Media, Public Opinion, and the Iron House

"Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?"

"But if a few awake, you can't say there is no hope of destroying the iron house."

Preface, Call to Arms (Cryout), Lu Xun


The influential Chinese revolutionary writer Lu Xun writes the “suffocating iron house” as a metaphor for pre-revolutionary, semi-colonial China’s misery political situation. My broader interpretation of his “iron house” is a metaphor for our global society that breeds war, exploitation, and inequality. In my colloquium, I would like to discuss how the Iron House is created by the system, by the sovereign and is fundamentally shaped by public opinion. How media, as a form of communication and expression of information and opinion through various mediums, impacts the formation of public opinion, people’s perception, and their reaction to the real world.


In Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, he describes the formation of the Leviathan similar to the construction of my Iron House. The Leviathan, a metaphor for the state, is described, as an artificial person whose body is made up of all the bodies of its citizens, and the head is the sovereign. According to Hobbes, humans naturally live “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” lives in the “state of war” where every man is against every man (24). Humans construct the Leviathan through contracts in order to escape the state of war. Historically, the head of the Leviathan, the sovereign, was to blame when things went wrong, when violence was tolerated, when innocents suffered. Who is the head of the Leviathan? Are they presidents, politicians, news network owners, financiers and heads of big corporations? The unseen, cold, ambitious man? Hobbes disagrees. Every subject is “the author of his sovereign” (99). The sovereign and the Iron House are the public’s collective creation.


Living in the Iron House, it seems like humans generate and accept war, poverty, inequality, etc. Is it because humans are habitually bad and irrational? Is it because of bad environmental influences? Confucius, Aristotle and psychologist Philip Zimbardo value environment’s influence on humans’ actions for their own reasons. Growing up in a Confucian society, I believe in the possibility of a perfect human. Confucian scholars state that the purpose of existence is to reach one's highest potential as a human being: a "perfect person"(Confucius 30). Confucianism values the power of education. No matter if human nature is good, bad or complicated. Confucius believes people are teachable, improvable through communal endeavor and self-cultivation. Furthermore, Aristotle believes in the environments’ power to improve humans as well as corrupt them. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle considers that human’s self-control is weak so that they are easy to be seduced by external goods; such as sex, money and even wisdom people do bad things for temporary pleasure. Similar to Aristotle, the author of The Lucifer Effect, Psychologist Philip Zimbardo believes that environment turns good people evil. He designed an experiment where students formed a simulated prison to test how good people make bad choices under external influence. He focuses on understanding the nature of the bad barrel of prisons that can corrupt good guards. According to his theory, barrel stands for a closed environment and war is the largest barrel, transforming ordinary, even good men and women into killers. The environments have tremendous influence on how people act.


People perceive their environments through media, according to progressive journalist Walter Lippmann’s argument in Public Opinion. Lippmann opens his book with Plato’s cave allegory where Plato sees the public as chained prisoners with a fire behind can only see shadows in front; knowledge is impossible for those who remain in the cave. Lippmann, following Plato’s philosophy, writes: “the world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined.” As a result, people produce their “pseudo-environments”, “interior representations of the world”, which are “a determining element in thought, feeling and action” (Lippmann 13). People’s actions are based on pictures in their heads and information given to them, and are often not based on direct knowledge. Thus, media, the messenger, becomes the director of public opinion, and public opinion is the director of humans’ actions.


Plato, Walter Lippmann and Susan Sontag argue that people would not listen to intellectuals instead of manipulators of public opinion. In the Republic Book VI, Plato visualizes the state as a ship at sea, with “the pilot” who steers the ship, “the master”(the public), “the sailors” who fight over the control of the ship to become “the pilot”, and a true pilot, the only one who knows navigation. Plato uses the parable to explain why the true pilot is hard to find and its voice is hard to hear (488). Walter Lippmann concludes his book Public Opinion with an argument about Plato’s “ship of the state” parable. Lippmann agrees with Plato, saying that people “are more interested in themselves than in anything else in the world”(95). Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others claims that there are people who would do anything to stay untouched. War news, celebrity scandals, sensational reports are everywhere. It seem like some may conclude that most people watch news for entertainment rather than educational purpose. Is it truly people’s choice? Is it TV networks’ economic and political choice? The weakness of people’s rationality makes the public vulnerable to propaganda and advertisements that has been taking over media; it makes the manipulation of pictures in people’s heads easy and allows the manufacture of public opinion. I think the limited but powerful public opinion should not be influenced by politics and business in a democratic society because the public is not well educated enough to tell opinion from truth.


Ideally, media should form healthy public opinion, pursuing truth, protecting the public’s rights to know. There are a three examples when media, not controlled by political force and money, showed us its capability. In 1972, during the Vietnam War, AP photographer Nick UT took a Pulitzer Prize winning picture portraying a napalm-burned, Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc. People looked at it and said, “this war has got to end”(Chong Foreword). The photograph showed the public the terrifying human cost of war and how wrong and destructive it was. It gave the public a solid person to sympathize with which is the core power of photojournalism. In 1988, Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning filmmaker, made a documentary film “the Thin Blue Line” investigating the case of Randall Dale Adams who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murder. The film proves five witnesses committed perjury. Approximately a year after the film's release, the case was reviewed and he was released from prison. Excellent investigative journalism has the ability to expose lies and discover truth. In 2010, Chelsea Manning (born as Bradley Manning), an intelligence analyst serving in Iraq, leaked classified documents, including Iraq war log, to Wikileaks. Wikileaks is an online journalistic organization whose slogan is “we open governments.” Though Manning is sentenced to prison for 35 years, the public cared about and learned information beyond pictures in their heads.


Media shapes the public’s perception, and greatly impacts people’s reaction to reality. As the director of public opinion, media should educate and inform the public. People want to know what is happening and they want something done about it; they want to punish wrongdoers and help the innocent.