It’s incumbent on those who are quote-unquote “on the right side of history” to squash those who are dissenters to normalcy, decency and decorum and things of that nature. -- Stephen A. Smith
I enjoy Stephen A. Smith. Doesn’t mean I agree with all or even most of his takes, but he’s unique among ESPN’s personalities. Beyond being a master showman and occasional soap opera character actor, the First Take host tends to lean into conflicts like a happy warrior. That relative comfort within turmoil informs some odd, orthogonal “bootstrap”-type opinions.
You could see this last September 11, when panelists on First Take were having an emotional conversation that had nothing to do with, well, 9/11, even if they were communicating a level of anger and grief commensurate with being attacked. Instead, the traumatic event before them was this: The day before, pre kickoff of the season’s first NFL game, fans had booed “racial unity,” at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Were the loutish fans moral monsters or were they just tired of being lectured like they were? A distinction without a difference to many in media.
After a summer of protests and riots, players tried to send the right message by linking arms for a moment of silence against racism. An anodyne gesture, and theoretically impossible to get mad at, even if irked that the Texans had skipped the anthem. Then, players who had largely been separated from fans during the pandemic, likely assumed that this action was not only unassailable, but mandatory as a meeting of the moment. Instead, they were shocked by the thunderous boos that rained down upon them. In those 17 uncomfortable seconds you see the rare, visible circumstance of social media expectations meeting a different reality.
After the game, star defensive end J.J. Watt said, “The booing was unfortunate during that moment. I don’t fully understand that. … There was nothing involved other than two teams coming together to show unity.”
The next day, on the ESPN panel, Ryan Clark did an imitation of a clueless (White) Watt’s lack of understanding, before saying, “They’re booing because you’re doing stuff for Black people.”
Clark would say the following about these Kansas City Chiefs fans and the country for which they stood in as metaphor: “That tells you the type of evil, the type of racism, that is truly the fabric of this country, and how it was built. It’s not going to change and you’re not going to change them.”
Stephen A. Smith did not mirror the negative fatalism of his co-panelist. While his peers were treating the boos like a sentence to permanent misery, Smith opened with a surprising take. “I find this to be a good thing,” he said. Then he gave his reason: “I want transparency. I don’t want people to be able to deceive and hide and give you the impression that they’re OK but they’re not.”
Of course, Smith also promoted the need for these “dissenters” on the wrong side of history to get crushed, as per the conventional wisdom of his institution. Smith’s two takes are clearly at cross-purposes. If you successfully crush dissent, you can’t possibly have transparency. As in, there’s no way to know how people really feel. Three months earlier, star quarterback Drew Brees served as an object lesson in this rule.
In early June, Brees found himself in a tremendous shitstorm because he characterized kneeling for the anthem as “disrespecting the flag.” For saying this during the heady days of June 2020, he became an object of ridicule on a level I’m not sure I’ve witnessed in sports. It wasn’t just ESPN folks ripping him, though they did. Fellow players, including fellow teammates got in on it. “Drew Brees, you don’t understand how hurtful, how insensitive your comments are,” then Saints teammate Malcolm Jenkins said in a video posted to Twitter. “I’m disappointed, I’m hurt, because while the world tells you, ‘You are not worthy,’ that your life doesn’t matter, the last place you want to hear it from are the guys you go to war with and that you consider to be your allies and your friends,” adding, “Even though we are teammates, I can’t let this slide.” Jenkins was literally weeping in this video.
So what did Brees do? The predictable thing, of course. He apologized and groveled, in statements I’m combining into one paragraph below:
In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused. Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This is where I stand. I stand with the Black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality and support the creation of real policy change that will make a difference. I recognize that I should do less talking and more listening and when the Black community is talking about their pain, we all need to listen.
Did we really think Drew Brees changed his mind? He just became a different person on a core belief overnight?
What Brees was likely engaged in was something Duke professor Timur Kuran refers to as “preference falsification” in his groundbreaking book, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. It’s a simple phenomenon, described thus: People lie about their true beliefs when they perceive possible punishment for having them.
We can suspect this happened with Brees, but there’s also a chance that the searing condemnations unlocked some new, different beliefs. Good luck getting the kind of “transparency” Stephen A. wants on these issues. We can’t actually know what Drew Brees thinks about anthem kneeling anymore.
At least that’s what I thought until I came across the novel work of Lisa Mueller, from Macalester College’s Political Science Department. She so happens to have specifically designed a study to find out what people actually think about anthem activism. It’s one study, but the results are surprising enough that I believe it should be getting more attention.
Mueller‘s journal article is titled, “Do Americans Really Support Black Athletes Who Kneel During the National Anthem? Estimating the True Prevalence and Strength of Sensitive Racial Attitudes in the Context of Sport.” The goal of her study was to account for the “social desirability bias” inherent in this sort of polling, while also getting a real read on public opinion here.
To counteract the social desirability issue, Mueller employed a list experiment, also known as the unmatched count technique. In it, respondents see one of two lists, assigned at random, but only one list includes a sensitive item like a proposition about anthem protests. The mind reading magic trick here is asking the respondent how many statements they agree with versus which specific ones. With enough responses and a control group comparison, you can infer how many people selected the potentially controversial option.
Mueller applied this method in surveys given to 2,246 respondents, with the following direct question prompt: “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement?” Among the listed answers was the statement, “It is disrespectful for African American athletes to kneel during the national anthem.”
That phrasing alone is fairly provocative in American public discourse, at least relative to a race-neutral frame. Given that, you might expect respondents to disagree, at least if you follow ESPN and the rest of mainstream discourse. Mueller’s article referenced a sampling from the International Review of Sociology of Sport which concluded that only 3% of news publications advocated for Kaepernick not to protest. Outside of a few conservative opinion sites, prestige media was united: Colin Kaepernick was a patriot, upholding the nation’s most vital traditions.
We know where the media stood on this, and I knew it better than most, having been at ESPN during the time of l'affaire Kaepernick. I personally had no objection to kneeling, but couldn’t help but notice that pro kneeling was pretty much the only opinion permissible if you valued your professional standing. Donald Trump saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field,” pretty much sealed the issue. It was Kaepernick or Trump and there were no other options. There was no way in hell you were taking an anti-Kaepernick stance at a major publication, lest you be mistaken for the wrong kind of person.
So where did the public stand, according to Mueller’s study? Very, very far apart from the media consensus, it turns out. According to the list experiment, 54% of respondents found this brand of activism to be disrespectful.
But that’s not all. The list experiment structure also indicated a strong presence of social desirability bias in the answer to the question, something that might help explain why The Washington Post’s and other media polls indicated majority support for Kaepernick’s actions. From the comparison of the list experiment to a basic survey control group, Mueller inferred that social desirability bias concealed 13% of respondents’ hidden disapproval.
That’s not the most striking aspect of the study, interesting though it is. The most eyebrow raising result was the experiment’s indication that social desirability bias concealed a staggering 39.1% of hidden disapproval among Black respondents (vs. 4.8% for Whites), and 39.5% from non-White respondents overall. On the basis of the list experiment, 44.7% of Black respondents disapproved of Kaepernick’s protest. That’s not a majority, obviously, but it’s likely far higher than what most would assume.
Citing other research, Mueller offered one hypothesis on how this shocking result may have happened:
Noting that segregation has crystallized and intensified in-group norms for African Americans, they argue (and confirm through a series of behavioral experiments) that Black people face heightened social pressure to defend their group interests above their individual interests. Such pressure constrains Black people from defecting from group norms — in colloquial terms, from “selling out.” Admitting disapproval of anthem protests would clearly fall into the category of defection from group norms. My results suggest that the pressure not to sell out extends to non-Black people of color, and that it is present even when an online survey minimizes the risk of monitoring by in-group members.
As much as some people might feel pressure to not seem racist (“I would have voted for Obama a third time” comes to mind), others are under pressure to not seem like sellouts. If the study is to be believed, the pressure pulls in the same direction for everybody, but for different reasons, to different degrees.
Why Does This Matter?
“Okay, but so what?” you might say. People are hiding their viewpoints. Why should we care? All that really matters is what they’re willing to stand behind, in full view. I put that question specifically to Mueller herself.
“I'd say, at the risk of frustrating your readers, it depends,” she said. “It depends on how you intend to use the statistics. So, if you're a health practitioner, you might have an interest in knowing the true rate of dangerous sexual behavior. Or, we probably want to know the true rate of vaccination. In other cases, maybe we don't care.”
Should we care in this case? The culture war is often depicted as an enervating if not paralyzing force in American life, not worthy of attention. It is static, it is stupid and it prevents us all from focusing on what matters. At least that’s how many non-Twitter-poisoned people see our current embittered discourse. The Hidden Tribes project, a thoughtful attempt at surveying the nation’s many political groupings, referred to the normies who take this view as “the exhausted majority.”
You can understand where these sane people are coming from, but they are quite wrong, I think. They’re too grounded to see the reality of our unmoored moment, and to truly grasp its dizzying variance. They are correct in believing that our culture war is exhaustingly totalizing, but that’s a symptom of the huge stakes. Even on a battleground as silly as sports, that Toy Department of Human Affairs, the downstream consequences could be far larger than what meets the eye. And, crazy as it sounds, the biggest potential for revolutionary change might lie in the hidden preference.
I’m referring to what Kuran calls a preference cascade, as summarized here:
In his terrific book, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, Timur Kuran writes about the phenomenon he calls “preference falsification”: People tend to hide unpopular views to avoid ostracism or punishment; they stop hiding them when they feel safe.
This can produce rapid change: In totalitarian societies like the old Soviet Union, the police and propaganda organizations do their best to enforce preference falsification. Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don't realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it — but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.
This works until something breaks the spell and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers — or even to the citizens themselves. Kuran calls this sudden change a ‘preference cascade.’
Think about those boos at Arrowhead. That’s a cascade, in miniature.
The Big Fall
It’s with this in mind that I turn to the culture war associated with another league: the NBA, the space I worked in for over a decade. If you’ve read me, you’re probably aware of what I’m referring to. For a few years, I publicly tracked what became a rather staggering decline in NBA viewership, a drop that at least correlated with significant, continued layoffs at ESPN, the largest sports journalism employer, and the one that happened to invest a ton of capital into pro basketball as a central content plank.
Last year, I demonstrated how the NBA, the league that powers so much daily conversation at ESPN, had lost 45% of its audience on network games since 2012, a time frame in which the NFL and MLB had stayed flat with network viewership. That was a pre-pandemic mark. The newly updated number is a 51% viewership decline for network games over the last nine years, with the most precipitous drop occurring over the last three years. From my perspective, this was like watching an avalanche envelop an industry.
This massive fall occurred concurrent with glowing media coverage of the sport, often depicting it as a rising force that was one with the zeitgeist. Young, relevant, social media friendly. None of that mattered, apparently, to the literal millions of people who suddenly found other things to do.
The two stories, the official one where the NBA was riding social media to unprecedented levels of cultural relevance, and the real one where the NBA was bleeding off millions of fans, could not coexist. I figured the real version would simply have to be submitted to, especially because it represented such a big shift in American sports culture. Think of the thinkpieces that could be written on the NBA’s collapse. There had certainly been many written about the NFL when football suffered a relatively minor skid a half decade ago (a drop that, perhaps not so coincidentally, happened concurrent with Kaepernick’s protest movement). Millions had shifted their preferences away from the NBA — and sharply. It was obvious. The data was abundant. There was no denying this huge story.
Yet, my articles on this topic were pretty obscure until the NBA’s viewership struggles went viral in conservative circles during the activism-heavy 2020 “Bubble” playoffs. Following the upheaval of spring and summer 2020, the league sought to make Social Justice Jerseys available to the players, from an approved list. Instead of a last name, you might see a phrase such as Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, I Can’t Breathe, How Many More, etc. The Black Lives Matter slogan was all over the court, and the Miami Heat used a United In Black slogan on their banners during a Finals run. Those choices were likely informed by a need to signal solidarity with the many players who were fervently supporting BLM at that time, plus a sense that this was the NBA’s role as the most evolved of professional leagues.
Those playoffs suffered a viewership drop unlike any we’ve seen in modern sports history. After months of league hype over how hungry America was to see basketball again, the playoff numbers looked like regular-season numbers and the Finals ended up as the least watched since we started keeping track. Despite involving LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, the 2020 Finals were viewed by roughly a third of the audience that tuned in for the 2017 Finals. Yes, there were multiple factors for the falloff, including the creepy sterility of fanless basketball, and strange Fall scheduling, but it was hard to ignore that the social justice campaign correlated with the NBA tanking to an extreme degree.
And yet … the denial persisted. The denial persisted despite how the phenomenon could have obviously validated the worldview of so many deniers. You think America runs on White supremacy? You think Donald Trump’s election confirmed that we’re a nation chock-full of bigots? Well, just look at how many sports fans are rejecting noble Black athlete activism. Disgusting!
The ESPN opprobrium that was heaped on those Kansas City boo-birds could be applicable in this space, but almost nobody took the tack. Perhaps there’s an assumption that the NBA is the progressive league, so therefore its fans could not possibly be offended by demonstrations critical of American policing.
Here’s the issue with that assumption. While the NBA is the archetypal blue state sport, it has disproportionate exposure in less populated red areas, like Oklahoma and Utah. This happened in part because, as the newest member among major sports leagues, the NBA’s business strategy has been to dominate the smaller-tier markets that were uncontested. It also helped that those markets were more likely to fork over arena-funding tax dollars for a shot at the big time. That long term trend likely led to a more politically mixed viewer base than if, say, the NBA had the MLB’s local profile (Two established teams in New York, two teams in the Bay Area, two teams in Chicago, and two teams in Washington-Baltimore metro).
In a study provided to me by National Media Research, 50.9% of NBA fans politically identify as Democrats or Democratic leaners. That’s a majority, obviously, but it also means there’s a giant cohort of NBA fans who don’t subscribe to that party and its associated belief structure. Also, it would make sense if there’s a population of people, even among Democratic voters, who find corporately curated displays of righteousness to be off-putting. The NBA’s version was certainly discordantly cringe. You had a lot of guys wearing the same social justice phrases on their jerseys, some superstars using their real names because #branding — and Gordon Hayward running around with the tag “Education Reform.” It all looked pretty goofy.
I inspired some industry ire by noting this goofiness in my article, specifically the silliness of superstar Luka Dončić wearing a jersey that read “Enakopravnost,” which means “equality” in his native Slovenian. I’m sorry, but it’s just funny to envision confused normie casual sports fans trying to figure out who this Enakopravnost guy is as they sputter the consonants (“Hey, who’s this White guy Enako-provost?! He’s good!”).
The heavy subject material of fatal police encounters ends up setting the stage for a corporate cringe comedy that nobody important dare laugh at. Yes, the Emperor does have clothes. And they’re very serious, important clothes! Clothes that will solve racism!
Regardless, they’re laughing at home, or annoyed, and sometimes changing the channel. Of course, those folks that do can be dismissed as morally bad, so you write them off and tell the public not to care about the topic of viewership while you’re at it.
With credit to Kuran, I think I finally have an answer to the question of media denial. I don’t think it was simply a matter of evading an uncomfortable truth, or simply a consequence of an institutional capture. That was some of the reason, but not all of it. Though I, at times, categorized the denial as mere “tribalism,” fueled in part by Donald Trump assholishly mocking the NBA’s viewership troubles, I don’t think it was just that either.
I think the media are trying to prevent the preference cascade Kuran writes about.
Maybe you’re with me up to this exact point. Are sports journalists really working overtime to prevent a social revolution? Over basketball? Is this all a conspiracy? Do they draw up these plans atop a mountain while sipping goblets of La Croix?
Not exactly. Sports journos just happen to be part of a social media hivemind that exhibits a collective instinct for narrative protection. The hivemind need not take meetings to express a scheme. It functions as a form of crowd wisdom, constantly testing rhetoric, bouncing away from whatever undermines its plan like a Roomba evading a chair.
For years, it was into the NBA as ascendant. This was the good league, the progressive venture that will rescue us from the NFL’s knuckle-dragging depravities. The young, social media-savvy Blue State NBA was here to unseat older, redder football. It was our nation’s trajectory, as inescapable as time itself.
But what if the NBA actually lost a shitload of fans? What did that say about the country and its future? Nobody in sports media had much considered that possibility. When that result arrived, it needed to be pretended away. The public could not be made too aware.
I doubt many or any sports media types are sitting around and literally thinking, “We must suppress knowledge of public sentiment because apres cette, le deluge.” And yet, many if not most sports media types appear to be engaged in a never-ending lecture aimed at the supposed troglodytes who hold back sports with their backwards opinions. These rubes need to be led, sternly, or they won’t get the message. A low-volume message will not suffice.
So, over morning coffee, you might check Twitter and see that sports writers are exhorting you not to pile on Simone Biles for bowing out of an Olympic competition. Okay, sure, fine. But by the evening, The New Yorker will have upped the ante, telling you that her decision was an act of courageous heroism. Extreme messaging is needed to prevent the unwashed masses from acting in accordance with instinct or tradition. Sports writing, now more than ever, is an act of constant, vigilant, deprogramming of normies, lest their preferences start cascading and we get another Donald Trump.
Outside the Tent
Of course, I wasn’t literally the only person talking about the NBA’s decline. There was someone else, someone who didn’t happen to exist within the prestige media ecosystem.
I’m talking, of course, about Clay Travis, the conflict-loving counterpoint to Stephen A., who acts as a sworn enemy to Smith’s employer. Who is Clay Travis, apart from someone I’m compared to when peers and readers are mad at me? In broad strokes, he’s a lawyer turned sports blogger turned website proprietor turned current Rush Limbaugh replacement on Premiere Networks. So, within a decade, he’s gone from nonpartisan sports blogger to literal heir to Limbaugh. Somewhat related, he’s also probably the most hated man in the sports media ecosystem. By all indications, he enjoys that status.
If I said that Travis has made millions off one central insight, my media peers would agree. They’d just say that insight was about how stupid people want to hear racist shit. Actually that might be the only opinion on Clay Travis’ success that’s accepted within prestige sports journalism. The hatred toward Travis isn’t just resultant from differing opinions, too. He’s also savagely insulted media members, some of whom include my friends. They like to hate him and he likes to hate them. And around we go.
All the noise surrounding Travis distracts a bit from what his main insight is. It’s pretty simple and I think, indisputable: There’s a vast gulf between the worldview of the median sports media member and the median sports fan. That’s fairly “no shit” obvious when you think about it, and yet it seems only Travis, Barstool Sports and a few others have plumbed that massive market inefficiency.
Why do I believe it’s a market inefficiency? Just look at the demographics of American fandom. According to a survey by Morning Consult, the population of daily ESPN watchers is nearly four times as male as it is female. A report by National Media Spots Incorporated relays that the median ESPN viewer age is 48, ten years older than the national median age. According to the same study, 74% of this overwhelmingly male audience owns their homes. Basically, these are demographic clues that point towards conservatism, on average. As for preferences on social issues, we can look to the Civiqs poll, which appears fairly impartial in its constant tracking of trends, despite its progressive organizational backing. As of this writing, Civiqs shows opinions on Black Lives Matter among men as 51% opposed vs. 37% in support. Basically, most men have a take on this social issue that would probably get them fired at ESPN if stated, and that figure might even be undercounted due to polling social desirability bias.
Put another way, the common sports fan is likely somewhat conservative. Yet, mainstream sports media is almost uniformly progressive in its messaging. That’s the enormous chasm between vendor and customer that Travis just waltzed right through, whatever you think of him. And yes, Travis can be an asshole, no doubt about that, but the bigger question is why he’s almost alone in making this shift, profitable as it’s been. While Travis is viewed in my industry as a rogue moral freak for backing Trump and rejecting ESPN’s suite of social positions, he’s probably playing to the majority of sports fans and “mainstream” ESPN is not. Indeed, the mainstream is attempting to talk its audience out of their preferences rather than playing to them.
Clay Travis also gleefully celebrates the NBA’s TV ratings troubles. It’s an example of how the NBA has become a proxy, an avatar, sometimes unfairly. In the 2020-21 season, chastened by the audience drop of the 2020 playoffs, the league really ramped down the political messaging. So did the NBA lose its status as the archetypal woke league? Nope, it maintains that status among conservatives, especially when failure strikes.
So what gives? Why is Travis so hard on the NBA? Sometimes, a sports media pundit goes fourth wall and actually tells you the point of an act. I was sort of hoping for this when I’d heard that Travis explained the why of his coverage on the NBA’s declining television ratings:
Some people say why do you cover this? Because I think facts matter. And also, let me just say this. Adam Silver, or any of your other stooges at the NBA. Mark Cuban. Lotta different people in the NBA who pay attention, maybe somebody at ESPN who’s been doing the ball washing for the NBA. All I want you to acknowledge is this. That deciding to embrace far leftwing politics, writing Black Lives Matter and social justice slogans on your jerseys, tanked the overall NBA brand, to the point where the worst two series viewerships of any of our lives, just about, have happened last year and this year. The overall audience for the NBA has collapsed. I think the NBA needs to apologize to American sports fans for being woke and getting broke when it comes to their rating. For listening to the blue checkmark brigade members on Twitter and not recognizing who their true audience was. People who love sports but don’t want their athletes speaking politics all day long, every day.
This “get woke, go broke,” battle cry of the right pops up here. From that perspective, it’s a thesis as much as it is a dream: That the pushers of their enemy ideology go bankrupt by disenchanting the masses. On the one hand, the believers in GWGB are correct that these corporations do disenchant many people with their messaging. On the other hand, most of these companies won’t go broke, either. They’ve already too much command of the marketplace in an era where technology scales up advantages past the point of contestation. Plus, conservatives are just too institutionally weak at the moment to mount the kinds of pressure campaigns that scare corporations. Still, GWGB gets at something, a possibly combustible component buried within the culture.
By the way, Travis is giving terrible advice here, in my opinion. The NBA would gain nothing from admitting to errors and would cast all their past social justice signaling as some sort of failed PR ploy. Their admission of fraudulence would be seen as a guilty plea to those who hate them, all the while infuriating their loyalists who believed. So, is Travis serious in offering this advice? I think he’s at least serious about wanting this big apology to happen. For one thing, it would represent a potential preference cascade in his direction.
The NBA disavowing social justice and admitting that the league lost potential billions on it would be a strong signal to the other leagues. If pro basketball, our archetypal Blue State sport, disavows wokeness, more conservatives gain credibility and courage. Maybe other corporations start listening to them. One domino falls, then another, and pretty soon ESPN is dismissing its more ideological lefty employees. Hell, maybe they swing back to the weird post-9/11 era, when ESPN hired Rush Limbaugh to do football commentary. Perhaps in that universe, Travis gets brought on to be the boss of all these people who hate him.
And then what? Population preferences can move quickly, sometimes with sports as a starting point. In 532 AD, huge crowds flooded the streets of Constantinople, burning portions of the city and threatening to topple Emperor Justinian in a rebellion that led to 30,000 lives lost. The cause? Fans of the local chariot racing teams were livid that Justinian was refusing to release chariot team members from prison. If that sounds silly, our nation’s revolution got rolling over a tea tax.
The point is, nobody really knows what can happen when long hidden but commonly held preferences cease to be private. The “slow clap” effect of a few informing the preference of the many can be fast indeed. Most recently, we can look to Afghanistan, of all places. Nobody, at least among those paid to know, appeared to anticipate the rapidity of the Taliban’s nationwide conquest. Yet cascades washed over the Khyber Pass, as secrets turned stated.
We are a much different nation, with different problems and different pathologies. Right now, one side of the country dominates the other on the cultural and bureaucratic front, while maintaining an advantage on the political front. Maybe you think the dominated deserve their position, but regardless of your take on who deserves what, it’s hard to deny the current dynamic. Maybe this means that the dominated side is doomed, relegated to the past as the nation’s self-concept shifts. The dominated side clearly isn’t in charge of what’s taboo, which is why their preferences are more often hidden, even in the instances when those preferences are majority views.
Could their views one day become majoritarian positions, in private and in public? That possibility feels distant, and, if my colleagues have anything to do with it, remote as the Khyber. Yet it exists, and as long as it does, it will be vigorously guarded against.
The guards do not want the majority to know that they are the majority, at least on certain issues. Most of these opinion gatekeepers aren’t evil. Many are well intentioned. They’re just dictating norms from the top, because they believe them to be the best norms.
There’s a lot of power behind that dictation, though, and it’s the kind of power that inspires preference falsification. The media speak loudly and carry a big stick. As a collective, we really can dox you and ruin your life over an opinion. Corporations care what we think. They don’t want one of their employees to make the news as a negative example, so they voluntarily police employee speech in accordance with our priors. The pushback and ensuing friction comprise much of “the culture war.”
Remember the Stephen A. doctrine: “It’s incumbent on those who are quote-unquote ‘on the right side of history’ to squash those who are dissenters to normalcy, decency and decorum and things of that nature.”
“Normalcy” is defined by the definers, and not by normal people. Meanwhile, until a day when the dam breaks, tens of millions stay quieter than walled water.