Samples from Chapter 9: The Nature of Consensus


"Getting It Together"

It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree.

Consensus is agreement in judgment or opinion. Disputants try to build consensus for their position among the uncommitted. This chapter explains the dynamics of consensus building and how that influences public controversies. It also provides specifics on how to evaluate consensus in three dimensions.

Democracy assigns importance to consensus. After all, the voters ultimately must support action on controversial issues. In a pluralistic  democracy, however, consensus tends to be both short-lived and shallow. It is difficult to get a diverse population to agree.

Two Dimensions of Consensus

Consensus among a group of people can be evaluated in three dimensions. Let's begin with breadth and depth.

1)   Breadth of consensus -  On a specific issue , how many members of the group agree? 

For example, a great majority of people agree that, in general, traffic laws should be followed. The breadth here is substantial. Still, some exempt themselves from obeying stop signs on lightly traveled roads, others not. Many go far faster than the speed limit when it seems safe, others will obey the law even on a deserted four lane highway. So even where principle is generally honored, specific practice is open for personal decision. Thus, not only the breadth, but the depth of consensus is an important consideration. What is that?

2) Depth of consensus- given consensus on a  specific issue, how many details are agreed to?

People may share consensus on a specific issue, for example, that teenage pregnancies should be reduced; but disagree when it comes to how. Some may advocate more sex education; others, the distribution of birth control devices; others, still, abstinence. Thus the initial consensus dissolves into competing proposals for action.

Depth of consensus explains much about disputes. Consider the political argumentation of elections. Citizens often complain that political candidates avoid discussing issues and overindulge in sloganizing. But  savvy candidates know that slogans are a mechanism for creating consensus and that getting specific risks destroying it. Voters may agree with slogans, but usually have differing ideas on the details. (See Chapter 2 on slogans.)

The Risks of Clarity

We sometimes naively expect that by “getting clearer” we can resolve conflicts. People pushing for greater “clarity,” greater specificity, and probing for hidden disagreements could easily undermine consensus. If we all “really” understood one another, we would disagree on even more.

For this reason, disputants spend a lot of time making issues appear "simpler" than they really are. Where commitment is unclear, obscurity is functional. Superficiality, vagueness and sloganizing in a dispute can be the means for establishing and maintaining a broad, if shallow, consensus.

"Half the work that is done in the world is to make things appear what they are not."—E. R. Beadle

Consider a wedding ceremony. Couples vow to “love and honor” one another as their families solemnly observe. But the breadth of consensus symbolized by attendance at the marriage ceremony would probably be undercut if specifics about what "loving and honoring" mean in specific instances were made out in advance.

The Consensus Curve

The Consensus Curve  (below) shows how this works. In examining the curve notice that the slogan initially enjoys broad but shallow consensus; but fewer and fewer agree on how that should translate into action in specific instances. As we add "by" statements (by compromising on money matters, by tolerating obnoxious in-laws, etc.) more and more people in the family circle say "count me out." In the end, only a relatively narrow group of people share deep (detailed) consensus on what "love and honor" means in specific instances. Hopefully, this group still includes the bride and groom....