Anatomy of the consensus-borg
How is narrative discipline kept?
In 2016, something changed in a big way. It felt like the various nodes of power, previously diverse in their concerns and orientations, converged as though in response to a mortal threat. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, expert and expert-like lay opinion were settled on scientific matters that were in reality quite unsettled, and there was aggressive moral censure of resulting questions and disputes that could be quite intimidating. At almost the same moment, we saw an unprecedented display of institutional unanimity and activism, using what seemed to be an approved set of phrases, in response to the killing of George Floyd. By May of 2020, it became impossible not to notice that we were living under a new dispensation, though it has remained difficult to understand how it came about.
To explain the manufacture of rigid consensus around empirical claims and policy positions that seem eminently debatable, a number of ideas and observations have been offered, mainly in those precincts of the Internet where the prevailing sense is that something has gone seriously awry. The explanations offered have included
- “preference cascades” in prestige opinion
- the increasing tendency of Western governments to invoke “states of emergency” to pursue unpopular measures
- credentialed but basically entrepreneurial fear-mongers working in symbiosis with media
- the function that moral panics play in coordinating various nodes of power around some agenda that would otherwise remain controversial or debatable
- the role that a “politics of repudiation” and moral denunciation play in securing elites’ release from allegiance to the national community
- the group self-hypnosis that has been called “mass formation”
- the “over-production of elites” who end up competing with one another in ways destructive of society, for example through ideological purity tests and cancel culture that induce conformity
All of this has been interesting and fruitful, in my view. In response to the extravagant untruths that saturate public space in the new era, and the surprising deference they enjoy, “sociology of knowledge” has become an urgent and fascinating topic for people who still have a taste for critical inquiry.
As a matter of intellectual hygiene, many of us have focused on these sociological questions and resisted the siren of conspiracy thinking. The latter seems epistemically déclassé -- too simple and too much guided by credulous indignation.
But, thanks in part to the Twitter Files, we are now beginning to learn about a machinery of narrative control that is in fact quite top-down. Even, dare we say, a bit conspiracy-adjacent. How effective it has been in generating and sustaining fake consensus is an important question. But in any case, the (often bungling) efforts to shape our reality by a network of information warriors in government, tech and elsewhere give us a further explanatory avenue to consider when we are trying to understand how the borg of right-thinking organizes its constituent parts into something that can appear frighteningly cohesive.