Silence and neutrality

2016 will go down as the year where everybody woke up to the power of internet crowds. The year where the anti-hierarchical nature of the web manifested all its influence on the political discourse. “Gradually, then suddenly”.

This story has been covered a lot and well. Another aspect has received less attention. Together with the rise of the crowds we witness the demise of the silent majority.

Silent majority and the illusion of consensus

Since Nixon made the expression popular in 1969, the idea of a silent majority has been often used in antithesis to nosier positions and groups. From pacifist movements to labour unrest to football hooligans. For every group resorting to noise to manifest its dissent, there is a moderate majority which needs to be protected.

But what does this majority stand for? Silence is not neutral as it might be assumed. Silence is communication just like “no ideology” is an ideology of its own. The concept of a silent majority presumes the existence of a tacit consensus, one that doesn’t require to be expressed noisily but somehow exists objectively.

Many in the past 20 years have promoted the existence of an objective consensus. The end of the cold war was meant to unleash a post-ideological (or post-political) era. An era of technocratic governments following fundamental laws and the rule of the obvious. Political debates moved from the material to the personal, economics (the most “scientific” of social sciences) took over the scene.

Yet this assumption of consensus, this illusion really, contains the seeds of its own destruction. Blinded by the pretence of objectivity, the bearer of consensus becomes subject to the worst form of ideology. Not only does he claim not to have one, he also scorns anyones who does. Over time, this superiority becomes laziness. The ranks of the “objective truth” start shrinking, those that still benefit from it turn into defence mode while the rest fall easily into the arms of the emerging crowds. It shouldn’t surprise that is it now Trump’s turn to waive the flag of the silent majority.

There is probably no better, and tragic, example of this trajectory than the EU. The European project started as an idealistic attempt, smart enough to understand the need for a pragmatic anchor. Just like a startup that requires both an ambitious vision and a tangible beachhead to achieve traction, the EU found its own in economic integration, initially within the coal and steal niche. Over time, the beachhead expanded. The economic rationale became the main motor of integration, “obvious” enough that it didn’t even need to be justified. The how and the what took over from the why. The consensus was clear, until it wasn’t anymore.

Moderates and radicals

The illusion of consensus goes hand in hand with the mirage of moderation. The belief that there is always a neutral space in between opposed factions. It’s a comforting feeling: “I want order but I am not a racist”, “I like equality but I am not a socialist”. It’s the temptation of simple solutions, defined negatively as a watered down version of extreme positions.

Unfortunately, moderation leads often to the same results as the illusion of consensus. Because moderates don’t really stand for anything they end up retrenching into an assumed sense of superiority, justified by some sort of objectivity in their position. It’s the “intellectual yet idiot” targeted recently by Nassim Taleb.

A good example can be found in this discussion of “pragmatic vs radical centrism”. Pragmatic choices are directly linked to the crony capitalisms resulting from the lack of true disagreement between alternative visions of the common. When a pragmatic centre-right and a pragmatic centre-left join forces in a grand coalition, “the range of policy options is narrowed down to a pragmatic compromise that maximises the rent that can be extracted by special interests.“

Radicalism is the opposite of moderation. It’s a positively defined position. Radicals stand for something.

Adopting a radical position doesn’t mean playing at the extremes (you can easily be, as seen above, a radical centrist), and it doesn’t mean accepting rules of engagement based on harassment and provocation. It means rejecting the illusion of consensus and the false comfort of moderation. It means taking up the challenge of active political participation, well aware that in 2016 it doesn’t require joining a political party or even voting for one.

Compromises and coexistence

Does this means giving up to tribalism? To a state of permanent conflict, a social media powered cacophony of noisy crowds?

That’s certainly not a desired state, but it is more a question of how we design the arena of our disagreements, rather than suppressing them. In the past, the parliament was the primary place of debate, negotiation, compromise and coexistence. That place is today both limited and outdated. Our new public spaces are larger and more inclusive. But they are also driven by dynamics that foster closure at the expense of openness (the filter bubbles), short outburst of anger over longer, more considerate, reflections. Beyond that, we need a culture of dialogue which simply acknowledges our disagreements while realising that coexistence is really our only option.

2016 has proven that there is really no escape from the bottom-up explosion of the crowds. The “insurgents”, as Naval calls them in the tweet above, cannot be stopped with money and media control. Those that disagree with them need to embrace the new reality. Forget silence, forget neutrality. Welcome to politics.