A Grudging Consensus

I’ve often maintained that when opposing parties agree to a certain set of premises, that this might indicate that those premises are true, or at least non-controversial.

In logic terms, such accepted starting points are called axioms. You might remember the term from high-school geometry in which accepting certain facts (like the three angles of any triangle will always add up to 180 degrees) as axiomatic allows you to build complex proofs on top of those axioms.

Outside of math, axioms also provide a foundation for discussion and debate. For example, political candidates arguing over which program is most effective in fighting crime agree (at least implicitly) that government programs can impact crime rates. They may violently disagree over which program will do good versus harm, but they are both starting from the axiom that government action plays a role in crime prevention.

One of the complaints about today’s political and media age is that we no longer share a common reality, with people holding different beliefs sheltering themselves inside bubbles in which only facts and arguments they already agree with are allowed in.

Were last year’s election results fraudulent? Did calls to defund the police lead to a crime wave? Were COVID protocols designed to protect citizens or control them? Within opposing bubbles, opposing answers to each of these questions are taken as axiomatic, rather than debatable.

But when a consensus emerges, no matter how grudgingly, picking out the new common ground can lead to identification of true (or, at least, no longer controversial) points.

For instance, as the Omicron variant of the COVID virus began to surge at the end of 2021, the New York Times ran an editorial indicating that society should not utilize the same measures to control the virus as it did in 2020, such as draconian lockdowns, including school closures.

Unsurprisingly, critics of previous prevention measures “pounced” on articles like this one, characterizing them as their liberal foes admitting that conservative critiques of severe restrictions were right all along. But if you ignore the fact that today’s culture prefers claiming victory over acknowledging agreement, you may be able to discover some axioms that can allow us to make better decisions going forward.

For example, some points of agreement were always clear:

  • The world has been the victim of a deadly virus for the last two years.

  • New variants of the virus are getting past the protections provided by vaccines.

  • Becoming infected by one of the new variants, especially if you’re vaccinated, is generally not life threatening.

In addition to these axioms, articles like the ones linked above add some additional points of agreement, notably:

  • That the new variants highlight the unpredictability of disease in general, and the coronavirus in particular.

  • That mitigation efforts come at a cost which should be calculated before deciding whether to take dramatic actions (such as shutting down schools and businesses or limiting access to medical procedures for non-COVID patients).

  • That there may not be a government solution (or any solution) that can provide “victory” over a virus.

Note that accepting these premises does not require you to abandon previous beliefs, such as belief that the unvaccinated are taking risks with their own lives and the lives of others, or that mandates represent government overreach that should be rejected. They do, however, provide direction on what to do moving forward.

For example, since it is still better to avoid getting infected by a disease with potentially deadly and long-term consequences, individual risk mitigation by the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, such as mask wearing and avoiding crowds, is still warranted.

Recognizing the nature of new variants can also move us from expectations that the virus needs to be eradicated, to more realistic expectations that COVID might be turning from a deadly pandemic into an endemic illness the world will need to live with (like seasonal flu).

Recognizing that mitigation efforts, beyond those taken through individual choice, come at a cost can move us from a 2020 mindset in which avoiding the spread of the virus takes precedent over all other factors, to a 2022 risk-calculation model in which we evaluate choices (such as shutting down schools) based on positive results (slowing the spread of the virus) and negative ones (putting children’s education and mental health at risk).

Accepting that we are living with an endemic disease and that decisions on how to deal with it have both good and bad consequences can also help us reevaluate some of the less productive premises that underlie debates we have been having over the last two years, such as which political leader or party should be blamed for an illness that is increasingly egalitarian and non-partisan in whom it infects.