Consensus, Discussion and Trust
14 March, 2013
I am in Sweden now and the concept of consensus is so deeply imbedded in society here, it is easy to see in simple day to day life. Politically many votes in parliament, perhaps most tend to be symbolic because disagreement tends to be worked out before the fact. There is a general tendency for two or more sides to smooth over their differences and move towards a compromise policy.

I was watching a group of school children playing and
you can see it there as well. At least for the time I was watching, there was no arguing or fighting. I talked to a teacher who was present, and asked what his main job was during the recess period, and he said to help any children with disagreements. I asked if there were many, and he said they were very rare. This comes out in conversation as well. When a group of Swedes talk, one person will speak and the next speaker tends to start with the part of what was said that she or he agrees with. That doesn't happen in Georgia too often. In other places that is normal but then usually the next speak will say what he or she doesn't agree with, but in Sweden that part is often left out entirely. Later Swedish speakers will simply migrate onto related topics, with no effort to find the point of disagreement or focus on it.

In Georgia, division seems to be the point. Members of parliament spend the overwhelming majority of their time focusing on disagreement. As is common in most post Soviet countries, people sometimes think that others have hidden agendas, that if the other person doesn't agree with us, that she or he must some secret self-interested reason for not agreeing. There is often a presumption of bias when there is a disagreement. With children there is a great deal of open aggression and that is viewed as normal, which is understandable since teaches themselves often show open aggression individually and to the class. Foreigners often comment that Georgians that are just having a conversation can seem as if they are arguing with each other. It is almost as if the point of a conversation is to find the disagreement and then argue about it. Certainly that seems to be how interview programs are conducted on Gerogian TV.

Georgia is very low on social trust, if you ask people "can most people be trusted" the overwhelming majority of Georgians will say no. About the same number of Swedes will say yes, around 80%. Social science and experience show that trust creates trust. If some people are trustworthy, and you don't trust them, they won't stay trustworthy long. Why should they? But if you trust an untrustworthy person, in the right environment, they can become trustworthy. There are volumes of interesting experiments and social science connected with this question. Maybe social aggression is a simple manifestation of a lack of trust?

There are dangers to this habit of consensus. It can stifle open debate, it can lead to social pressure to conform, to naivete', it can make things difficult for those with different ideas or ways of doing things. It can make people the same. I would say that the US is more similar culturally to Georgia than to Sweden at least in this regard, certainly related to its politics at this point in time. Americans may not argue as much as Georgians, But Americans are famous for being loud and arrogant which is very unusual in Sweden. But the politics of the US now and Georgia are similar in that they are extremely divided, in each place, the two sides are convinced of that the other is not just stupid but actively malevolent and dangerous. At times there is an unwillingness to accept valid points or good policies of the others side. Some times there are even attempts to sabotage useful initiatives simply to keep the other side from scoring points. At times like this we all have something to learn from the consensus loving Swedes.