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The decline of consensus. By Ricardo Lorenzetti

Polarization, an existing phenomenon in several countries, is worrying because it leads to discussions, without reaching to an agreement.

We must point out that the conflict is inevitable and, in general, it brings positive change, but it requires a stable foundation; It is like a match that’s being played by two teams. There must be a set of rules and a referee. The problem is that there is less and less consensus regarding the rules and less respect for the referees, who are always being challenged.

In a plural society, consensus does not mean that everyone thinks alike, but it’s rather the end result of the encounter between different positions. But the problem in today’s world is that the current institutional and technological designs promote disagreement and the loss of control of the countries’ unifying narratives.

If we are capable of leaving aside the role of the passionate speaker in a debate and assume, just for a moment, the role of a dispassionate observer, the results are impressive.


I). Polarization techniques

1). The debate quickly turns into a clash of positions.

This happens because opinions aren’t’ being analyzed from the core of the subject that is being debated. That is to say, that there is a previous formative step where there is a tendency to judge every single argument coming from that person similarly. What is constantly being analyzed is who is delivering the opinion. This is later on used as a tool to presume what that person will respond, independently of the subject discussed at hand.

“Tribal groups”, which constantly fight each other, are formed.  But they do not have the ideological sophistication or the intellectual preparation of the political parties that struggled in the 20th century to organize society differently.

In these cases, there are no analysis whatsoever. The idea of a counterargument is completely ignored. Hence, it is assumed that these ideas apply only to those who share them, excluding others who think differently.

2). Language is limited

Films used to portray native peoples in a stereotypical and discriminatory way. They were contemptuously shown speaking in monosyllables, which was different from Westerners who supposedly “knew how to speak.” Nowadays, that wouldn’t be possible because our daily dialogue is expressed in emoticons, in one minute recorded messages, through images, while we “post” and like postings. There has been a noticeable setback in the possibility of reasoning.

In other areas, it is all about calling other people’s attention. That is why scandalous complaints and strong statements are made with the idea of demonstrating power, even though it is known that those type of statements tend to lose strength almost instantly. “The noise is an acoustic reference to the incipient decomposition of power” (Byung-Chul Han; “In the swarm”).

3). Arguments without rules

Usually, we hear arguments like this one: “Juan is good; Pedro is bad, and they clearly different from one another. But if both were sitting together, or if both ere neighbors, or went to the same church, or shared a soccer game, or attended a demonstration, it would be suspicious, making Juan a questionable character”. This type of reasoning, in which one topic is linked to another by very distant analogies, was criticized by Umberto Ecco, who pointed out that it is a dangerous and paranoid interpretation (Ecco “The limits of interpretation”).

4). Disqualification

Someone’s opinion doesn’t motivate a debate about the actual arguments, but an analysis on who that person is, with whom that person might be linked with, which are the characteristics that define that person, etc. In this way, that person might be disqualified of the “game”. It is a common procedure when it comes to judicial decisions: Who is the judge? Who appointed him? Who is he linked to? It is usually more important than what he wrote in the sentence.

This type of “ad hominem” (John Locke) argument has been widely criticized because it can lead to persecution and discrimination.

5) “Declarationism”

It is common to affirm a position without thinking about how it will be applied in a world of scarce resources and with citizens who think differently, as if it were a problem that someone else had to solve. For example, it has been said that “the State must deal with this problem, but nobody says how and with what means.”


II). The causes of polarization

1) The design of the digital world

Internet’s organization and algorithm strongly promote extreme opinions (Sunstein, Cass, “Going to the extremes”). The records of what each person does on the web allow you to create a profile that sends news, web pages, movies, offers on topics similar to those that have already been read, or integration into groups related to your thinking.

This produces a revalidation of what that person believes in, and a feeling of comfort with those who share the same ideas.

An “echo chamber” is created, in which an individual isolates him or herself in an enclosed and comfortable idea. But when someone thinks differently, an opinion war is generated.

2) Loss of control over the unifying narrative

Fergusson (“The square and the tower”) points out that the medieval church presented an interpretation of the Bible in Latin that everyone accepted, but the printing press was created, allowing anyone to have their own interpretation in a popular language. The shift from a hierarchical system, in which there was a single emitter in a single language to a multiplicity of emitters in several languages, produced a revolution. Digital networks produce a similar effect, which is the loss of control of narratives. Anything is possible.

Today there are many different, sectorial stories that compete with each other and make it difficult to unify the idea of a nation.


III). The consequences:

These characteristics lead to polarization, which produces paralysis in decisions due to the lack of basic agreements.

Let’s imagine that jungle animals had to choose the jungle’s beauty queen. The lion would say that the most beautiful one should have the longest mane and the best roar; the giraffe with say that the one with the highest neck should be crowned beauty queen; the zebra, the one with most amount of stripes; the bird, the one who knew how to fly higher. If no single criterion can be agreed upon, there can’t be a contest.

This brief description shows us a very serious problem, which must be faced in order for the future to be bearable for future generations.

It is necessary for institutions to promote friction between different views, to promote flexibility among different points of view and to promote an increase of options regarding solutions.

Complex cooperation (Sennet, “Together”) requires permanent contact between different visions, promoting less affirmative language, and nurturing empathy between sectors. Something like this happened in public squares in previous centuries, where people went to talk quietly about various topics.

Pluralism and diversity are indispensable. Therefore, it is necessary to assume comprehensive criteria of the different positions in order to arrive to an intersecting consensus, which, although it might not coincide with everyone’s opinions, it will instead lead to what everyone really wants and that is a functioning society based on a more realistic criterion of justice (Rawls, “Justice as Fairness. A restatement”), whose conflicts can be managed without generating continuous crises for the entire system.