The Scope of Consensus

An apparent consensus may often be traced back to a history that helped shaped a given society. We might then better understand the nature of this society in terms of its present-day cultural and national identity, which may seek to both educate and indoctrinate its population to accept a given collective worldview. While this collective worldview may not be universally accepted, the scope for debate and dissent within the confines of a given society can be limited by either social peer pressure or by more extreme political oversight.

Note: The idea that any of us exist outside any form of social peer pressure can usually be quickly dismissed, if we simply compare the similarities with our immediate neighbours against others in geographically dispersed cultures. Therefore, with possibly only few exceptions, most of us are basically a conformant product of time and place.

Of course, most of us still like to think that we are personally one of the few exceptions, who have come to shape their own worldview without undue bias towards the social norms that have surrounded us since birth. However, within a framework of diversity founded on different cultural, religious and political worldviews, we might accept that there are some practical limits on the scope of any consensus, when extrapolated to a global level, but which can still exist within an expanding multi-cultural national identity.

Note: Throughout the 20th century, the idea of globalism was expanded in terms of economic trade, such that some believed that it could naturally be extended to people. In this context, the identity of a person, which was once defined in terms of family and local community, then expanded into a national identity, would simply continue to evolve into a global multi-cultural identity of universal tolerance.

Unfortunately, while this is a laudable goal, human evolution in conjunction with the complexity of cultural and religious traditions, which often underpins social order, may require more time to adapt than was initially assumed. Of course, this does not mean that some will not attempt to engineer a consensus that allows them to pursue a more globalist ideology. However, it is far from clear whether there is a consensus for this idea, as many have become increasingly critical of globalism and the challenge to their national and cultural identity, especially if it only benefits some perceived economic elite. In the words of Marine Le Pen.

“Countries are no longer nations but markets. Borders are erased. Everyone can come to our country, and this has cut our salaries and our social protections. This dilutes our cultural identity.

Today, we might recognise the degree of polarisation that has developed between the idea of globalism and nationalism, where certainty of the benefits accrued by either, in isolation, is often assumed. Again, it might be argued that developments have not necessarily proceeded based on any overarching consensus, but rather on the basis that one side has simply been in a position to impose its worldview. As the idea of globalism appears to be a key issue in the modern world, it is possibly worthy of some further introduction, which we might also consider in terms of the ‘winners and losers’ in this process. However, we will first attempt to define the scope of developments in terms of an expansion of the global economy, which has required increased interaction between people, governments and private organizations around the world. This development has also led to cultural exchanges and developments and a much wider movement of people between nation-states with different cultural and religious traditions. Initially, such trends were equated with progress, at least in terms of economic growth, such that it might have been assumed that globalism must be beneficial to all, at least, by those who gained from this form of progress. This said, we might table a question for further consideration as we proceed to outline the issues.

Was a consensus ever sought for globalisation?

While there were undoubted benefits to globalisation, it is clear that not everybody perceived themselves to be a winner within this expanding process. As a consequence, an increasing number have criticised globalisation on the grounds that the benefits are not universal and has led to problems associated with unemployment, inequality and conflicts associated with cultural differences, when linked to mass migration. If we accept the reality of these different perspectives, we need to consider the pros and cons of globalisation, not just in terms of economics, but also in terms of its impact on cultural identity and national sovereignty, especially when it comes to the democratic representation of ‘the people by the people’.

  • Economic Globalisation
    Without necessarily highlighting all the issues, we might characterise the positives associated with this form of globalisation in terms of the potential for reduced costs and better choice of products and services, if optimised supply chains can be achieved via increased competition. Likewise, globalisation can offer up greater opportunity for growth to both producers and retailers of goods and service, if they can diversify into new markets. Of course, we might recognise that not all nation states, companies or people can compete effectively in this expanding global market, such that many local economies and communities have suffered negatively as a consequence.

  • Cultural Globalization
    Today, the idea of a cultural identity invariably sits within a national identity, where both are a product of history, language and customs established over many generations. However, many now feel that their cultural or national identity is being threatened by mass migration, which provides too little time for the diverse nature of the people involved to adapt to change. Of course, the positive side of this form of globalisation may be defined in terms of the access to new cultural products in the arts, entertainment and even education. Likewise, it might be assumed that people may become more tolerant of differences, which may then reduce the probability of conflicts between nation states. However, others perceive danger to their cultural traditions, not only due to mass migration, but in terms of the impact of consumerism on their society and the fragmentation into factions with very different values and self-interest.

  • Political Globalization
    Today, many see the growth of new institutions with global reach, which then attempt to influence the democratic process within what many assume to be an independent sovereign nation. Again, on the positive side, many of these international institutions can provide both aid and financial support to a nation state, which may also help to mitigate or prevent local conflicts from escalating into full-scale wars. Likewise, a global perspective of a wider political system may provide better solutions for global problems, which may also provide hope when people are subject to oppressive national governance. However, on the negative side, many believe that these global institutions operate outside of the consideration of the local democratic opinion, such that the consensus of the people is simply ignored in pursuit of a global ideology.

So, based on what is recognised as a simplistic summary, we might return to the question as to whether a consensus was ever sought for globalisation? In truth, history suggests that the development of supranational institutions, such as the European Union, has not always proceeded on the basis of a broad consensus within the boundary of each nation state, but rather on the ideology held true by a small minority, who are often the most obvious beneficiaries of change.

What else might need to be taken into consideration at this point?

In an ideal world, we might assume that consensus should be reach through open and honest debate of the issues. However, again, history might suggest that this is a very naïve assumption, which rarely happens when powerful self-interests are at stake. Similar in scope to fake news, we might need to consider the issue of withheld information, half-truths and peer pressure as possible mechanisms by which some may seek to create an apparent consensus in favour of their proposal. However, rather than considering all potential mechanisms, we might attempt to characterise the scope of such issues in terms of ‘political correctness’, although this term possibly requires some initial clarification.

Note: At a basic level, political correctness might simply be described as a concept that seeks to give the least amount of offense to any group within society on issues such as race, gender, culture or sexual orientation. However, the concept often runs into problems, when it seeks to build a consensus of opinion that suppresses discussion of legitimate issues of concerns on the grounds that somebody, somewhere might take offense. In this context, political correctness can be seen as a challenge to the freedom of speech.

Historically, the idea of political correctness can be traced back to the Russian Revolution of 1917, which required an adherence to the policies and principles of Marxist communism. At this point, we need to recognise that some nation states prioritise political stability over individual freedom, which is an idea more associated with western democracy, where the freedom of speech is usually provided some legal protection. However, from a historical perspective, nation-states like Russia and China, which have preferred centralised governance, freedom of speech is said to be a privilege not a right, but which can then simply be denied to its opponents.

Note: In a religious context, blasphemy can be interpreted as almost any impious utterance or action concerning God or one of his assumed prophets. Therefore, on this basis, almost any comment might be defined as an insult and used to restrict the freedom of speech of others.

Today, in many modern democracies, the idea of political correctness has been used to restrict the spread of hate-speech, which in principle might be supported by a broad consensus. In this context, most might agree that the freedom of speech has to be subject to some restrictions, such that it is not used in a derogatory or abusive manner. This said, there has been a considerable expansion of the original idea of political correctness to include the concept of ‘safe-places’ and ‘no-platforms’ in both public debate and many educational institutions. Of course, the problem with such ideas is not in the general definition, as it might relate to hate-speech, but the subjective scope of what constitutes ‘unacceptable’ or ‘offensive’ speech. Clearly, some political system may define unacceptable speech as anything which challenges its authority, while a religious ideology might define another class of offensive speech. However, whether by accident or design, the net effect is to suppress the freedom of speech of others, even when this speech only makes truthful statements. Therefore, returning to the issue of safe-spaces and no-platforms within a democratic society, there is a growing concern that such ideas might also be used to bias a consensus towards a given ideology, such that legitimate debate can be suppressed.

So, how might we therefore characterise the scope of any consensus?

In the scope of a myriad of different and conflicting ideologies encompassing economic, political and religious worldviews, we might realise that the formation of any sort of consensus has not necessarily been for the benefit of the majority, but invariably for some powerful minority. Equally, this consensus may have been subject to considerable manipulation based on false or suppressed information. Finally, even if these problems are ignored, many political systems, even those broadly assumed to be democratic, may essentially ignore the wider concerns of a majority because its political representatives believe they know best. As such, we possibly need to consider the political and economic framework in which consensus is assumed to operate.