Minding The Gaps: Arriving At Dissensus


At last, there is a word for it. Dissensus. Coined by John Michael Greer, thus:

the deliberate avoidance of consensus and the encouragement of divergent approaches to the problems we face.

Elaborated upon by Tony Dias, who catches beautifully why dissensus matters, and some first steps towards nurturing it. Evolutionary adaptation and survival in unstable circumstances depend upon the widest possible variety of traits and behaviours, increasing odds that something will succeed. Yet such outcomes are unpredictable in advance; so what best supports dissensus is a stance of humility, navigating with uncertainty instead of the desire for security, or the even deeper desire to be right.

Dissensus is a eureka word, constellating a range of emergent inklings, attitudes, understandings. Consider the blossoming comment thread after Tony’s post. The Dark Mountain Project: leery of strident self-definition, many-tentacled, seeking not recruits but for conversations to come its way. Vera Bradova’s blog Leaving Babylon, whose dissensual ethos is captured for me most vividly in this post, but emerges stronger out of each exchange within her gravitational community. The open-sourced ideas-pitch of The Future We Deserve, this tweet from its co-editor Vinay Gupta: “I’m very interested in places where nobody can necessarily *recognize* who has the most relevant skills for dealing with the problem.” Much more not yet on my radar.

Greer argues the case for dissensus in part response to criticisms made of his Green Wizardry project by transition town pioneer Rob Hopkins. What’s striking about their exchange is that both men grasp and articulate the value of developing a range of strategies for adapting to peak oil; yet the echoes of turf war remain audible, and the further their debate reverberates down the ranks of commentary and reaction, the more it gets recast as a tussle for power over the hearts and minds of would-be adapters.

Dissensus throws open a new space of possibility, one whose forms and stances of engagement aren’t yet figured out. The value of biodiversity in other species is readily grasped, but for humans used to proselytising and triumphing over other humans’ ignorance, it’s a far harder proposition to live out. Understandably, there is fear and nervous faltering, a falling-back onto more habitual reflexes for coping with diverging paths and vigorous, essential disagreement: as something to shun, something to overcome, something which veers, inappropriately and unavoidably, over the border between differences of principle and personal vitriol.

Questions and koans flourish in this gap: dissensus as a meme emerging into consciousness, but awaiting ways and means of fuller realisation.

The fabric of language – written, spoken – and the embodiment of attitude. How to act, speak, write, be in relation to differences, disagreements, alterity; giving due attention and weight to their significance, but eliminating the impulse and words chosen to win, to convert to one’s own cause, to do down the felt threat of opposition in ways that cleverly belittle and are cheered for it. The habits of public discourse we are most entrained to admire and value – smart, well-wrought, eminently consumable rhetoric – can often be the worst offenders in this respect.

In a culture which values and promotes consensus, breaking-apart into dissensus is framed negatively and feared accordingly. Consider the mediated charge of words like ‘split’, ‘division’, faction’, ‘heresy’, and the perennially well-oiled ‘controversy’. What might it be to allow deep differences to emerge organically and unfold along their own paths, as they are indeed wont to do (consider the myriad versions of any -ism), rather than seeking to prevent, repress or besmirch their appearance?

The humility and uncertainty which root dissensus chafe hard against a culture sold out on simple causality – ‘if I do a then b will result’ – and a potent dependence upon projected futures to incite any form of responsible action. The strength of dissensus springs from self-understanding and self-realisation, but strung upon far more fragile, unstable conjectures. ‘I do a because it suits my temperament, skills and circumstances, and my best analysis of the situation. I’d expected b as the outcome, but actually it’s brought me to c, and who can say what further result or value it might have, or not, over the longer term.’

A spectre that dissensus will raise is the paralysis of large-scale organising. So might it take forward tactical alliances, evolve the capacities of humans to self-organise effectively in response to specific problems and circumstances?  Instead of slotting followers, signature and soul, into lockstep movements stratified to pursue goals ever ‘out there’, on the far side of someone else’s rainbow.

Dissensus, ready to let go of being right, to unfold into infinite possible adaptations. Consensus, its time waning and its grip wavering, ready to tighten the leash.


One thought on “Minding The Gaps: Arriving At Dissensus

  1. Welcome and thanks, Mike. Often I enjoy your thoughts over at Leaving Babylon. Agree that meditation does weaken the grip of one’s own mental constructions and self-definitions. Dissensus feels vital, for having given a name, an ‘aha!’ to these feelings-out of a way to be next to the differences of others and just let them be, without the fear / lack of attacking or converting them to shore up our own egos.

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