Against consensus?

German political theorist Jürgen Habermas has just turned 90 – and the puzzle at the heart of his work, perhaps in a telling conversion, continues to invigorate debate. What, where, and who is the public sphere? Should we strive to maintain it? Does it need to be governed by the same principles we favour in politics? Given much ongoing noise about fake news and echo chambers, it is time to revisit one particular part of the debate: consensus.

What is consensus about?

First, what is consensus actually about? We often forget that we don’t need to agree on everything. Instead, we should remember what it means to be good listeners. Just as consensus is the bottom line of deliberation, tolerating adverse opinions comes after hearing them, not before. If we come to think about it, consensus is more means than end.

Consensus as an end is usually held to be a cornerstone of democracy. What does that mean? It means that we want to achieve common understanding, agree on certain basic principles, and take decisions by obtaining majority votes. Unanimous agreement is rare if ever real, and consensus is its closest neighbour. It allows for things to be decided, and for political agendas to move on. So far, so good. But is consensus always the best option?

Is consensus under threat?

Second, those who tend to see a lot of novelty in the Now believe that consensus is under threat. Digital technologies, they say, have fundamentally changed the picture. Today, agreement disintegrates as virtual echo chambers, fake news, and alternative facts polarise society more and more. Consensus, it is argued, needs protection – now more than ever.

This critique is often wedded with calls for safe spaces. Here the idea is that protective surroundings free from discrimination, harassment, and hate speech can facilitate constructive dialogue. The notion is tied to a radical liberalism characteristic of the millennial left, which promotes individualism as the One Way toward emancipation. Safe spaces, in this light, are the ultimate retreat to the comfort zone of customisation, in which we can pick and choose „tailored“ surroundings to move around in.

Only of course this conceals the consumerist back-end of seeking safety: the fact that safety isn’t all, and far from „emancipating“ or „liberating“ at that. Rather, it is symptomatic of a false consciousness at the heart of consensus when sought for its own sake.

Agreement as obedience

Third, let us turn to that dark side of agreement. In their 1988 bestseller „Manufacturing consent“, inspired by PR pioneer Edward Bernays‘ 1947 essay „Engineering consent“, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman first laid out their now famous take on propaganda in capitalism. An argument later taken up by Slavoj Zizek, the idea is that consent can be manipulated as a way of instilling passive acceptance. Essentially a tool of maintaining a status quo, then, consent is „manufactured“ to prevent systemic critique.

The sheer possibility of consensus as a form of governance should serve as a reminder that aiming for consensus alone is not enough. Isolated from some qualifications, seeking common ground can turn into a trap. So when might we not actually want to maintain consensus?

The benefits of disagreement

Given that consensus can preclude further debate, there are times at which dissent is attractive. Actually listening to an opponent on the campaign trail, for example, will always prove beneficial to a candidate. If this doesn’t happen, counterarguments will be ineffective as they do not actually counter what was said before.

But even in social relations, be they digital or „IRL“, seeking out rather than avoiding the opinions we disagree with has advantages. Breaking out of the echo chambers we create on- and offline tends to be revelatory. Unusual opinions are suddenly better understood; the mind of the Other suddenly becomes clearer.

The few times this happens to us tend to be by accident. It could happen more often. And it could happen on purpose. What right-wingers think tends to surprise a left-winger (and vice versa) every time their paths cross. Every time, though, it teaches us something. And every time we erect another barrier preventing that exchange from happening, we make it harder to learn from it.

Instead of no-platforming: public debate

Finally, reflecting on what we mean by consensus helps. So does reflecting on when consensus is desirable – and when it is not. A broad label like „common understanding“ is often in the way of drawing lines between consensus-seeking as democratic procedure; consensus as obedience; and dissent as a virtue.

This is not to join the conservative chorus blasting against so-called „snowflakes“. Rather, it is to suggest that no-platforming is not the only (and in my view not the right) answer to platforming. There is something in between: public debate. Its political importance is a good-enough reason for putting Habermas on the table once again.

Title image: Prosper Lafaye (31 July 1830). „Le Duc d’Orléans traversant la place du Châtelet.“ Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

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