Prevailing opinion

“Prevailing opinions are generally the opinions of the generation that is passing,” said Disraeli.

Culture tends to be by its nature both traditional and conservative, because it’s the accumulation of a people’s way of life and usually people want to perpetuate their way of life.

When considering disruptions to culture or its evolution, especially in the area of public policy, usually the first defense of some aspect of culture is the citation of prevailing opinion. “Well look, most people believe things should be this way.”

The problem with this way of responding is that the controversy or desire for change probably exists either because of prevailing opinion, or because of the manner in which it’s conveyed or instantiated through culture. So to cite it as a defense is exactly the wrong approach.

Historian Will Durant explains why any of this matters. In The Story of Civilization he warns: “The old is preserved in the new, and everything changes except the essence. History, like life, must be continuous or die; character and institutions may be altered, but slowly; a serious disruption of their development throws them into national amnesia and insanity.”

This speaks to Disraeli’s insight on prevailing opinion, and something both conservators and innovators of any specific aspect of culture need to remember. That point is that prevailing opinion has to be continually and ritually nurtured if it’s expected to survive from generation to generation.

Then there’s this from Sam Adams, which is especially important for cultural innovators: “It does not take a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting the brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”

I suspect that most cultural norms start as the exception, so I think that when discussing culture or debating particular aspects of policy that can shape it, it’s always the minority that’s the most important to watch, because the minority opinion is often the bellwether.

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