Philosophy In Seconds

55. The Problem of ‘Opinion-Chameleons’


“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” – John F. Kennedy.

We are all aware of some of the catastrophic consequences of conformity in society. The rise of the fascist Nazi party in Germany is the blatantly obvious example of how group pressure can influence our thinking about social facts and even general truths. The Polish gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch studied this phenomenon in a legendary social experiment. He set up a room where there were pictures of lines of various lengths and the task was to identify the longest line. There were 5 confederates (people who were in on the experiment) and one “real” participant and the results he obtained were very telling. When the real participants were alone, they identified the wrong answer less than 1% of the time, but when accompanied by the 5 confederates, the number skyrocketed to 36.8% of the time.  What this social experiment reveals is our susceptibility to the group influence which is of course highly natural, but perhaps quite problematic in some cases, as Asch intended to prove. Therefore, this article does not intend to explain the forces that shape our behaviour but perhaps consider what the consequences of this conformist behaviour may be.

The ‘opinion-chameleon’ refers to someone whose opinion is easily influenced and changed by the pressures of group-think. This behaviour was described as ‘natural’ and in fact, scientists have even discovered that social rejection from a group has the exact same effect on the brain as physiological pain. However, it is seriously fallacious to assume that what is ‘natural’ is automatically good and thus we must be on our guard against appeals to nature of this sort. For instance, a lot of people believe that we should eat more ‘natural’ foods, but by this logic it would be ‘good’ to eat poison ivy.With reference to several examples, both historical and contemporary, we will attempt to discuss how there can be serious ethical, epistemological and political consequences to the problem of opinion-chameleons.

The ethical boogeyman for Christians and a perfect example of the problems of opinion-chameleons is of course the notorious Crusades. Approximately 3 million were killed in these ‘holy’ campaigns and what this immediately suggests is how easily we can be swept away by communal belief. Moral responsibility is quite seriously diluted in the presence of the masses and democracies swiftly and easily degenerate into ochlocracies (rule of the mob as opposed to rule of the people). It stems from a deeply psychological need to be accepted and it most often results in a hazardous corruption of common-sense morality. But this is too simple a criticism for conformity. We would have to bring up the fact that there are very positive consequences of conformity. If the common trend is to give a dollar to the homeless man on the street, we could easily expect this magnanimous attitude to spread through the masses and a more socially nurturing world would owe its existence to conformity. Either way you cut it, conformity is a double-edged sword which gives birth to opinion-chameleons who can cause serious damage or improvement to the society which created them.

An interesting example for the epistemological consequences of conformity would be miasma theory. For the longest time, in many different parts of the world, it was believed that a poisonous vapour (miasma) in the air was the cause of the Black Death, cholera and chlamydia. Right through the Middle Ages, miasma theory was still extremely popular and it was not until the late 19th Century that we confirmed that it was in fact specific germs that caused diseases. We were intellectually restrained by miasma theory, and many writers and scientists committed the fatal epistemological error of equating an unverified opinion with fact. In the 1854 cholera epidemic in England, a skeptic of miasma theory, John Snow, was dismissed as his theory was “too depressing”. The prevalence of this miasma theory permeated societal attitudes and in fact functioned like an intellectual miasma, infecting the minds of those that believed in it. Perpetuating theories like this is yet another problem caused by opinion-chameleons who ignore the burden of proof and can easily be swayed by hearsay.

Lastly, there are tremendous political ramifications due to the prevalence of opinion-chameleons in society. The example which comes to mind is necessarily Donald Trump’s remarks concerning Muslims. Calling for a ‘ban on Muslims’ would not be shocking considering his history of trash-talking the Mexicans but this mainly concerns the voters who agree with his opinions. Some go so far as to suggest that it is “a very wise decision” however if they took even the broadest glance at the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States they would see the words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is highly ironic that 93% of Trump supporters admit to displaying American flags on their property whilst misunderstanding the very constitution that they so desperately wish to uphold. Opinion-chameleons are of great importance to demagogues such as Donald Trump and it is quite seriously disconcerting that the next 4 years lie in the hands of these easily influenced individuals.

In this article, we have set out to look at the ethical, epistemological and political problems that ‘opinion-chameleons’ are liable to cause. Due to the abundant literature on the subject of how appealing and evolutionarily stable the strategy of conformity can be, we decided to instead focus on how opinion-chameleons have held us back morally, intellectually and politically. Their world is blanketed by the idea that opinion=fact and this is a dangerous notion that we must be weary of, especially when our future is at stake. Friedrich Nietzsche also recognised how easily judgment and rationality are blurred when exposed to the pressures of a group and this quote will particularly suffice to finish the article:

“Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.