The Consensus-Driven Society

Have you noticed that very few teenagers actually “date” any more? Instead, they just “hang-out” with their friends. From what I can tell, the “consensus” is that this is more “natural.” Well… it’s more in line with the patterns of our simian relations and ancestors, but “natural,” contrary to current pop culture, isn’t always better. Dating, as practiced by previous generations, required the male to request that a particular female accompany him to a predetermined event, such as a movie or a dance or dinner, for a limited period of time. This required advance planning, preparation by both parties, conversation between both, or an attempt by both, and an expenditure of time by both parties, as well as resources on the part of the male. While some women contend that the expenditure of resources by the male was an attempt to gain sexual favors, that attempt did cost the male resources. “Hanging out” achieves the same results, perhaps even more easily for males, from what I can see, without any commitment of anything on the part of the male. It also dispenses with advance thought, planning, and similar other activities required of adults in society.

Along a similar line, the “consensus” appears to be, in general, that the single-sex college dorms of the past are outmoded, and that college students are better prepared for life by co-ed dorms. While this view has not been universally adopted by all universities, most appear to have given in to providing at least some co-ed dorms. Yet a study published last week indicates that co-ed dorms result in nearly twice the rate of binge drinking among their inhabitants.

Then, there’s clothing. The teen-aged consensus, in recent years, appears to have been to minimize personal appeal and maximize bad features. Low-slung pants too tight above exposed midsections create an impression of corpulence for all but the anorexic woman. Baggy trousers drooping to the back of the knees give even the most trim of young men the impression of bad personal sanitation and slovenliness. Backwards baseball caps not only don’t shade the face, but they also heighten the vacantness of expression in the eyes of all too many young men. Watching the results of teen-aged girls’ consensus decisions on what to wear is frightening, because so very few of them ever choose clothing that is either attractive and tasteful or maximizes their attributes and features. Yet… they talk about what “looks good” when they really mean that they want to wear what everyone else is wearing, no matter how awful it appears on them. It reminds me of an ancient SF story where the men come out of the latest “fashion show” green and nauseated, unable to even approach the women wearing the latest “high fashion” — later revealed to have been designed by aliens to stop human reproduction.

Bad consensus-driven decisions aren’t limited to teenagers, by any means. Wall Street exemplified that with its thoughtless consensus agreements to leverage capital to the hilt through excessive reliance on financial derivatives and similar Ponzi-like devices, and the heads of all too many firms embraced devices they didn’t understand because everyone else on Wall Street was doing the same thing, another form of consensus.

Another consensus is the American idea that every teenager should get a college education. The problem is that possibly as many as half of those young adults either aren’t capable of doing true college level work or aren’t interested enough to do so. Rather than debunk this “consensus” idea, American society has pressured public institutions to water down higher education, although they don’t call it that. The terms that are used include making education “more accessible” or “more relevant” or “more appealing” or “adapted to individual learning styles,” etc. The result is that something like half of entering college freshmen cannot write a coherent and logical essay totally on their own and that to obtain a true higher education now requires additional years of post-graduate study. The other result is that society wastes an incredible amount of resources on individuals who benefit little — except in getting a paper credential that has become increasingly devalued.

The consensus problem isn’t new to society, although it’s more pervasive in the U.S. today. There is a famous line in Handel’s Messiah — “we, like sheep, are gone astray.” Those words were penned in 1741, but they’re even truer today because consensus is based on comfort and agreement, just as in a herd of sheep, and in difficult times, the best decisions are seldom developed through consensus. There’s a tremendous difference between forging consensus and deciding through consensus. The consensus of the British people in 1938 was that appeasement was the best way to handle Hitler and that Winston Churchill was a warmongering firebrand. The consensus of the American people in 1940 was that the United States could avoid war. The consensus in the U.S. in 2006 was that prosperity would continue indefinitely.

In these cases, consensus was wrong, with disastrous results.

Obviously, every society needs to reach consensus on its laws, customs, and political practices and decisions, but that doesn’t mean that sheep-like group-think is the way to reach that consensus. In the past, hard issues were debated, legislated, modified, to a large degree by those who had some considerable knowledge of the subject. Today, in all too many groups and organizations, for all the talk of innovation, ideas that are unpopular are too often dismissed as unworkable.

The problem here is a failure to distinguish between workable ideas, which are unpopular because they have a cost to those of the group, and popular ideas that are technically unworkable. “Taxing the rich” is always popular because few in any society or group are rich; it’s also generally less effective in practice because the truly rich have enough resources to avoid taxation or leave the society, and the practice is almost always detrimental to society because the tax burden falls most heavily on the productive upper middle class or lower upper class [depending on definition] who are the group that determines the course and success of a society. Taxing everyone at a lower rate works better in raising revenue and in allocating resources, and is actually “fairer” because taxes fund general services used more intensively by the non-rich. Unfortunately, flatter tax rates are highly unpopular, and so the general compromise consensus is to keep tax rates at a point where the upper middle class doesn’t scream too much, while not taxing the majority of the populace enough to adequately support the services that they demand. The result is that government barely squeaks by in times of prosperity and faces either ruinous deficits or drastically reduced services, if not both, in economically hard times.

Then, add in our modern communications technology, as I’ve previously discussed, with niche marketing and self-identification, and we’re getting massive societal polarization as various group consensuses harden into total intractability, in effect creating social and political group anarchy without even the benefit of individual creativity.

All those for “natural” consensus…?

2 thoughts on “The Consensus-Driven Society”

  1. Iron Sparrow says:

    So does it take an external stimulus to force us out of our happy consensus, as in World War 2? Or is there some other way to move society away from its natural tendency to be like sheep?

  2. L.E. Modesitt says:

    The current study did not address violence… only binge and excessive drinking. Then, too, maybe thirty years of familiarity breeds contempt… I honestly don't know.

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