Snowden and Public Opinion

2013-5-23

A recent opinion poll tells us that 58 percent of Americans support the use of extensive data collection operations of the kind exposed by Edward Snowden. While this is interesting in a "government you deserve" kind of way, it is also interesting for the way in which opinion itself operates. On the one hand it reinforces the notion of a United States which is divided along certain lines, but at the same time it strengthens the notion of a unified United States through the deployment of a measurable "national opinion."

One of the relevant approaches to opinion is given by Gabriel Tarde. While often treated as a footnote to Durkheim (Latour 2002), Tarde was uniquely positioned as both a judge and a statistician in France during the Dreyfus affair to provide an insighful and urgent account of the role of opinion in shaping the public mind. For Tarde, the public mind consists of three domains: Opinion, Tradition, and Reason. It is worth thinking about the Snowden affair in terms of the other domains, Tradition and Reason, which are enshrined in the Fourth Amendment provisions against unreasonable searches and siezures. Clearly, Opinion wins out, which is largely what Tarde predicted:

The misfortune is that contemporary opinion has become omnipotent not only against tradition (which is serious enough) but also against reason - judicial reason, scientific reason, legislative or political reason, as the opportunity occurs... It overwhelms tribunes of the judiciary, it submerges parliaments and there is nothing more alarming than this deluge, with no end in sight. (Tarde 1969[1898]:300)

While this quote clearly shows the influence of the Dreyfus affair on Tarde (see Salmon 2005 for more on Tarde's position during the affair), it also shows that the dangers of opinion are rather old ones. Tarde locates the creation of a National Opinion with the advent of mass media, which by connecting dispersed groups (each with their own opinions) within a single media space created a form of national unity that no longer relied on the figure of the monarch. This is what gives the opinion poll its capacity to unify the United States, even while the content of that poll suggests that it is divided.

In this context, Snowden's real crime is that he has violated national Opinion, more potent than Tradition and Reason which are firmly on his side (vis-a-vis the Fourth Amendment). If there is anything positive about this, it is that opinion is perhaps the most likely of the three domains of the public mind to change. Snowden may therefore end up an innocent man although, as for Dreyfus, this rehabilitation may take a long time.


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