Public Opinion - Extracts: Symbols as Communication

Walter Lippman published Public Opinion in 1922. Following is a short extract describing the nature of symbols in communicating ideas.  The entire book is available online for free through Project Gutenburg.


The symbols of public opinion, in times of moderate security, are subject to check and comparison and argument. 

They come and go, coalesce and are forgotten, never organizing perfectly the emotion of the whole group. There is, after all, just one human activity left in which whole populations accomplish the union sacrée.

It occurs in those middle phases of a war when fear, pugnacity, and hatred have secured complete dominion of the spirit, either to crush every other instinct or to enlist it, and before weariness is felt. 

At almost all other times, and even in war when it is deadlocked, a sufficiently greater range of feelings is aroused to establish conflict, choice, hesitation, and compromise. The symbolism of public opinion usually bears, as we shall see, the marks of this balancing of interest. 

Think, for example, of how rapidly, after the armistice, the precarious and by no means successfully established symbol of Allied Unity disappeared, how it was followed almost immediately by the breakdown of each nation’s symbolic picture of the other: Britain the Defender of Public Law, France watching at the Frontier of Freedom, America the Crusader. 

And think then of how within each nation the symbolic picture of itself frayed out, as party and class conflict and personal ambition began to stir postponed issues. 

And then of how the symbolic pictures of the leaders gave way, as one by one, Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, ceased to be the incarnation of human hope, and became merely the negotiators and administrators for a disillusioned world. 

Whether we regret this as one of the soft evils of peace or applaud it as a return to sanity is obviously no matter here. Our first concern with fictions and symbols is to forget their value to the existing social order, and to think of them simply as an important part of the machinery of human communication. 

Now in any society that is not completely self-contained in its interests and so small that everyone can know all about everything that happens, ideas deal with events that are out of sight and hard to grasp. 

Miss Sherwin of Gopher Prairie, is aware that a war is raging in France and tries to conceive it. 

She has never been to France, and certainly she has never been along what is now the battlefront. 

Pictures of French and German soldiers she has seen, but it is impossible for her to imagine three million men.

No one, in fact, can imagine them, and the professionals do not try. They think of them as, say, two hundred divisions.

But Miss Sherwin has no access to the order of battle maps, and so if she is to think about the war, she fastens upon Joffre and the Kaiser as if they were engaged in a personal duel.

Perhaps if you could see what she sees with her mind’s eye, the image in its composition might be not unlike an Eighteenth Century engraving of a great soldier. He stands there boldly unruffled and more than life size, with a shadowy army of tiny little figures winding off into the landscape behind.

Nor it seems are great men oblivious to these expectations.

M. de Pierrefeu tells of a photographer’s visit to Joffre.

The General was in his “middle class office, before the worktable without papers, where he sat down to write his signature.

Suddenly it was noticed that there were no maps on the walls.

But since according to popular ideas it is not possible to think of a general without maps, a few were placed in position for the picture, and removed soon afterwards.”