Donald Sterling has said something stupid and offensive. His recorded private comments were broadcast to the world and he has received a severe punishment. He has been banned for life from the NBA. To date he has not been charged with a crime. What he has done is express an opinion that runs counter to what is publicly acceptable. As such, he has now experienced the tyrannical power of public opinion. There has been no trial. There has been no jury. He has been judged guilty and punished.
It may be surprising to hear that public opinion in a democracy can be tyrannical. In a democracy, we want to believe that public opinion will also be democratic because we believe in the idea of equality and power being accountable to the people. However, public opinion is tyrannical because all communities have to regulate opinions to survive.
Two issues emerge from the Sterling situation. First, we have to consider whether a community, like a democracy, that begins to regulate opinions begins to regulate thoughts. Will it be illegal or similarly problematic to think such stupid and offensive comments? If he had said “Do not invite [insert a group]” would that mean he cannot think such thoughts as he cannot say them? If a thought is never shared or spoken, how long can it be sustained? In this sense, the tyranny of opinion soon tyrannizes thought.
The second issue, is what does the tyranny appears to serve? Justine Sacco’s case helps us understand the issue. She was an American woman who made a poorly judged tweet about AIDS in Africa. Public opinion responded with outrage. She was fired from her job and her employer publicly disavowed her.
In a democratic society, public opinion only expresses the common opinion about justice and the good society. Such a view is not the last view because it is changeable. In this sense, public opinion is a political instrument to be captured. Understood in this way, we need to look at how public opinion is used, who it serves, and to what ends. We know that public opinion appears amorphous and protean, so various groups capture it at different times. However, this would make us forget the consistency of the tyranny.
America’s public opinion is tyrannical about equality and reacts visibly to inequality. When we consider that Mr. Sterling is a powerful individual in an industry where the labour is comprised mainly of African Americans (76%) and the owners are predominantly White (98%). The tyrant of public opinion emerges most vociferously the more extreme the inequality as the 1%/99% issue illustrates.
The democratic citizen faces a difficult choice. How do they speak publicly without incurring the wrath of the tyrant? A citizen may be less likely to participate in the public domain. Yet, can a democracy survive when thought and opinion are tyrannized?