The War on Consensus

Of the many powerfully intelligent, persuasive people in the world, more than half of them say things I strongly disagree with. I read their columns... I understand their words... I follow their logic. Yet, I still disagree. Does this mean I'm immune to the facts? No. Does this make me ideologically rigid and intellectually soft? No.

We are all pawns in a game where people are trying to get us to join their consensus. They want as many people on their side as possible, and they aren't even trying to get us to accept their premise. They just want to chalk us up on their board as a win. They don't care what we have to say or what our personal experience is. They're here to tell us that our perception gives us a wrong view of the world, and that they are smarter than us, and here to correct us. It might make us feel stupid.

In truth, we aren't stupid. We're just playing their game.

Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day...
There are as many different points of view on the value of things in our society, and their relative worth to our lives, as there are different points of view about how we should go about making our lives and the lives of our children better. How should tax rates be determined? What sort of health care choices should we have? What groundwork can we lay for future generations in any and all issues that impact the human race?

I'd like to put out a simple metaphor: picture a house. Now imagine this house sits on a foundation that you find unstable and unacceptable. No item in any of the rooms up above - not the furniture, or the door frames, or food in the cupboards - will help you feel any less at ease about being in the house, or change your mind about its viability as a domicile. Once the house is built around the foundation, it is very tough to transplant those contents to another, very different foundation without obliterating the house.

Every single opinion, solution, statistic on any issue, whether they want you to know or not, is housed on a foundation that you must at first accept to truly embrace. For many pundits and columnists and politicians, their primary task is to obfuscate your basic understanding of that foundation, and to instead accept its above ground contents as is. It's a simplistic strategy, but newsrooms are dominated by quick and easy simplifications of the world because they sell. Such media environments only serve to create more divisiveness. Establishing real consensus is expensive, so getting people on board with trivialities will do, and if you're really smart, you will go ahead and call that consensus. But it isn't. And it never will be.

This guy will always have detractors
Establishing a baseline consensus on many issues will never happen. We will always disagree. The 50/50 split on many of today's big issues is only going to congeal over time; it portends our future. I know that sucks, but it's true. It runs counter to a fantasy world in peoples' minds: the right intellectual or culture warrior comes along and unites everyone with the right facts, and the right research, the right persuasiveness. Then, it's utopia where we all agree on the most basic things. In the information age, however, and in a political process where campaigns and counter campaigns rise up over every single issue and pummel each other for weeks, it's impossible to ever get true consensus. That notion is a myth. In the midst of ruinous, bruising Wars on Terror, Women, Caterpillars, Family Values and Momma Grizzlies, one war remains constant and more true, and that's the War on Consensus. It runs against the interests of the media establishment to ever have true consensus on any one topic. It runs in the interests of that establishment to wage a perpetual war on ideas, one that keeps us perpetually in the dark about how facts are being used in service of the truth, and by whom.

All that doom and gloom comes with a caveat, if you can believe it. There is hope. It's truthy hope, it's sorta 'hopey changey' hope, but it's still hanging around. There are tools you can employ, as an army of one, to fight through some of the confusion.

If we, as citizens and thinkers (we all are, to varying degrees) can come to a common understanding of how we each perceive the inherent value of things (private enterprise, Government services, taxes, different types of work), then we can at least agree to disagree in the most conciliatory way possible: by acknowledging each others' foundations.

When very smart people absolutely want to convince you of something, they may pour out a foundation first. They may do it when you're not around, or behind your back. Maybe they'll hide it from you altogether, or imply it. Either way, the foundation is a premise. Maybe they haven't articulated it all in one speech or column. Maybe they've eked it out in code. No matter what it is, the premise touches on something about human nature. Maybe it's about the meaning of wealth. Maybe it's about the human tendency to follow certain patterns of behavior when challenged. Maybe it's a gender assumption, or a race assumption, or an assumption about a foreign culture or ideology. Maybe it's an assumption about the value of different kinds of Government assistance, or the value of different kinds of work.

Their task is to get your attention with facts that support their reading of history and culture. Your task, however, is to recognize the house's foundation before they dazzle you with the beautiful entryway, or the chandelier, or the golden toilet. No matter the distraction, you must first come to a mutual understanding of where your ethical, moral, and societal foundations are. It may stop a debate cold. It is nobody's place to question you on that, unless you're dealing with a real asshole.

When someone says something I disagree with, it's pointless to try and ding them on the little facts and figures they throw out. Anybody can use the same hard facts in service of multiple narratives. I've touched on this subject many times before. I see and hear it every day in politics, and it's not going away. This stupid, moronic wrangling of statistics to fulfill a specific historical narrative makes absolutely no sense to me. Why do people still think that throwing data at us will convert us and magically create consensus? It doesn't. It makes for intellectual bullying, and the victims walk away with less understanding of the issues. But hey, it's not about coming to an understanding of basic issues, right? It's about playing gotcha with statistics! It's about winning! Go, team!

The master of leading questions and oversimplifications
Arguing with someone about minute details when your underlying sense of reality about a subject differs wildly from theirs, is a pointless exercise in endless, frustrating, back-and-forth. This is the very definition of cable news, which, when its hosts aren't blustering through an echo chamber, is messy nest of wildly different people having a competition about who can hash out more details more convincingly. What you don't often see is a group of people going about articulating their premises with candor and self-reflection. If there was even a single cable news show that did this regularly (arguably, HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher comes close to this, but his own predispositions can sour the discussion) I think the exchange of ideas would be eye-opening and refreshing, more of the time.

If we sat down with each other about such things, then we might start demanding the same accountability from the media more often. That is a mighty big might, yes, but it's better than 'nothing will ever change' and 'we are fated to never, ever truly understand or agree with one another.' Now that's something I hope we never get consensus on.


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