The problem with Most People
An exploration of the meaning of majority, and how much of our culture is driven by cohorts much smaller than half.
That’s the problem with it.
“most people” think this, or “most people” say this or “most people” do this. Or that. Most People.
But it seems that when many (if not most) of us say “most people,” we are saying “some people that I know about.” Or “people like me.”
In this political season, you will see characterizations about what “most people” think, say or do. People who are liberal, people who are conservative, presuming that most of the world agrees with them.
But what is “most?”
Half of a group plus one?
“Most” is seen as a very democratizing word. It means more than half. 50% plus one is NOT everyone.
Yet our society is driven by cohorts much smaller.
Case in point – The Super Bowl.
Really big game. There have been 46 of them. In 2012, more people in the United States watched the Super Bowl than have ever viewed ANY television program – an estimated 111.3 million people watched via broadcast, plus another estimated 2 million online via the NFL and NBC. Huge. The most watched television program in American history.
- And for the first time, a lot of streaming video of the Super Bowl, so more than 2 million watched online, too.
- Even bigger than the number of viewers turned in for the final episode of the groundbreaking TV series “MASH” in 1983 (which was still nearly 106 million estimated viewers). The ratings company A.C. Nielsen estimates that the halftime show by Madonna had an estimated 114 million people tuned in.
That is a lot of people. But ponder this:
In the United States, if we go by what the ratings tell us, MOST PEOPLE DID NOT WATCH the Super Bowl in 2012?
The February 2012 population of the United States registered in at more than 312 million people.
I believe that a majority of my friends and associates watched at least part of the game. It seemed like everybody on Facebook.com that I know was commenting about it.
The Super Bowl was the universal meme for a nation.
More than half of the country did not watch.
“Most people” did not watch the Super Bowl. The biggest, most unifying media event of our age, and more people watched it than ever, but a majority of Americans did not watch.
The most unifying American sports event of our age is a MEDIA event. We in the media are about presenting our perspective, our view, our marketing, our public relations. It is a world view from one point of view. It is not all points of view.
As this nation is wrestling with another presidential election season, the journalism, advertising, punditry and commentary can be exhausting to keep up with. With so much media and information available, the volume of it whizzing past is beyond comprehension.
So, those of us in media try to give a shorthand version. When we say, “most people want lower taxes,” or “most people want birth control to be free,” we are sometimes paraphrasing specific outcomes of surveys. This isn’t a result of democracy or statements of truth. It is a projection of a point of view to give a quick and easy answer.
This approach to information is convenient. It is also reckless and unfair to the facts.
One of the biggest problems with “most people” (the phrase, not the people) is that even if it is NOT inflating the power or viewpoint of the “most” group, it is often disregarding the “other” people not in the “most.”
There are people who are older than you or younger than you who have none of your shared cultural references. There are people of different gender with a totally different view. Race, ethnic background, religion (and please, that is a very broad palate) or non-theism, education, physical ability…the list of our differences is long.
When you recognize America as a complex collection of diverse people, hopes, experiences, abilities and accomplishments, the folly of using the phrase “most people” can begin to sink in. The beauty of our representational democracy is that we can find a way for most people to live together with opportunity and responsibilities that we agree to as a part of our compact with each other as Americans.
Beyond a few certitudes, in journalism, in life, in art, we are trying to discern what matters.
Most people breath. Most people eat.
Having more than half of a population care about something. Most people eligible to vote in the presidential election of 2008 DID vote (62%)
The electorate was the most diverse in US History.
But it is also the case that most people in the US who were eligible to vote did not vote for the president in office. More voting-eligible people did NOT vote as people who voted for the winner. That is almost always the case in America.
As you listen to the rhetoric of anyone – in culture, art, government – if they speak of certitude about what “most people” want, they are leaving some people, and often, many people, out.
We will never all agree, but we are all in this together. How we manage to accommodate our differences is the challenge that civil society must learn over and over.
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