Students discuss “Spiral of Silence,” oppressive governments during monthly Presidential dinner

To this day the Nazi regime’s rise to power baffles scholars and observers, even nearly 70 years after its fall.  People are astonished how one nation, in a human lifetime, could transform from a thriving center of sciences and humanities into a regime of war and genocide.  This disturbing transformation has been the subject of numerous articles, essays, studies, and retrospective analyses.

Leslie Reynard, Washburn professor of communications, has taken interest in how social ideas begin as minority views, gather momentum, and finally cross a ‘tipping point’ at which the ideas become majority views.  Likewise, social ideas can begin as majority views then reverse course and regress toward the same tipping point going the other way before they fade into the minority.  ‘Spiral of Silence’ describes this phenomenon.

Last month, Reynard was the featured speaker at the home of Dr. Jerry Farley, Washburn’s president, who hosted a gathering of 25 students for dinner and intellectual discussion. Farley’s roundtable dinners are held once a month, and students are chosen at random. For the honor, a Washburn professor of distinction is asked to lead and to moderate the discussion, and past topics have included the national debt, healthcare policy, and gun control.

With the 2012 elections, Reynard stated this would be the first presidential election for many college students. 

“I speak to groups about democracy, civil discourse, and deception,” said Reynard. “With the election coming up, I wanted to tie in my talk with the Spiral of Silence and encourage students to discover their intentions and feelings about the election and to determine whether students would be either actively participating in the process or avoiding it.”

Spiral of Silence emerged from the pioneering work of German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle Neumann.  After World War II, Neumann pondered the rise of the Third Reich, and she asked, “How could this all have happened, and why did the German people allow this to happen?”

Reynard said Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory explains how human beings, “do not want to be part of a perceived minority,” regardless of whether or not they’re in the minority. 

“People fear rejection and social isolation, so the more they perceive they’re in the minority on social issues, the more silent they will be on those issues,” said Reynard.

Surprisingly, this fear isn’t limited to oppressive governments and heated political issues.  It also happens in low-stakes, benign situations.  Reynard cited a classic study in which a human subject was grouped with five to seven ‘conspirators’ who were presumed by the subject to be naïve volunteers for the same experiment. 

When group members were shown a drawing of lines and asked to pick out the longest line, the naïve subject selected the true longest line, but the conspirators voiced their selections for the shortest line.  The naïve subject, after a few rounds of discussion with and peer pressure from the conspirators, changed his pick and selected the true shortest line as representing the longest line.

“We’re very, very susceptible as human beings to social control,” said Reynard.  “We have an internal monitor for embarrassment, fear of rejection, and punishment by authority,” which causes us to take a particular stance or action, “if we feel we are accepted, or to shrink back from it if we feel that we are not accepted.”

Reynard believes the U.S. has conditions which make it susceptible to Spirals of Silence.  She challenged students to identify views which might be majority views but appear to be minority views because so few people voice their opinions.

Students named government surveillance as one area in which Americans may be perpetuating a Spiral of Silence.  Students agreed that surveillance was value-laden and pertinent to many Americans.  But they also believed that the issue was not very well publicized and that people weren’t raising the issue out of fear that their views were in the minority.

Students also identified America’s treatment of prisoners of war, and how this treatment has brushed aside 35 years of the U.S.’s commitment to agreements at the Geneva Convention.  One student voiced her opinion that, “to be held indefinitely in those types of conditions, and to have an entire country look the other way when not every captive was found to be a terrorist,” was akin to the Communist Red Scare of the early 1950s.  Reynard concurred, saying, “We seem to be taking everyone who’s a follower of Islam and labeling them a terrorist.”

Reynard said that most research on the Spiral of Silence has been focused on television and print, which were two mass mediums of the 20th Century.  Reynard would like to see the theory tested on social media because, “social media has become so vast so quickly.  Viewpoints are diverse, and social media allow opinions to be distributed and expressed anonymously.”

Students interviewed after the event came away with favorable impressions of the evening and of Professor Reynard’s talk.

“I appreciated the opportunity to have intelligent conversation for an evening. I liked hearing about the Spiral of Silence,” said Maggie Sigler, a senior majoring in legal studies. “It wasn’t anything I had heard of in any of my classes. I didn’t know what to expect when they invited us here for dinner, and it turned out to be a stimulating conversation.”

Kelsey Fowler, a second-year law student, was encouraged in her belief that peers of her generation think about political and social issues.  “I got out of this many different perspectives, and a showing that our generation is engaged.  We have different perspectives, but people still care.  It may not be party politics that we care about, but we care about the issues because these are issues we’re going to have to live with,” said Fowler.

For Cassandra Blackwell, a senior majoring in history, her knowledge of social issues was deepened by attending the roundtable discussion.  “I knew some of the issues from my courses in communication.  But one area which amazed me was the magnitude of surveillance and privacy issues.  They are not considered issues, because they lack publicity.  And I think they should be discussed more.  But it never ceases to amaze me how much everyone is willing to engage in an intellectual discussion, especially in the presence of Washburn’s president, in his home.”


Rahul Venkat is a senior computer science major.  Reach him at [email protected]