That is What Everyone Thinks!

Salmaan ibn Fahd al-'Awdah
I have observed that often when a person is satisfied with his own opinion and convinced that his point of view is the right one, he presents it to others as if it were the view of the general public and not merely his personal opinion. This attitude is a mistaken one.

To start with, not everything that people in a given time or place agree about is necessarily correct. Quite of the truth about something is beyond the understanding of the majority of the people and the one who comes with it is regarded by the general public as being eccentric or insane.

Most people do not possess the ability to critically analyze matters and study them in depth to the extent that they can distinguish what is correct from what is in error. Often, their conclusions are based on emotions, beliefs, or even impressions that they cannot account for. In many cases, people blindly follow the opinion of an important person and view the opinion with the same importance that they view the person who espouses it and therefore dread to even think of criticizing it.

Therefore, the majority view is not the criterion for knowledge. It does not indicate the truth or falsehood of an opinion.

Those who see to present their personal viewpoints as though they were the view of the majority make another serious mistake when they attribute to people an opinion that they do not really hold. It is wrong or a person to act as if he is a spokesperson for the people who has a right to speak on their behalf.

What is possible is to ascertain the general opinion of one sector of society or another by various means like the ballot box. If these means are employed properly and with transparency, they can give an accurate indication of public opinion. The municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, for instance, put an end to all the speculations and arguments among people about what the public really wanted. We should not read into those election results more meaning than they convey, but they do provide some evidence that no one can ignore.

Another means of gauging public opinion is through polls and surveys that focus on specific issues. They can provide accurate information as long as they are worded properly and are responded to by a representative sampling of the public.

Aside from such means, we cannot take the loudest or most boisterous voices to be representative of public opinion. The same can be said for the news media, which does not necessarily represent public opinion, especially when the media speak only on behalf of those who are behind them. When a forum is given to allow people to express other opinions, the situation is closer to the pulse of the people, even though experience shows us that those who are in possession of the media still have an extraordinary influence. Crafty managing directors know how to provide a margin of public participation for those holding opposing opinions, but they know where to set the limits so that the media agencies themselves continue to enjoy an overwhelmingly disproportionate representation of their own point of view.

The broadcast media, newspapers, and Internet websites express the views of those who own, run them, and have influence over them far more than they express the views of their audience or their readership. Yes, they have to take their audience’s views and attitudes into account if they are to maintain their ratings. This is reflected in the layout and presentation of the material and how much emphasis certain issues receive. Readers and viewers do have an influence on the media in such matters, but they are influenced far more than they influence.

Public opinion can be ascertained by way of soliciting the public view in a clear and wholesale manner, like what was conducted regarding the constitution of the European Community. Under such circumstances it is possible to say that the people in this country or that actually support or oppose a certain policy. This requires that the surveys are conducted in a clear and open manner where there is no chance of foul play.

We should mention that many websites have polls for their visitors to participate in. However, these polls are easily abused. It is not difficult for someone to get through the system and cast thousands of votes from his own personal computer.

A balanced approach for a speaker or writer to employ – no matter how convinced he is of his own opinion – is to avoid claiming that his views are those of the general public and to avoid seeming to speak on their behalf, unless he has solid evidence that it really is the general opinion.

The dictates of objectivity and civil conduct require from us that we learn how to express our views in a balanced manner, clearly and honestly, presenting them as our own opinions that we subscribe to without holding others to them except to the degree that they themselves also express those views.

If ten authors who believed in a certain view were to write, publish, and speak publicly about their views, they could easily give an impression to someone who does not interact with society that their view represented that of the general public. However, if that person were to mix with the people, he might find the truth to be quite the contrary.

Islam teaches us to verify our facts and to avoid attributing words to others. Allah says: “O ye who believe! If an unscrupulous person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest ye harm people unwittingly and afterwards become full of repentance for what ye have done.” [Surah al-Hujurât: 6]

Allah also says: “And those who malign believing men and believing women undeservedly, they bear the guilt of slander and manifest sin.” [Sûrah al-Ahzâb: 58]

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “It is enough for a person to be a liar that he repeats everything he hears.”
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