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Conforming to the Consensus--at All Costs

February 12, 1996|JOSEPH HANANIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Say you are a straight military man who believes gays should be allowed to serve equally. How loudly do you dare express your beliefs?

Or say you're a Brentwood-area feminist who believes the O.J. Simpson jury made the right decision. How loudly do you state your opinion?

Not very, says Timur Kuran, chairman of the economics department at USC and author of "Private Truths, Public Lies" (Harvard University Press, 1995).

The past decade has witnessed a strong emphasis on the global crowd at the expense of the individual, he says. For most of us, the result is a relatively small discrepancy between what we profess in public and what we really believe.

For some, however, that discrepancy between socially acceptable views and private truths has become a gulf. Thus, largely "invisible" sectors of the population suddenly come into view during times of public upheaval, such as the Los Angeles riots or militia-style bombings.

Should current trends continue, the result will no longer be isolated incidents but a string of riots, attacks and bombings, each feeding off the others, he says.

Behind this trend, Kuran says, is a convergence of technological and economic factors.

Historically, dissident individuals usually had the option to leave their home communities. Thus, the Puritans crossed the Atlantic; pioneers explored the West; an individual might shift from coast to coast, or even from country to country, in his quest for personal freedom.

Although each community generally promoted conformity to its norms, the variety of communities and customs differed greatly from one another.

This is no longer so. Not only are regional accents and differences fading, as the world has gotten smaller, the independent businessman who once ran his own world now conforms to decisions set elsewhere. The clerk at the chain record store is increasingly interchangeable with the one at the chain computer store.

Gone is the pride in ownership and craft through which the individual anchored himself; taking its place is a growing conformity to the trend of the moment, Kuran says.

In addition, communications technology now makes it routine for events that were once local to attract global attention.

"Everyone gets sensitized to the same issues, thinks of the same events on the same day," he says.

Thus, rather than deciding for himself what he considers important, the individual is increasingly force-fed an agenda he does not control.

Culturally, too, Jay Leno and David Letterman take the place of the local comedian. A tennis fan who once might have watched a match at his local club now watches Wimbledon on TV, with local diversity lost in the rush to homogenization.

In addition, families and communities continue to fracture. Thus, conversations with old friends who know the whole individual with his own history, make way for more conversations with acquaintances who evaluate him through his views on one or two issues.

As a result, each unguarded expression of opinion becomes more perilous, Kuran says.

Thus, Joe Hicks, executive director of the MultiCultural Collaborative, a privately funded human relations agency, concurred that he found it especially difficult to express reservations about the Million Man March.

"As momentum for the march developed, the majority of black voices were certainly endorsing what it was about. There was an assumption that if one raised objections, one was an enemy of the black people, to be condemned to the margins, almost shunned," he says. Although Hicks acknowledges that this country has always been run on majority opinion, he says the founding fathers also tried to build in minority guarantees. Hicks believes those guarantees are increasingly coming under attack as the American tendency to "group think" accelerates.

In time, Kuran says, individuals' inability to openly articulate their beliefs leads either to a haziness about what they really think or to increasing conflict between their private and public selves.

In a similar vein, he says, "People would like to have political leaders who tell things the way they are. But even while people privately admire such a leader, they think his chance of success is low. Given the possible cost of supporting a leader who loses, they generally don't get behind him, making his failure a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"So an outspoken leader will shy away from politics, and we're left with the person who puts his finger to the wind to see which way it's blowing. The problem is not just in the politicians; it's also in our unwillingness to put ourselves on the line."

The exception is on issues such as abortion, where both sides have numerous outspoken supporters. On issues where there is a clearly perceived majority opinion, however, openly expressing the minority opinion is riskier than ever.

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