Dissensus

John Michael Greer uses a wonderful term in his latest post on the Archdruid Report:

I’ve argued here that the best approach to an unpredictable future is dissensus: that is, the deliberate avoidance of consensus and the encouragement of divergent approaches to the problems we face.

I don’t bring this up to enter into any blog-war he might be involved in. It describes an essential element of what I see we’ll need a lot of in coming days/years. This term ties together the mechanisms of evolution with the workings of humility. The population of a species facing extreme survival pressures measures its chances by the amount of dissensus it harbors within it. This may seem counter-intuitive; but let’s repeat it: the greater dissensus within a stressed population, the greater chance it has of finding a new path that may pass through the bottleneck threatening it. This applies genetically as well as behaviorally/socially.

Raised on a chorus of cries for solidarity or conformity – each side of the political binary having its own preferred term for ensuring agreement – it’s so hard to consider that a cacophony of disparate voices might be beneficial. This isn’t diversity, multiculturalism or, any other call for altruistic live-and-let-live. It’s also not a call for dissension in the sense of willfully creating chaos and confusion. The beauty of the term dissensus is the way it captures a conscious value in the existence of a dizzying array of traits, viewpoints, and talents on the off-chance that some of them might find fertile ground within a destabilizing and deteriorating situation.

This doesn’t mean displacing value judgments with uncritical acceptance of diversity. It does denote an actively ambiguous relationship to a wide array of voices including parties and views we would judge to be our adversaries, even enemies – no matter how good our reasons for that conclusion. This is where dissensus touches on humility. It gives a reason for humility’s question, “Who am I to judge?”

We resist destabilization. We rightly value stability. Many of us are now fighting for resilience, the ability to maintain a form of stability in the face of external changes. What dissensus points to is that this is an evolutionary box canyon. The entry seems familiar and copious; but there is no exit. It maintains comfort within the status quo even as the status quo becomes increasingly untenable. (I’m not quite ready to unpack Richard Sennett‘s contributions to this right now, more on that when I get back to respect.)

Embracing dissensus implies a process of actively and passively looking for and accommodating to what might be the opposite of resilience: a letting go, an acceptance of the chaotic, not only as the true state of our condition; but as the only way past it.

You hit what you’re aiming at. When you search for stability, or even resilience, in a time of chaotic change and a closing off of options you will get stability. The only stability left, death. Your resilience will keep you tied to this course until there is no other option. Dissensus at such times may be the only way forward.

Look at any of the choke-points in evolutionary history and you’ll see how this has worked. Minority, even aberrant malfunctions within the previous regime all-of-a-sudden become life-saving adaptations to new conditions. The key is how the new normal conditions settle into, and the particular set of traits that end up being useful adaptations to it, were impossible to predict before the fact.

This kernel of insight was unavailable before. This mechanism has always worked; but its workings were outside awareness. This is one of the key new factors we carry with us into this uncharted territory.

A while back there was a minor fuss over a breathable fluid, seen as of possible use for deep-sea diving or space exploration. A video showed a mouse struggling with its gag reflex, trying not to drown before giving up and then successfully breathing the new mixture. It became one of the conceits in the movie The Abyss…. What brings it to mind is a similarity, the need to repress a normally life-saving instinctive reaction, to avoid what we know to be dangerous, even deadly. So as to take advantage of something that had never before been possible. Our fear of chaos and distrust of dissensus is that kind of reaction.

*  *  *

I’ve been struggling with the death of movements for some time. I’ve known this was a good thing; but didn’t know how to talk about it. Greer’s term dissensus has given me a new way in.

Remember hearing about an autistic woman who designed more humane entry-ramps for abattoirs? She was able to see the world from a cow’s perspective and eliminate triggers that might set off their anxieties and create panic as cattle approached that last door. She was good at it, and it provided a slight improvement for these poor animals in their last moments, trapped in industrial agriculture their entire lives.

This is what movements have provided us over the last century. For every success they may have achieved, they have put more people in line for humane culling. A path was chosen. People lined up to follow it. They were fed an appetizing gruel, entertained, and their morale was boosted. This kept them contained until the moment of truth. The passage through that last door. Even violent movements, perhaps especially violent movements, suffered this fate if we look at them long-term.

We tend to think nostalgically of the propaganda, the mythology of movements, instead of their reality. There were a few genuine mass-movements that did accomplish laudable goals; but the reality for most people was of being enveloped within an illusion of solidarity-in-struggle while they were further marginalized and prepped for destruction. This is what we see today in a carefully stage-managed way in the faux movements of the so-called populist right. Zoom out to the level of mass-extinction and global collapse and show us a movement that has had any useful impact.

It’s way past time to be nostalgic for the lack of a coherent message to coalesce a movement around. Instead of bemoaning the death of movements we need to see this as a welcome development. When the forces of Mono – mono-everything – are joined together in a dance of death this is the time to embrace dissensus. Not as an ultimate paean to individuality, another shibboleth of modernity. Let us realize that even views, practices, and characteristics which go against everything we – in our own individuality, believe – may hold the key to a way forward. Not in any predictable, plan-able way; but within the unknowable twists and turns of evolution.

This does free us from the need to lash out at opponents simply because we disagree with them; but it also imposes a new burden. The need to appreciate acceptance when things do not go our way. This is the end of “Better Dead than Red!” The end of “Killing them to save them.” The end of any notion of a “master plan” where we can delude ourselves into knowing better than….

We don’t. We cannot. This starts at the level of thought and discourse; but reaches right down to questions of survival and self-preservation. These values can no longer be seen as always good. Instead of looking to some heaven as recompense for the necessity of our death or seeking resignation at the workings of a preordained Fate; we might begin to allow ourselves the release at that ultimate moment, recognizing that our passing just might open a door for the world to go on.

The sander beckons. Back out to prep and paint my walls. Worrying about the old roof…. The concerns of approaching Autumn. Dissensus, I’m glad to have made your acquaintance.

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29 thoughts on “Dissensus

  1. Bravo Tony – this adds necessary flesh to the bare bones of Greer’s dissensus, a broader sense of what this indeed essential term marks an emerging awareness of. What feels interesting in the moment is how this awareness is becoming present, but being new lacks embedded, understood ways of speaking and embodying dissensus. As you observe, neither the dead end road of consensus-building, nor the weak platitudes of ‘respecting diversity’, are adequate to present circumstances; but such are the known routines we fall back on. In the Greer / Hopkins wrangle, I’m struck how an emergent respect for dissensus is clearly there on both sides, yet still the assumption of a covert power-struggle for the hearts and minds of would-be adapters hovers over their exchange. I guess this is the mouse gagging until it learns to breathe in the new medium.

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    1. Catherine,

      I’m so glad to see your response! I must admit as I write some of these – more and more often it seems – I’m not quite sure if ‘This one” hasn’t just gone over the edge. An enthusiastic and understanding response means so much at times like these!

      I was impressed by the way Greer was handling the “controversy.” I haven’t read Hopkins’ side. What you say makes sense, that the power-struggle has been manifested more by erstwhile “followers.”

      I do believe the question of movements, the death of movements, as a follow-on to the death of ideology, is going to be a significant driver; if we are to get beyond the paralysis of the present situation. Marketing ideas and building armies of followers will not help us. What, and how, this will play out is still unknown. Dissensus is a clue.

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  2. Chaos in my soul
    gives birth to
    a dancing star

    At my back I hear
    heisenberg’s footsteps
    drawing near

    Black swans emerge
    from virtual reality’s
    hidden realm

    Chuang Tzu’s butterfly
    haunts my
    daytime dreaming

    When will the soft rain
    fall once again
    on the hard dry ground
    of my secret heart

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  3. Thank you for your insightful and provocative essay, Antonio. It set my mind in a buzzing state of resonance. Ignorance is the basis of creativity. Uncertainty is the foundation of freedom. The unexpected is the blessing of the Beyond. No man knows the hour of our deliverance.

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  4. Hi Antonio,

    came here via leaving babylon and mike k’s recommendation. Bravo again- dissensus fleshed out nicely. Perhaps comparable to biodiversity within a population, and ‘hopeful monsters’ being available when a big ol’ catastrophe wipes out the expected living conditions for which a species has evolved? (I suspect – without having read enough Stephen Jay Gould – that this is what he is on about with the concept of ‘punctuated equilibrium’).

    For me, the most ‘oh my god’ moment in your post was the comparison of Temple Grandin’s work on abattoir design and social movements. Talk about expanding the floor of the cage!!

    Further, the concept reminds me of the idea that the major parties of the left and right that we have in modern democracies are like the good cop and the bad cop in interrogation rooms. One curses and threatens, the other pretends to be your friend…

    All best wishes

    Dwight Towers (who didn’t like Dark Mountain,
    http://dwighttowers.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/dire-mountain-more-abysmal-than-abyss-mal
    but then, diff’rent strokes for different folks…)

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    1. Dwight Towers,

      Glad to meet you under these more amenable circumstances!

      I tended to get defensive concerning criticisms of Dark Mountain this summer having gone 2,700 miles to get there in May! I’m not sure how reasonable I was in every case…

      Stephen jay Gould was my introduction to punctuated equilibrium; things are stable, until they ain’t! I do see dissensus as the behavioral, attitudinal, and conceptual equivalent of biodiversity applying to humans and others.

      I hadn’t heard Chomsky’s phrase, “expanding the floor of the cage,” it does cover a lot of what I find myself doing.

      The two party system gives us a choice to love harsh authority or look to the “concerned opposition” for relief, the classic abusive situation.

      On the Beach, book and movie, were formative events of my youth. Of course, I loved all of Nevil Chute’s books. Did you ever see James Stewart in No Highway in the Sky?
      “I just saw the lever… and I pulled it!”

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  5. A lot of what we are doing on this thread is brainstorming. This can be frustrating and inconclusive. On the other hand, it can also be fascinating and rewarding. I refer those interested in going deeper to the Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker article “In The Air”, available on Gladwell’s website.

    Those of us who have a serious interest in the massive problems humankind is facing now, and in finding solutions for them, are hoping to generate some ideas that will lead to real world solutions. This is not a trivial game. We soon discover in pursuing it, that some of the most serious obstacles to our success originate in the personalities of ourselves and our fellow inquirers. This is not only unavoidable, but can be seen as a felicitous opportunity to work on our own “stuff”, and learn to deal with the sometimes difficult manifestations of others.

    After all, in some sense, our problems are of our own making. A man’s, or a nation’s character is its fate. Our problems are not in our stars, but in ourselves. A better world requires better people. Better people come about through confronting and working through their hang-ups, and finding a path of transcendence. There are no effective substitutes for this challenging process. Either we become truly healed of our dysfunctions, or we will continue to spread them abroad, and suffer the consequences. External fixes will only delay the essential task of working on ourselves. Time is short. But there is still time.

    If you are thinking that this all sounds like religion or psychotherapy, you are right, and also wrong. We need new bottles for the new wine. New frames that bypass the errors of past formulations. Discovering/creating these new vehicles, pathways, modalities is an important part of the work ahead…

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  6. Hello fellow Dark Mountaineer. I’m delighted to have discovered your blog, and astonished at how familiar, how “well of course!”, your writing strikes me, though I’ve never read your words before. Reading your writing is like having a conversation with an old friend, one who really understands. John Michael Greer takes issue with Rob Hopkins over the Transition Movement, but it is your words on resilience that really make his point. We are, as you say, at the End of Movements. My guess is that most people have no idea what that means, how truly terrifying it is, how much they would have to let go to really embrace it. Deep thoughts, old friend. Glad to have met your acquaintance.

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  7. The illusion that there is an answer to our problems is a persistent distraction. There is only the never ending process of enquiry, discovery, and new creation. The way beyond our present difficulties is the Way. If we choose to follow it (and it is ever changing, uncertain, and mysterious — we may be gifted with a higher order of problems….

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    1. Mike,

      Problems are part of life. It seems simplistic, but that’s just the way it is. Unless, there’s a way to look at the situations and conditions we label problems in another way. It’s possible that seeing problems everywhere is a symptom, not a condition. The trick in looking into this question is not getting side-tracked into “motivational” chicanery….

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  8. Hi Antonio,
    sorry for lateness of reply! Read a bunch of Nevil Shute’s stuff, and intend, on sabbatical, to read and blog about them all. Haven’t seen the James Stewart film, but it sounds fab!

    A couple of weeks ago I read “Pied Piper” – good, but not as good as Landfall, Requiem for a Wren, and, of course, On the Beach!

    Will keep you posted on the Shute/blogging project, and would love your comments/guest blogs on any of the novels.

    Best wishes

    “Dwight Towers”

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