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Herbert A. Opalek: ‘Vox populi’

Herb Opalek

Vox populi is just a fancy Latin term for "the voice of the people" or "public opinion."

Asking a diverse grouping of people one specific question is often used as a gauge of how everyone in a community feels on that one specific issue.

As such, it is often a hit-and- miss process of ascertaining what is the public feeling on an issue of importance to all of us.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to vox populi. One is that "the voice of the people (is) the voice of God" and the other, diametrically opposed, is that "those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness."

Who seeks out and what is the state of public opinion in Merced?

Well of course, the Merced Sun-Star is a vehicle for vox populi and its pages include snapshots of public opinion, letters to the editor and much more.

What little talk radio we have is another vehicle of public expression.

Quasi-governmental agencies seek out public opinion as we can see from this Merced County Association of Government statement, "MCAG actively seeks public opinion on work programs and projects at all stages of the development process. MCAG's citizen participation program ensures that the transportation planning process involves the public and includes the traditionally underrepresented (i.e. black, Latino, Asian-American, American Indian/Alaskan native, and Pacific islander).

Thomas Carlyle, the famous essayist, wrote that "public opinion is the greatest lie in the world."

In a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study, professors Stephen Garcia and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan write that much like the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, a single opinion repeated often enough has nearly as much influence as one expressed by several people.

"What we think others think greatly influences our own personal thoughts, feelings and behavior," said Garcia. "Quite obviously, an opinion is likely to be more widely shared the more different people express it. But surprisingly, hearing one person express an opinion repeatedly also leads to the conclusion that the opinion is more widespread relative to hearing the same opinion expressed only once."

In fact, one person expressing the same belief three times is, on average, 90 percent as effective as three people each stating the same sentiment once, say Garcia and Schwarz, a professor of marketing and psychology.

"People often rely on social consensus as a cue in assessing truth. If many believe it, then there is probably something to it," said Garcia, who also is an assistant professor of public policy. "Because fluent processing of a statement gives rise to a sense of familiarity, it suggests that one must have heard something similar before, which increases acceptance of the statement. Extending this logic, the more familiar the opinion seems, the more perceivers assume that they have heard this opinion many times before."

In Biblical times it was so much easier. You had the Urim and Thummim, a method of divine divination found on the jeweled breastplate worn by the high priest, prophets who informed the people as to what is right and wrong, and Jesus and his disciples who taught the way to eternal life.

But mankind has been given the choice to discern right from wrong. Unfortunately, we find it easier to follow public opinion rather than use personal logic in determining our social, moral, ethical and communal stance.

I would rather think for myself than accept what others believe to be socially correct. Wouldn't you?

It is for this reason that I love this ditty:

Some people live their life

Based on what they think is wrong or right

No matter if their views are rejected

Others make decisions

Based on what they think is popular

As long as what they say is accepted

Another day to ponder the truth

Another day to lie

I wonder what I'm gonna do

I've got the rest of my life

I won't be a part of it, I can think for myself

I won't be a part of it, I can think for myself

I won't be a part of it, I can think for myself

I will stand apart from it, I can think for myself

Herbert A. Opalek is CEO of the Merced County Rescue Mission. He writes a column every other Saturday.

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