Who Cares for What others Say?
Public opinion is as powerful a force in modern life as the priesthood was in the ancient. In the old days of Brahmanical ascendancy, the priests ruled the affairs of every community more despotically than the mightiest prince, controlling every conceivable concern of the household, from the marriage of a son or daughter to the petty details of a meal. In those days, the unit of a community was the family, and “public” affairs were mostly of a domestic, or at best a tribal nature. In these days, the unit is of a much higher value; the interests of the family have been merged in the wider interests of the community, or in some cases, with the interests of the whole nation. Public affairs have consequently a much deeper and broader basis; and the influence of the priesthood in the determination of these has declined in proportion to the wider sphere over which the interests of the people now extend.
The influence of public opinion is by no means a feature of modern life alone. One of the primitive instincts of man is to court the approbation of his fellow-men; and the modern regard for what is called public opinion is only a developed form of this early instinct. In the early times the force of public opinion was felt, not as public opinion, but as custom. Custom still dominates over society and rules its affairs with a rod of iron. There may be a departure from law, but there can be no deviation from the track of custom. Among races who are not yet civilised, such as some of the aboriginal tribes of India, custom takes the place of law, and guides every affair of life; and every violation of custom is punished more severely than a breach of law is among civilised people. The village Panchayats of India are a relic of the age when custom took the place of law, and the heads of the rural community sat together in council to deliberate over matters affecting the common weal, to punish offenders against their unwritten code. The jurisdiction of these Panchayats has now been cut down to matters of social interest only, such as cases of excommunication, cases relating to rules of caste, cases of private misconduct not covered by the law of the land.
In the life of modern nations, public opinion has come to play a more important part than either the tribal community did in the old prehistoric days, or than the priesthood did in the later Brahmanical days. There is such a body of people in India now as may fitly be called “the public.” Western education has given to the heterogeneous population of India a cohesion and a unity which, inspite of divergence in caste and creed, has made them one in a truer sense than was ever possible in former times. Western education has also given them a common language whereby they can communicate their thoughts and feelings to one another, so as to arrive at a mutual understanding of what their common interest is, and to feel a sympathy for one another that may bind the conflicting races in one chain of love. Another reason is that there is-now greater facility of intercourse between one part of the country and another, owing to the introduction of improved means of communication, in the shape of railways, the post office, and the telegraph. The people of one state can travel to another safely and quickly, and by mixing with them and conversing with them in the common medium of the English or Hindi language, can as certain their views on questions affecting one another. For those who cannot travel or have not travelled, there are now newspapers, both English and Vernacular, in every province,—in fact, in every big town and city; and these newspapers give expression to the views of the people of that state on administrative and other measures : and these views are caught up or sympathized with or shared in by the people of other states, so that the whole of the Indian people—at least the educated portion of it—has come to be welded into one public body, and the embodied judgement of this mass of men constitutes what is called ‘public opinion’.
The true worth of public opinion is very difficult to determine. An opinion, in the true sense of the word, springs directly from one’s heart, and represents a man’s real thoughts and feelings. In this sense, an opinion is more genuine than even faith. What usually passes as one’s opinion is perhaps only a faint hearsay or a thin make-believe. A true opinion is as rare as a genuine, an unadulterated feeling. In many cases, probably, that which gains currency as “public opinion” is only a multiple of repeated echoes of perhaps a single voice speaking far away in the dim distance of time or space. Some shrewd popular leader gives vent to an opinion, which is at once taken up by the whole body of his followers, who disseminate it through the entire state, by direct and indirect means, till after some time the same view passes for public opinion. In other cases, the opinions expressed by the editor of an influential newspaper become the opinions of the public who read or subscribe to that paper. They have no opinion of their own—in fact, many of them are incapable of forming any opinion—and they are glad to adopt the opinions they find expressed in clear print in the editorial columns of their favourite newspaper. But such opinions are clearly not opinions in the strict sense, nor can such views held by the people be termed ‘public opinion’ in any rational sense.
Seeing that public opinion, such as it exists in India at the present day, is still so shadowy, it is not to be wondered at if it is at times a little unreasonable, a little headstrong, a little too insistent. The healthiest public opinion has sometimes a tendency to sweep away reason, and to run counter to the views of statesmen and councilors. The reason of this occasional opposition is not what is commonly supposed to be the case, —that the interests of the rulers and the ruled must naturally conflict with each other; the real reason is that public opinion in India melts down to private opinion in the very first analysis; and between two individuals difference of opinion is as likely as difference in features.
Public opinion, whenever or wherever it is a spontaneous and healthy growth, acts as a great moral force. If every man asks himself why he abstains from doing wrong, he will find that in most cases it is due, not to the fear of the Police, nor to the anticipated pangs of conscience, but to the dread of public shame. Nowhere does this force act more powerfully than in schools and colleges. The fear of failure is such a trembling terror in the minds of boys, simply because of the public disgrace that it entails; the joy of success is such a bounding joy, simply because of the public triumph that it means. The fear of falling low in the estimation of one’s fellows is a healthy fear, and ought to be carefully fostered by all those who have charge of training young minds.
In all communities the force of public opinion varies in proportion to education or civilisation. It is education that is the parent of all opinions, and the soundness or unsoundness of those views depends on the nature of the education on which they are based. Therefore, since education is still in its infancy in India, public opinion must necessarily be in a very nebulous state. A well-known couplet expresses the above idea in aphoristic form :—
“It’s education forms the common mind
Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.”
From this we can well understand the necessity of inculcating sound views in young minds. No prejudices do more harm than those formed in our defective system of education. It is from the united strength of strong private opinions that public opinion derives its force; and this force is really greater than the force of Law itself, for it is public opinion that makes and annuls laws.