Posted by: ericgrimsrud | November 6, 2016

Our “Spiral of Silence” explained by two cartoons

In my previous post, I complained about the inability of the moderators of the recent Presidential debates to ask any questions about climate change. Apparently, it is very difficult for journalists to get ahead of the loudest, but less important concerns of the public and it is unfortunately true that Climate Change is not one of the very top priorities of the American public. And while there have been a plethora of scientifically irrefutable reports concerning the growing risks posed by mankind’s unabated greenhouse gas emissions, the public does not yet include this topic in its regular mix of personal concerns and discussions. The presidential debates offered one of the few times when a prominent journalist could have helped turn public discussions from the heated talking points of today to tougher challenges like climate change. That didn’t happen this year and both the media and public are much to blame for this.

In some respects our species has not advanced all that much from the three of our ancestors shown below. On the really tough issues like climate change, we prefer to “see no evil”, “hear no evil”, and especially “speak no evil” leaving our more trivial issues at the top.


Thus, we are now witnessing widespread evidence of the latter trait, “speak no evil”, on the subject of climate change. For example, a recent study by Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University sought to answer the questions “Is There a Climate ‘Spiral of Silence’ in America?” (see   Some of the findings of this study include the following:

  1. Americans are interested in global warming

Two in three Americans are either “very” (22%) or “moderately” (45%) interested. Only about one in three is “not very” (16%) or “not at all” (16%) interested in it.

  1. Americans don’t hear about global warming frequently in the media

Fewer than half of Americans say they hear global warming discussed in the media (TV, movies, radio, newspapers/news websites, magazines, etc.) “at least once a week” (22%) or even “at least once a month” (22%). One in four Americans (26%) say they hear about the topic in the media “several times a year,” while 30% say “once a year or less,” “never,” or “not sure.”

  1. Americans don’t often hear global warming discussed

Nearly seven in ten Americans (68%) hear other people they know discussing global warming only “several times a year” or less often, and one in four (24%) “never” hear people they know discussing it. Fewer than one in five (18%) hear people they know discussing global warming at least once a month.

  1. Americans rarely discuss global warming with family and friends

About seven in ten Americans report that they “rarely” (36%) or “never” (32%) discuss global warming with family and friends, which has been trending slightly upward over the past eight years.

  1. More than half of those who are interested or think global warming is important “rarely” or “never” talk about it with family and friends (57% and 54% respectively).

The obvious next question is why are the public and media so hesitant to openly discuss the problem of climate change. While extensive studies in the social sciences might be required in order to fully address this question, I recently noted another cartoon which I think sums things up pretty well when coupled to the one I provided above. This carton, shown below, indicates our “default plan” for dealing with the climate change problem if we continue on our present course.


Upon reflecting for a moment on this carton concerning the Aztec civilization of Mexico several centuries ago, it becomes clear why a member of any culture that has a default plan such as this might not like to think too much or talk at all about the issue.  We would much prefer to think that we are well above that sort of behavior. Nevertheless, history has clearly shown that we are not. The sacrifice of select portions of our societies has occurred regularly and certainly did not begin or end with the Aztecs who are picked on in this cartoon. Instead, such behavior steadily increased with time deep into the modern era.

To pick just one of countless examples, at the onset of the 1930’s, Germany had one of the most advanced cultures of the world both in the fields of science and the humanities. As the forced removal of select German families from their homes then proceeded throughout that decade and the next – right in front of other Germans throughout Germany – along with the transport eastward of those predominantly Jewish men, woman, and children in crude industrial trucks and railway cars, one might have thought that a large fraction of Germans would have noticed and done something about it. Instead, the most common German reaction appears to have been to mimic the first cartoon included in this post. And after WWII, most German citizens claimed to have had “no idea” of what was happening throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. The only reasonable explanation I can think of for this inhumane behavior of ordinary German citizens would be that a “spiral of silence” had descended on Germany at that time. Being mere mortals, the average German citizen simply could not entertain the obvious possibility that their country was systematically exterminating the men, women and children of this large sector of their population. I will add here that the USA did little to help these victims of Nazi terror even when directly asked for help.

I am reminding us here of these distasteful but well-documented events in human history in order to better understand our present lack of recognition and discussion of our current crime against another specific group – that is our children and those yet to be born. All of these stories tell us that when implicated in an ongoing, unjustified and preventable crime against a select portion of humanity, our brains simply cannot assimilate the facts associated with that offence. The favored option then is to play the three monkeys shown above while hoping that no one notices that we did in fact “know”.

Yes, I think these two simple cartoons tell us a lot about ourselves. And if we hope to improve, it helps to know who and where we presently are and why.


  1. I have a brother (Eric) writing about climate change and a son (Andy) writing an internet blog on the MN Timberwolves. Both have solid credentials and will go into great detail on why their “teams” are losing. Their respective articles are educational and true, but do they matter? Hobbies are good. I, myself, paint canvases everyday. Making art as visually interesting as possible is always a challenge. Voting for president is Tuesday. We have crooked Hillary Clinton against asshole Donald Trump. Lost was the important message by Bernie Sanders on climate change and making healthcare affordable. But no big deal — tomorrow I’m buying more Cadmium Orange (Liquitex Heavy Body Acrylic). The world needs more orange. Mixing red and yellow also makes orange.

    (Response by EPG: Dave. Thanks for contributing to my point. While we are not recognizing the dominant importance of our climate problem, we fortunately do have our various hobbies that then rise to the top of our interests and concerns. These endeavors are manageable and make us feel that the world is going on as usual or perhaps is even improving. I am for all of that – I just lament the fact that people can’t deal more squarely with the really tough issue that ultimately will bring an end to all of these other wonderful endeavors of mankind. If fighting climate change could be made as much fun as basketball or painting, perhaps we would be doing much better on the former.)

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