly ‘political’ tweeting, and tend only occasionally to retweet or comment on these sorts of issues, I have always felt uncomfortable with the dismissal of such “twitter activism” as naive, useless, and even self-indulgent.

I just read an article in the March edition of Scientific American that crystallised my feelings on the matter. It discusses “pluralistic ignorance”, which is when “individual members of a group do not believe something but mistakenly believe everyone else in the group believes it”. This can cause people to believe that everyone else is more comfortable with certain behaviours (binge drinking, ‘putting out’, and racial segregation are the examples from studies cited by the article) than they themselves are, and therefore feel pressure to engage in those behaviours themselves. There are studies showing, however, that the outspoken presence of just a few ‘skeptics’, i.e. people who question this prevailing belief or speak in opposition to it, can change a group’s behaviour by revealing this ‘ignorance’ to its members.

The relevance of this to twitter seems obvious, to me. By speaking out when we see things that upset us, we make clear to others that this behaviour is *not* acceptable to everyone, and make it more possible for them, too, to express their discomfort. This is probably most true of things like institutionalised racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity, in which the prevalence of the discrimination can lead people to believe that it is ‘natural’, ‘inevitable’, or ‘not a big deal’. It is also important for the victims of such injustices, who are shown, by the outrage expressed on their behalf, that they are *not* intrinsically inferior or deserving of such treatment, something that can be all too easily felt when no one seems to care about what happens to you.

It is true, then, that ‘twitter outrage’, ‘online activism’, and even IRL picketing and protesting and boycotts, may rarely have any direct effect on their targets; they probably won’t change the way the government votes, or the tabloids write, or the companies act. Not immediately, anyway. But by challenging the ‘pluralistic ignorance’, they provide the possibility of moving the definitions of “what everyone thinks” forward, of validating the experience of those who suffer injustice and discrimination, and maybe, eventually, leading to actual action. It *may* be true that a retweet and an outraged comment won’t have any immediate positive effect; but it is *certainly* true that saying nothing won’t.

1 Comment so far
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I should have included a link to the article I reference; it’s here:

Comment by Aven McMaster

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