Peter Stearns’ Wise Words About the Importance of Public Opinion
Put this on your list of great books of the 2000’s that you might have missed:
Peter Stearns. Global Outrage: The Impact of World Opinion on Contemporary History.
(Oneworld Press, if you really have to know.)
If you are any kind of believer in social progress, you really want to think that global outrage and public opinion have some sort of effect on positive social change. If horrible terrible things are occurring in the world, then you really hope that a shocked global population can induce the leaders of the nations of the world to step up and prevent the abominations from happening. Nice thinking, but is it true?
Peter Stearns, a distinguished historian at George Mason, with a long record of writing about France, the United States and the world as a whole, addresses this question in Global Outrage by considering the history of the effect of moral outrage on public policy internationally. He starts in the 1780’s and goes to the present day, considering questions such as slavery, the use of poison gas in warfare, genocide, women’s rights and the environment.
His basic point?
World opinion can produce significant changes in human behavior, but conditions have to be very, very, very perfect. Public opinion is fickle. The powers that be have many ways to steer around public opinion. But when absolutely every political circumstance is favorable, moral outrage has a chance to profoundly change the world.
The moral improvement “lottery” has been won several times.
The most obvious example is the abolition of slavery. Christian organizers in Britain got the world to ban slavery. In doing so, they pioneered the tactics that are now essential components of the repertoire of modern social movements. The abolitionists used mass media to promote their cause. They mobilized powerful cultural institutions, in this case churches, to pressure the government and to keep public opinion in a state of fervor. They also constantly urged action on government officials – in this case by submitting petition after petition to Parliament. A campaign that started in the 1780’s paid off in 1833 with the full abolition of slavery in Great Britain. Great Britain in turn used its economic and diplomatic power to work towards eliminating slavery in the rest of the world.
Other successful mobilizations of international public opinion include the campaign to eliminate foot-binding in China, campaigns to reduce the use of lynching in the United States, the international campaigns to promote both women’s rights and ecological preservation, campaigns to reduce the practice of genocide, the campaign to eliminate apartheid in South Africa – and campaigns to reduce the worst of human rights abuses in the Central American wars of the 1980’s.
That said, Stearns documents more failures than successes.
What does it take for public outrage to actually lead to observable concrete reforms? Stearns makes many arguments – but the arguments below are key parts of his story.
1. Moral outrage is the right of wealthy powerful nations only. Without economic or geopolitical muscle, moral outrage does not get very far. Being a wealthy nation also confers status advantages. The rich countries are considered to be “advanced” or “cutting edge”. Doing things their way opens up hope that the poorer nations may themselves be rich someday.
2. Moral outrage is based on a making clear cultural distinction between “Ourselves – the Civilized People” and “Them – the Barbarians”. Moral outrage is founded on pure ethnocentrism. What the outsider is doing is less than human. Cultural tolerance and moral outrage do not play well together.
3. Moral outrage is fickle. It comes and goes in waves. Publics may be concerned with issues. But their attention can wander to other issues. Authorities often avoid reform by simply playing the waiting game. For a reform to take hold, the mobilizing public must be willing to try and try and try again. It took more than a century for the abolition of slavery to take hold globally. There were many periods where tactical wins by conservative forces made it seem that the abolition movement had been defeated.
4. Lobbies and NGOs (non-governmental-organizations) are not the same as an outraged public. Major reforms do come not from the action of one heroic enlightened organization. They come from the actions of dozens and dozens of organizations combined with a generally mobilized public. All of them are calling for the elimination of the same abuse.
5. The rich powerful nation can not have a constituency who benefits from the supposed abuse. This often means careful framing of the issue to allow for a “present company excepted” escape hatch. For example, Britain accepted the abolition of plantation slavery but was slower about banning bound apprenticeships – a common practice in British manufacturing.
6. The ideal target for reform is a nation of intermediate wealth and power. Too rich and they can simply resist foreign meddling in their affairs. Too poor and there is not really much the wealthy reformer could offer that would make a material difference in the life of the abusive nation. (How much can the United States really improve the standard of living in Papua New Guinea?) An ideal opening for reform is an up-and-coming developing nation that wants to enter the inner circle of the major powers. Now the trade advantages that can be offered by the wealthy nation are substantial. Now the abusive nation is involved in bona fide geopolitics where support from a key ally would allow for a real projection of power. Now the middle-sized country is on the verge of “becoming modern” and wants to show all of the cultural accoutrements of an advanced nation that has “made it”. South Africa is an example of such a reform-able middle-sized nation. South Africa is a regional power in its own right, is partially industrialized, does substantial business with the United States and Britain, and values institutions of cultural exchange such as international sporting competitions. What the anti-apartheid world was offering South Africa was intrinsically attractive – making world opinion a key force in producing an end to South Africa’s racial regime.
Peter Stearns’ Global Outrage is an important book of which we all should be more aware. It pours cold water both on cynics who say no form of moral reform is possible and on gushy idealists who think that one internet campaign or one social change organization is all that it takes to change the planet. It lays out:
a. The clear level of organization that will be required (Massive).
b. The clear level of patience required (Expect to have to win multiple campaigns over time).
c. A clear identification of what nations can play this game (Leading moral campaigns is a prerogative of the rich nations).
d. A clear identification of what nations are the best ones to target (Middle income countries will take your campaign the most seriously).
e. A clear statement of the cultural framework required to win (Everyone in our nation is okay. We would never stoop to such abuses. The people in their nation are savages. But there are good hearted people in that evil place who could be the basis of reform.)
Yes, this is a moral drama with artificially constructed heroes and villains. But the people who make up that story and sell it to other people create humanistic reforms that change the world.
Every serious reformer ought to look at Stearns' Global Outrage at least once.
For More Information
Obviously the first thing to do here is read Peter Stearns for yourself. He has also written prolifically on world culture and global social change. So you may want to check out one of his many other titles.
On the abolition of slavery, my go-to book is Seymour Drescher’s Abolition: A History of Slavery and Anti-Slavery. This is a long and detailed tome that provides exhaustive information on the battle against slavery in virtually every nation where slavery existed.
There is a huge literature on the fall of apartheid. A perfectly good place to start is David Welsh’s Rise and Fall of Apartheid: From Racial Domination to Majority Rule.
Not all reforms come from the efforts of reformers. For a contrarian account that argues the Chinese foot-binding disappeared only when it made sense for Chinese parents not to do it, see Laurel Bossen and Hill Gates’ Bound Feet, Young Hands: Tracking the Demise of Footbinding in Village China.