Common Knowledge and Public Dialogue: When Everybody Knows that Everybody Knows

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We have all probably experienced this phenomenon: something is going on and it’s no secret. Everybody knows and everybody knows that everybody knows, but nobody is (necessarily) talking about it, much less doing anything about it. In his article “Publicity and Pluralistic Ignorance: Notes on the Spiral of Silence,” sociologist Elihu Katz discusses this occurrence in terms of instances where communication will have an effect on perception of a particular situation or series of events, even when such a series of events is a matter of common knowledge.

Katz used the example of a liquor store that is open on Sundays even though a local law prohibits such stores to do business on that day. In many cases, the store can keep its doors open on Sundays as long as the “violation” is not publicly exposed, even though everyone knows what the store is up to, including shoppers, police, and community leaders. However, when public attention is drawn to the situation, whether in a Letter to the Editor or a Town Hall meeting, authorities will overwhelmingly take a public stance and often enforce the law, even though the announcement / letter did not add any new information. Remember, everybody already knew that the store was selling liquor on Sundays, and everyone knew that everyone else knew as well.

Katz discusses the idea that when a situation is publicly exposed, it leaves no room for ambiguity, largely because people cannot “turn a blind eye” to something that has, in fact, been thrust into the public eye.

As I was reading the article, I kept thinking about the recent and very public stance that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder articulated in regard to the Defense of Marriage Act, stating that the act is unconstitutional and instructing the Justice Department to advise courts that the administration does not support the act.

Everybody already knew that, practically and normatively, the federal government does not recognize gay marriage, and everybody knew that everybody else knew. The story was not new, but the public announcement was. And the President’s stance didn’t ultimately change much. After all, the law is still in effect, and the constitutionality will ultimately be for the Courts to decide, not the President or the Executive Branch.

However, the announcement publicized the issue in a major way.

Until the Obama and Holder announcement, media attention had largely been focused on various states’ decisions regarding gay marriage as opposed to the federal government’s standpoint, but the President’s public stance accomplished two key things: it changed the dialogue to focus on the federal government’s position on gay marriage and it caused many public officials to publicly declare which “side they are on.” In fact, a week after the President’s announcement, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced his plan to convene the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to defend the DOMA in the stead of the Justice Department.

But the bottom line is this: the fact that the Executive Branch does not support DOMA does not change anything in practical terms, as the issue is one for the Judicial Branch. However, I think that Katz would agree that by publicly iterating his position, Obama chose how to frame the issue – essentially spinning an “old” issue in a “new” way and forcing others to take notice and take a stance. It can certainly be argued that the President’s public announcement on such a controversial issue may serve to further divide an already polarized Washington, but there is no doubt that by taking a public stance on an issue of common knowledge, the President refocused attention on an issue that was not previously central in the American dialogue despite the fact that “Everybody Already Knew.”