Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Conflict, Compromise, and Consensus

The art of war and the art of debate are morally reprehensible courses of study. The first produces mercenaries and the second politicians. If one argues for an idea, or fights for it, it should be out of conviction the idea is righteous and true. The awesome weapons of war and argumentation should never be wielded for personal gain or self gratification.

Yet, this sort of rhetorical gamesmanship, where the object is to win the argument rather than advance society, is the most common form of political discourse today, and not just amongst politicians. It is an insidious, recreational form of what I call collaboration by conflict, wherein members of a group choose to engage each other specifically to find and argue about points of disagreement, however minor. In its non-recreational form, this type of collaboration can lead to positive societal advancement - think about the US Civil War or the civil rights movement - but usually at great cost and lingering dissatisfaction. More often than not, collaboration by conflict leads instead to splintering and balkanization of the group, even when the victors and the vanquished agree on almost everything! Catholics and protestants, Shi'ites and Sunnis, democrats and republicans, are far more alike in their ideologies than they are different. Yet, enormous human energy and (at least in the first two dichotomies) human lives have been wasted exploring the comparatively tiny differences.

A second type of collaboration is collaboration by compromise. If you and I have opposite ideas about something, we could seek a third alternative that is equally undesirable to both of us. Any well-functioning political body (insert oxymoron joke here) typically works using this form of collaboration. While it can produce a comfortable and stable society, collaboration by compromise generally does not result in great advances.

Finally, there is collaboration by consensus. If you and I have opposite ideas about something, we could seek a third, more fundamental alternative that we both strongly agree about and work to realize that idea. As an (admittedly over-trivialized) example, there is no overwhelming consensus among US citizens about abortion rights. Some believe it is a women's rights issue and that the mother should have complete discretion as long as the baby remains a part of her body. Others believe the moment there is even the potential for a human life to develop, it becomes the responsibility of society to protect and preserve that potential. And of course there is a whole spectrum of opinions in between those extremes. We citizens of the US could continue to battle it out over this issue, collaborating by conflict and enduring all the resultant costs and casualties. Or we could compromise again, as the Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade, by choosing an arbitrary boundary and ensuring everyone is morally insulted in some cases. Or we might table this difficult and divisive fight and instead agree to work to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. And we might decide to expend all those resources we would otherwise have used arguing about abortion rights to instead streamline the adoption process and increase the pool of families who are willing and able to adopt. Collaborating by consensus, we can focus more of our time, money, and energy accomplishing the things for which there is widespread consensus, instead of wallowing in our differences and looking for another fight.

Truthfully, all three types of collaboration are needed to support any significantly meaningful society, online or offline. Ethosphere supports all three. More often than not though, the main goal of an Ethosphere collaboration is not to win. Nor is it to "split the baby" by finding compromises that nobody fully supports. Instead the goal is to find the kernel of consensus among a group of people on a given topic.

It is true, leaders don't seek consensus; they shape it. But don't mistake the day-to-day functioning of a society with leadership. And by all means don't try to conflate the role of government with the role of leader. It is not the responsibility of the US Congress, for example, to influence our opinions, rather to discern what those consensus opinions are and act on them.