Consensus and Dissensus

Once again, Dwight Towers has suggested I use a comment I’ve made on that site as a post here.

This time I may go a little long, adding further comment and breaking any chance at pithiness, so admired in certain quarters

I keep coming back to dissensus as being more important. In false consensus we manufacture consent. In real consensus we are all of a single mind. Neither seems that useful.

Dissensus asks us to let go of righteousness and to accept that others will disagree. That viewpoints we find even abhorrent may have a validity we cannot fathom. It’s not singing Kumbaya. It’s not even necessarily being “nice” to those we disagree with, but it does hold us back from seeing them as enemies to be destroyed.

Behind it all is the possibility that a lack of single-mindedness, while happily less efficient than consensus, is more likely to hedge our bets in an evolutionary sense. It’s not diversity in the social theoretical sense, it’s diversity in an evolutionary sense.

Creatures may compete evolutionarily, but they rarely resort to Jihad or a Final Solutions to achieve it. That restraint is dissensus. Some apes don’t seem to always have that restraint. Us apes have a capacity for a wider empathy and compassion that, at times at least, spreads beyond our clan. We can limit our world to the range of our negotiated settlements, consensus, or we can expand it to include everything by following the lead of our compassion and embracing dissensus.

This doesn’t automatically constrain our actions to exclude anything “not nice,” but it does remove the intoxicating justification we get from being right, “Everybody says so!”

This remains my most disquieted reaction to #OWS, to visions of a new, more efficient way of managing consensus. There is something chilling about a crowd wiggling their fingers to steer opinion. It doesn’t challenge the complicity of consent with all that they find wrong with the world, much, if not most or even all of which I do find myself at least in sympathy with if not agreement. It replaces the form of power manifested in the towers of lower Manhattan with another form of power while never looking into the problematic of power itself. This is why we call it revolution, it is simply a turning of the wheel, replacing one team in the struggle with those united in opposition. Finding a more direct method of measuring, managing, and ultimately controlling consent leaves us poised for more of the same with different players.

Without a deeper critique of power we are falling back on our innocence, and the righteousness that breeds. It never asks us to question our desires, how we are entangled in our conditioning, how we may need to deal with all of that before we focus on running a new exchange for consent in the shadow of the old one.

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

5 thoughts on “Consensus and Dissensus

  1. Gadzooks. Please please let us review the whole consensus sacred cow thing!!!! I am beggin’ ya all…


    1. This is one of the most common “wormholes” that direct any longing for decisive change back along the pathways worn into such deep ruts throughout what we call history.


    1. Consensus comes in many varieties, but they are all tied to the impulse to manage and control. We feel the inception of this every time we “have an idea” and look around us to see if we can find someone to agree with us. What’s commonly implied is that by aggregating agreement we will gain the power to get our way. We all do this. In it’s most basic form this exchange could be said to be an example of it. – This brings up the importance of Bohm’s Dialogue, as a practice in which we acclimate ourselves to interacting outside of the power-play of negotiation after dominance.

      Unless there is an awareness of dissensus and its value we are prone to take any exchange and turn it into an attempt to aggregate agreement for the sake of power.

      Neither impulse is healthy on its own. It’s not a question of “Let’s wipe out consensus! Don’t you agree?!”

      It’s having an awareness that there are questions around both that need to be examined.

      What makes dissensus so intriguing is that, at least to me, it is a new idea. That and the way it connects social evolution to the same principles behind our understanding of genetic evolution, the way traits are entangled with each other, and the way changing circumstances and evolutionary bottlenecks can make it virtually impossible to predict which bundle of traits might be useful at a later date.

      In a way dissensus has its own critique built in, unlike consensus, which seems, on its own, to be something always desirable that should be increased along a linear scale of growth.

      Dissensus doesn’t discount consensus. It only questions its universal application and warns of its abuses and excesses.

      Keeping dissensus alive in our minds puts pressure on us to avoid slipping into a dynamic of power-seeking, ends-justify-the-means mentality. Dealing with its consequences, that we cannot set-off to righteously destroy disagreement, puts pressure on us to find some other way of dealing with the existence of destructive and violent actions around us than simply joining in the melee. This is where, as Alex just pointed out, “humility, perspective, and the maintenance of difference” that dissensus allows us comes into play.


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