I reread before writing this article, the chapter on Public Opinion, in Bertrand Russell’s classic book – The Conquest of Happiness.
If I were to do you the most amount of good, I would say, “read the book” and end this article here. There is nothing I can add to what has been said there. I will only attempt to summarize a few points that Russell makes in the chapter:
The first point is that youngsters are particularly vulnerable to being harmed by adverse public opinion. If they read intelligent books then they may find themselves out of sympathy with the ethos of their friend circle or community. Russell says that they can and should find themselves companions and friends who have the same views about controversial subjects as they do. This is much more easily done in the present day than in Russell’s time. With social media one can make friends with people all over the globe. This is one way to escape from the tyranny of public opinion.
The second point Russell makes is regarding your choice of a career. He says that youngsters should strive to find a vocation which enables them to interact with people who hold similar views as themselves. The importance of having congenial companions who do not treat you as an outcast because you hold unconventional views can hardly be exaggerated. I have suffered from this handicap for much of my life and can testify to the harm and damage that being regarded as an outcast can cause. Russell says that this factor is at least as important as a good income and you should give this point due importance in choosing a career even if it results in a considerable loss of income.
Another point is regarding the right attitude or outlook to have if you find yourself out of sympathy with the herd. Russell says that being indifferent to public opinion will have positive results. He compared public opinion to an unfriendly dog. The dog is more likely to bite you if you fear him. If you show him that you do not fear him then he will doubt his own powers and the human herd has something of the same characteristics. So being indifferent to public opinion is recommended.
Also, people in the human herd are likely to interpret unconventional views as a criticism of themselves. If you can make it clear to them that you are not engaged in criticizing them but have your independent reasons for thinking and acting as you do, they are more likely to tolerate you. Good nature and jollity will produce this effect.
Lastly Russell described what sort of heroic attitude some great men have had towards public opinion. Quoting from the book:
Blake, like Emily Bronte, lived in extreme mental isolation, but like her was great enough to overcome its bad effects, since he never doubted that he was right and his critics wrong. His attitude towards public opinion is expressed in the following lines:
The only man I ever knew
Who did not make me almost spew
Was Fuseli: he was both Turk and Jew.
And so, dear Christian friends, how do you do?
Inspiring stuff. Don’t you think? Read the book.
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