I can’t remember where I picked up the term consensus reality. I know only that it appeared in my lexicon sometime in the last 2 years, and that it has become one of my foremost tools when trying to explain and understand our current political moment.
Consensus reality is a term to describe the communal reality: things are understood to be a particular way by the majority of human beings and those points of agreement between that majority create a thing we call “reality” which may coincide or may differ from an objective reality but is nevertheless verifiable outside of individual experience. It exists between a solipsistic reality, in which individual experience and understanding is the only basis with which one parses and manages “reality,” and objective reality.
Consensus reality is the reason that you can hear things that aren’t there. It is impossible to say whether someone who hears voices that no one else hears is living in a solipsistic reality experience, or whether they have the means to interface with objective reality in a way that the rest of us cannot. Consensus reality merely describes this unique experience as a divergence from the reality that is experienced by the majority.
I don’t want to take the time to defend, philosophically, any of these positions, because it is one of the elements of philosophy I do not have the patience for. Ultimately, consensus reality seems like the only functional method of engaging with reality, in a social, political, and communal way. Maybe this is a solipsistic universe, and everything is a construct of my imagination; some incredibly detailed dream that I will wake from into a different reality, or I am some slumbering god, imagining each instance from within it. It seems more like an excuse to escape responsibility than a real engagement with universal uncertainties, since I will still have to navigate consensus reality.
Likewise, it is entirely possible that ghosts are real, and some people can see them, but it is impossible for me, at this time, to verify that knowledge, with the tools at hand.
This is where consensus reality and scientific opinion begin to complement each other.
Scientific opinion is just another name for consensus reality. Scientific opinion is formed when enough people have reproduced or otherwise verified a particular outcome of a particular set of actions or interactions through a variety of methods and have produced a particular result. Scientific opinion is a definition of some aspect of reality, derived from (ideally) rigorous, meticulous study and experimentation, reproduced and verified at a large scale resulting in the agreement of a majority of the scientific community (or subset of the scientific community) that certain conclusions are consistent. That consistency is otherwise known as “being true”.
But there are other aspects of consensus reality. Because consensus reality is a tool that can be applied far and wide, and not merely to things that are verified quantitatively. Consensus reality is at its strongest (and, sometimes, most ambiguous) in the social sphere.
There are two kinds of being out of sync with consensus reality, where the strain of bridging the lived and understood realities is at its highest.
The first one I call,
The Duke’s bastard son:
The Duke’s bastard son is a linguistic aberration of consensus reality. A bastard is defined as
adj. [archaic or derogatory] born of parents not married to each other; illegitimate: a bastard child.
As an illegitimate child, a bastard son is not considered an heir to whatever inheritance might be claimed upon the death of the Duke. In all public record, the bastard son will be renounced and placed firmly outside the sphere of the family of the Duke. The bastard son is without political power.
Nevertheless, the Duke may well extend a measure of charity towards the bastard son. There is no reason to treat him badly, and, in fact, there is a measure of social value to be gained in avoiding ill-will with one’s illegitimate children. If the bastard son is allowed to exist within the Duke’s estate, it is almost guaranteed that everyone will know that the bastard son is the Duke’s.
Simultaneously, no one will openly acknowledge that he is the Duke’s bastard son.
Here, consensus reality contains the contradiction: everyone knows one thing to be true, but no one will say it.
This type of consensus reality is familiar to anyone who has lived under a repressive regime; be it within a household, in a community, or a country. Something that is common knowledge, is systematically disavowed.
The other aberration is
The Dirty Little Secret:
This one is familiar to anyone who has ever been someone’s “side piece” or has suffered abuse or listened to a multitude of popular songs, including The All-American Rejects’ Dirty Little Secret.
This is the place where solipsistic reality, objective reality, and consensus reality coalesce at can create total breakdowns of communication and affect.
Some might be familiar with the question: “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to see it, does it make a sound?” Consensus reality says, yes. Solipsistic reality says, no. Objective reality is impossible to ascertain.
The Dirty Little Secret asks: “If you are in the forest and break your arm, and no one is around to see it, did you fall or were you pushed?”
Or my personal favorite: “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
The Dirty Little Secret is when some action, cause or effect, is prohibited from consensus reality.
Secrets are the biggest barrier to consensus reality. I don’t necessarily consider the Duke’s Bastard Son to be a problem, although the recent election is changing my mind about that. (R.I.P. Facts) But I have never liked secrets. Sometimes, I think that is the number one reason I tend towards journalism: because only establishing and maintaining consensus reality, and thus dismantling the Dirty Little Secret allows people to make informed decisions. If you don’t tell people the things they need to know, there is no way to make sure that we can move in the same direction; or even disagree about which direction we should be moving.