Ideology works through the process of consensus. Someone’s ideas gain followers and a movement is born to support these ideals and find ways to garner wider support; either through negotiated agreement or through some form of overt or covert coercion. Some movements gain broad support. Others limp along, held in high regard by a few and disparaged or ignored by the rest. Our institutions function by finding ways to harness the forces of ideological consensus and use them to their advantage. Ideologies that support the desires of those in power are brought into the circle of power. Those that oppose, or are of no use to those in charge, are suppressed, destroyed, or ignored.
The motivational force behind these cauldrons of ideological conflict is consensus.
Consensus: the finding and nurturing agreement. What could be wrong with that?
On a superficial level of contingency, nothing. “How else can anything get done?” We might ask.
But what lies behind our desire for consensus?
Let’s look at the way thought generates and perpetrates the illusion that there is a thinker behind our thoughts. We find ourselves immersed in what appears to be an internal monologue – when it appears to be external, but is taking place inside our heads, it is called schizophrenia. The procession of thoughts we experience and the way they influence and even shape what we consider to be our direct perceptions in ways that can significantly alter what we consider to be our external world and the behavior of others; all of this; seems to make sense if we accept that there is an “I,” a thinker, somewhere inside of us who is directing and controlling our thoughts. This conclusion also leads us to believe that our emotional reactions, which do take place within our physiological organism, have external causes. “He made me mad!“
This combination of beliefs leads us to act on the basis of these two fundamental errors and, unsurprisingly, chaos results. Our reaction to this uncertainty and danger is to double-down. It confirms our beliefs. We can and must control, not only our thoughts, but great swaths of the external world! We react to emotions that are forced on us by others. “We’ll show them who’s boss!”
We redouble our efforts, but the chaos only deepens. This leads to increased stress and the whole operation becomes more fraught with stress’ by-products. Our various faiths; resting in some super, all-powerful reflection of our own sense of our own Ego that we insist is in charge; takes various and multitudinous forms; from hyper-emotionalism to über-rationalism. These do little to calm us.
Our original insistence that there is an “I” separate from all others, from everything else, is at the heart of our disquiet. We are thrown into isolation.
To counter that isolation, and to better play the game of numbers and force/counter-force, we seek consensus. We imagine consensus to be a way of proliferating coherence. I find a certain coherence in an ideal, and if I can convince, first my “self” and then others of its validity, then I will not be alone. I will have allies in the perpetual struggle for supremacy that I have projected onto the world. A projection which has actually changed the world to match its expectations in a number of very real ways. I marshal justice and righteousness to my cause. I heap blame, and vent my hatred, on those who oppose me. My fellows can do no wrong! My enemies are an abomination, and deserve whatever “evil” they get as their reward for being wrong.
And the chaos only deepens and spreads. Unintended consequences proliferate. The “cause of justice” is ever-more elusive. We decamp from being alive and attempt more and more to live elsewhere; in the future, on this world or the next.
And the chaos only deepens and spreads.
When we are caught within a compelling illusion this is exactly what we can expect. Countless simple, prosaic examples of this abound. Pilots tricked by exhaustion and some quirk of perception into carrying their insistence that the evidence before their eyes is wrong right on into disaster. The only way to stay alive – they believe – is to do exactly the wrong thing. They persist until the ground reaches out to take them. Someone driving a car and they confuse the brake for the accelerator and vice-versa. “I don’t know what happened! The car just took off! The harder I tried to stop, the faster it went!” Lost hikers walking in circles, convinced that a familiar landmark is just beyond that next tree.
These are losses of proprioception, of an awareness of the connection between an effect and one’s own doing that lead to it. David Bohm used the compelling example of a woman suffering a stroke in her sleep, waking up in the dark, terrified that she was being attacked by an unseen assailant. When her cries were heard and a caregiver entered her room and turned on the light she discovered it was her own arm that was hitting her. The more she felt its blows – the nerves in charge of her awareness of her body’s movements were damaged while her sense of pain was not – the harder she “fought back,” and the more she felt the need to escalate her efforts to defend herself.
Bohm’s great insight was that this is what we do when we posit that thinker behind the thought and insist that our emotional reactions are controlled by those we interact with. We are confusing the wiring. We have it exactly reversed. Thought exists as a field of habits and concepts and perceptual strategies. We receive these from various sources and we store much of this in memory which generates our conditioning, as though we were programing ourselves like a computer. Our emotions are not caused by others or our circumstances, they arise out of our reactions to external events, or internal perceptions, and they are the one thing we do have an ability to affect without recourse to any outside assistance.
Internalizing thought, and positing an “I” behind it, is at the root of our isolation from a world, a universe that is – as countless traditions and contemporary physics and biology are also confirming – one; a seamless interweaving of energy embodied in a myriad of forms that continually transform, evolve, and flow into and through each other. Bohm likens our relationship to this unity, as we approach it from within our insistence on separation, to the difference between looking at a complex clock mechanism in a watch and understanding how its parts function within the whole, and taking a hammer to that watch and smashing it to bits in the expectation that we can in this way learn its workings from examining the scattered fragments we’ve reduced it to.
John Boyd‘s life work was delving into the space in which perception and action interact within complex and violent circumstances. He was a fighter pilot, and his entire life was lived within a fighter’s unexamined warrior’s code. He sought answers to benefit his side in combat. What he discovered has applications he was unable to articulate within his milieu. Perhaps he was ultimately unaware of them also, but that doesn’t change the fact that he condensed a wide range of insights into our physical and psychological conditions that lay out a sweeping corrective for much of our misperception. It is sad, but not surprising, that his insights have been buried by a military caste that has insisted on deploying his specific recommendations for war-fighting – although even here in a piecemeal and ultimately perverse manner – while ignoring the wider implications of his work.
Boyd’s contribution to the matter at hand was an articulation of the way our interactions with perception and the actions of others and our own reactions and on and on; confirm what the physicist Bohm and others had been saying about the foment of reality and our inability to encompass it as a whole from within any single and unavoidably partial view. In effect: coherence, our perception of coherence at any given time – or of its lack – is always partial. It is provisional.
If coherence is always elusive and provisional then what does that say about our obsession with consensus?
Consensus will lead us to find support for maintaining the illusion that today’s, or more likely yesterday’s, coherence will remain in force if we can get enough others to agree with us.
Whenever we wonder why we act counter to any significant understanding of our best-interest, this is why. We take the hard work and luck required to forge a momentary coherence, and we then squander it on maintaining belief and allegiance to that image of coherence, as the universe marches on, and everything that led to whatever kernel of truth that might have been attached to some original insight has been altered so that our continued insistence on its continued relevancy forces us to accept what now amount to lies.
This is incredibly pernicious! I could even be accused of doing just this, as I write to put forward thinking that has passed through my hands. I could easily be seduced into the comforts of consensus, surrounding myself with acolytes, allies and partners while working to depose my enemies and “The Foes of Truth,” as I proclaim it. It is difficult not to do this! Especially as there are all sorts of short-term advantages that accrue from successfully building a movement.
Krishnamurti’s life and work is a great example of how this can be resisted, and how difficult it remains, how persistent, even after the death of the “great man,” to avoid. He was literally raised to be a “savior” within the Theosophical Movement in the first years of the Twentieth Century. Upon reaching his maturity, he refused that mantle and left the movement. Thereafter, he continually resisted and spoke against any effort to take his teachings and generate a cult around himself. One could say he lived a “Life of Brian” in this regard, with countless self-described “followers” aping his words and basking in each others company while fuming with hatred at those they believed to be heretics from the “True Faith.”
The concept of Dissensus, regarded as a useful stand, as opposed to a mere straw-man in opposition to a widely lauded striving after consensus, is central to avoiding this pitfall. It is implicit in Bohm and Krishnamurti’s work, though I haven’t found it used specifically as a term by either. I found it in the writing of John Michael Greer. I’ve written about it at length before now. Here is how it fits into today’s concerns.
If we accept the value of Dissensus, and not through some blending of rational argument and coercive pressure, but through finding the ways in which it is embodied in our own experiencing of life; we have a counter to the ubiquitous pressure on us to seek consensus. As hard as it may be to wrap our thinking around it – it runs counter to the entire enterprise of our habits of negotiating with each other and life – If we can adjust to its veracity, we find examples of it all around us. It is a driving force behind evolution. It is the outlet for all the unintended consequences all around us to create useful impacts on a continuing evolution of life that may be – must be? – the only way life on this Earth will manage to bounce back from all the assaults against it. This has always been the case. Those lurking proto-mice hiding beneath the feet of prowling giant dinosaurs, is one of our favorite examples of this!
If our evolution as humans takes place increasingly in our evolving awareness, then Dissensus is central to the process Bohm called Dialogue. A dialogue differs from a negotiation, or more blatant power-play, in the way its participants use and develop their sense of Dissensus as they interact with each other. The familiar landscape of power and negotiation is left behind and we learn to interact with each other without resorting to the fractionalisms inherent in seeking consensus – every agreement forcing someone else to be seen, or see themselves, as outside the Pale.
Dialogue provides a place in which we practice this unfamiliar behavior, in this way modifying our existing conditioning – we cannot be without some form of conditioning, memory, habit, strains of agreement and disagreement are still central to the way we operate – but they are immersed in a new and evolving relationship between us, and between our senses of our selves and each other, and among us, and within our continuing interactions with the wider world that contains us, and is contained within us.
This is vital and exciting stuff! It cuts through what we have come to believe, in an exhaustion of over-determined willfulness, to be the “human condition;” and opens up a clear view to something else. It does not guarantee any paradise. It does not, it refuses, to accept our vision of the world as a series of problems to be solved in its entirety, and therefore has nothing to say to our urgency, to our striving after solutions that mire us in continuing and deepening confusion. It simply points out illusions that demystify the traps we have continually fallen into. Through these acts of disillusionment it frees us to leave futility behind, and face our lives with renewed vigor and a growing sense of vitality. It opens a direct connection between us and the founts of creativity. It un-blinkers our eyes and awakens our abilities to be more fully-aware witnesses of creation.