Matt Lewis

The same sex marriage ‘cascade’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that public opinion on several hot-button topics seems to have shifted rapidly in recent days and weeks.

In a Tweet, ABC News’ Chris Good described this dramatic and continuing shift as a “cascade”:

Good’s choice of the term, “cascade” seems appropriate. And it reminded me of John Tierney, who (on another topic, entirely) noted that,

“Cascades can be based on correct beliefs as well as mistaken ones. The point is that large groups of people can reach a ‘consensus’ without most of them really understanding the issue: Once a critical mass of people starts a trend, the rest make the rational decision to go along because they figure the trend-setters can’t all be wrong. The danger is that you end up with the blind leading the blind…”

That sounds about right.

But how does it work? German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described the phenomenon thusly:

“We should find that it is two or three persons who, in the first instance, accepted it, or advanced and maintained it; and of whom people were so good as to believe that they had thoroughly tested it. Then a few other persons, persuaded beforehand that the first were men of the requisite capacity, also accepted the opinion. These, again, were trusted by many others, whose laziness suggested to them that it was better to believe at once, than to go through the troublesome task of testing the matter for themselves. Thus the number of these lazy and credulous adherents grew from day to day; for the opinion had no sooner obtained a fair measure of support than its further supporters attributed this to the fact that the opinion could only have obtained it by the cogency of its arguments. The remainder were then compelled to grant what was universally granted, so as not to pass for unruly persons who resisted opinions which every one accepted, or pert fellows who thought themselves cleverer than any one else.

In the case of same sex marriage, we must appreciate the impact of opinion leaders like Andrew Sullivan, who made the case very early on. We must also appreciate the ability of television shows, such as “Will & Grace,” to impact the culture. And, of course, at some point, there comes a tipping point. More Schopenhauer:

When opinion reaches this stage, adhesion becomes a duty; and henceforward the few who are capable of forming a judgment hold their peace. Those who venture to speak are such as are entirely incapable of forming any opinions or any judgment of their own, being merely the echo of others’ opinions; and, nevertheless, they defend them with all the greater zeal and intolerance. For what they hate in people who think differently is not so much the different opinions which they profess, as the presumption of wanting to form their own judgment; a presumption of which they themselves are never guilty, as they are very well aware. In short, there are very few who can think, but every man wants to have an opinion; and what remains but to take it ready-made from others, instead of forming opinions for himself?

When you see politicians suddenly “evolve” on an issue, I suspect it has more to do with this sort of peer (or elite) pressure than with any sort of intellectual ideas they might have been wrestling with internally. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.