Chapter 9: Fear of Public Opinion

Very few people have the integrity to be happy with their way of life if they do not have approval of others. The approval of those with whom we interact regularly is a validation of our choices and form of respect. The approval of a passing stranger, or the multitudes with whom we have not met, should be of little concern - but some are greatly concerned with public opinion of themselves.

Mutual approval is at the heart of society: we identify ourselves as being a member of certain groups (the middle class, the protestant religion, the English nationality, the liberal party, the accounting profession, etc.), but this choice is not regarded as valid unless others whom we believe to belong to that group acknowledge that we also belong. A great deal of unhappiness is experienced by a person who aspires to be included, but who is not sufficiently validated by others to feel that he belongs.

The belief that the recognition of others is required to be such as we are is entirely erroneous, because we are such as we are regardless of whether it is recognized by anyone. If you live in a nation, you are a citizen of it. If you adhere to a religious doctrine, you are a member of that religion. If you work in a given vocation, you are part of that profession. This remains true even when others fail to recognize it.

There's a brief mention of Emily and Charlotte Bronte, who were renowned for their novels portraying members of the British upper class but were themselves peasant immigrants from Ireland (Bronte is a permutation of Brunty, and their grandfather had been a farm laborer) - neither of them ever met any "congenial people" until after their books were published, and both were quite miserable all their lives, first coveting acceptance by the upper classes, then feeling insecure once they had won acclaim, ever conscious because of their crude ancestry.

This is not uncommon among people who wish to rise above the station of their birth: a poor boy is despised by his peers for pursuing an education and seeking to elevate himself, and those who are born into privilege are put off by those who gained rank in society by merit. It is of little consolation that those who ostracize him do so out of their own insecurity and feelings of inferiority, he is nonetheless ostracized.

Such a man must content himself with friends who value him such as he is, and there are many more such people than he might suspect. Particularly in America, given the lack of a long history of established social classes, there are many fellows who have risen from crude beginnings to earn their places in the gentry, and who value others whose struggle has been such as their own.

And just as a dog will bark more loudly at someone who shows fear, people will always be nastier to those who seem most hurt by their contempt. "If you show indifference, they begin to doubt their own power and therefore tend to let you alone," though care must be taken that it is indifference rather than defiance, as direct defiance causes them to doubt their own status, and their reaction will be more harsh in defense.

Both religion and psychology are defenders of cultural norms, and take great interest in "correcting" the behavior of men simply because they are not like their peers, or who do not conform to what is presumed to be normal. While it is not quite so dangerous today as it was in the time of witch-hunts, a failure to conform is to be out of harmony, which causes social disruption - though not all instances of destruction are harmful, as some disruptions result in a positive change.

In the present world, there is a great deal of social persecution among youth, as men seek to sort out their place in the social structure and each seeks to outdo his fellows - but after school or college, people generally settle in and find fellows of their own rank and class. There are those who fail to settle in, spend their lives chasing ambition, and find that they have developed a circle of friends or been very happy with their place in any crowd.

Apart from considering expert onion, there is too much concern for the opinions of others both in great matters and in small. It is likely necessary to maintain a modicum of respect for public opinion, but only "in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison." Anything that goes beyond this is a voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness.

Russell considers the way that money is abused - not to acquire those things that provide pleasure to the person who spends it, but to make an impression on others. People who seek status will expend both money and time on things they find to be tedious or even loathsome in order to make an impression on others - to suggest that they should be considered as a member of one group and to distance themselves from those groups with which they do not wish to be identified.

His advice is to simply be natural: given the size of modern societies and the swiftness of locomotion, a person can find companions who accept him such as he is and in whose company he can be at ease. "Happiness is promoted by associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions."

Some speak with regret that society has lost its closeness and people no longer know their neighbors in the larger cities. But it is an irrational nostalgia, as few can explain the reason it should be desirable to be constrained to one's own immediate neighbors for society and have no other option for more suitable company.

Fear of public opinion shifts the source of one's own happiness from oneself to others, and quite often to the assumption of what a vague amalgam of "other people" might admire. And while the press has become the witch-hunter of the modern era, very few people fall victim to it who have not called its attention upon themselves.

There are those who delight in interfering with the lives of others for no good reason, and inflict misery upon their fellow men, but they are few and largely powerless except to the degree an individual is willing to grant them power over himself.