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.
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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.