Prominent leaders of political, social, religious, and even anti-religious organizations, movements, governments, etc. should not simply echo back what their “constituencies” already think and want to hear—otherwise they would not be leaders at all. But to a certain extent, once it becomes clear that a great many people do associate their views closely with certain leading voices of their collective grouping, does that put an onus on those leaders who in the public mind come to stand for a larger group of people to actually represent them when they wade into controversial issues? Of course, there are natural checks and balances that keep this accurate. If a given leader stops adequately representing those she leads, she will lose her support and the influence that comes with it.
But to what extent should leaders take extra care to distinguish when they are representing an existing consensus among their rank and file and when they are trying to influence their rank and file on a point where there is not settled opinion? To what extent do intellectual, social, political, etc. leaders lose their rights to speak their own minds because doing so would be interpreted as actually communicating the minds of other people and would do so in a misleading way. In other words, if you are perceived to communicate on behalf of others, does what you say not effectively communicate on behalf of others regardless of your intention, and if you are aware of this perception in advance, is it not incumbent on you to assure that such misrepresentations do not occur? If I say something knowing how it will be taken, even if I do not intend that response, aren’t I still responsible for it if I choose to allow it to happen?
Could this even mean in some circumstances that you have to go so far as to curb your own free expression because you realize that no number of protestations will dissuade the general public (or your opponents) not to take what you say to represent your group or movement, etc. itself?
Or, on the other hand, is it unfair to ask leaders to abandon one of their strongest methods of creating consensus that agrees with them, which is precisely by implicitly trading off the perception that they already speak for the group to gain extra persuasive power over members of the group? Often leaders lead quite naturally, and without even expressly trying to be manipulative, by advancing their interpretation as though it were obviously what everyone in the group thinks and the natural persuasive power of their leadership role opens up other members of the group to be more prejudicially in favor of their views and to conform to them.
Is this an immoral or excessively irrational part of persuasion that moral leaders should avoid? Or is it an inevitable and/or morally justifiable part of persuasion, at least in some or most contexts where other factors of one’s leadership are morally approvable? In short, today’s open philosophical question is “What obligations is someone under when she is perceived to speak for a group?”