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Consensus vs. Democracy

Democratic decision making in popular movements is challenging. Consensus decision-making is even more so. General Assemblies are a weak methodology for decision making among strangers but an excellent way of getting to know people and have interesting dialogues–so long as group-think doesn’t outweigh the exercise of conscience.



One thought on “Consensus vs. Democracy

  1. Actually, we have had productive consensus meetings of several hundred in the middle of the Nevada Desert during our Reclaim the Test Site actions at the Nevada Nuclear Weapons Test Site. The key is to remember that everyone is likely to have something to say, some important input, and wants to be taken seriously, and heard. So that can happen a number of ways. In this kind of situation, breaking down into small groups of 2-5 people for 10-15 minutes at a time can allow for fruitful brainstorming and strategizing, while coming back together to have one out of each small group present a really quick overview of points covered is likely to bring out all the important points floating around the larger group. It just keeps the larger group from sitting through people invariably bringing up the same things only slightly restated, a drain on everybody. Potential proposals then present themselves with only minimal refinement by a good facilitator (good to have people practice this role, in order to help people develop as facilitators).

    Also, as I brought up at Occupy Berkeley yesterday, it is important not to put efficiency before people. Yes, it can be difficult to move a meeting along if someone keeps interrupting or is otherwise gathering attention at the expense of a larger group. There can be a fine line, sometimes, between trying to include everyone and seeing people walk away as they feel alienated by a couple people they experience as disruptive. We should all feel like we can intervene, not waiting for some “authority” to “fix” the situation, but we don’t want to have vigilantiism (how the heck do we spell this?!). We don’t want people running around doing a power-over thing on anyone. If we wanted cops at our actions we’d be inviting them straight up, now, wouldn’t we? What we can do is recognize that if people are seeming disruptive it might be that 1) they do not understand how consensus process works, and feel they will have no opporunity to vent their feelings and opinions which unless they are of the 1% intending to stop this movement we might want to consider (this can be remedied by making large posters showing the flow chart of how the process works, having it posted prominently next to the meeting facilitator); 2) they simply do not feel that the meeting process is valid (if so, are their opinions less valid than others’?); 3) they would like to see the meetings include more personal feelings/ stories and less logistics (again, breaking down into small groups even a couple times in a couple-hour meetings can work wonders); 4) they might have some mental challenges and perhaps we need to remember that our 99% includes all of us, not only those who appear to be functioning at full capacity at all times, so we can do better at strategies around inclusion of all of us; 5) this movement has a very relaxed side to it, and we don’t have all that many decisions which need to be made NOW. This is a luxury people have created from the beginning, and maybe we all need to consider the “slow movement” appeal of this. We can take whatever time it takes to grow community, and model something different than the bill of goods sold to us in western rat-race society; 6) they could be infiltrators. We certainly had them with Food Not Bombs in the late ’80’s, and with Sonoma Pesticide Alert in the mid-’90’s.

    So how to deal with people who are blocking consensus all the time? First, stop thinking consensus process allows people to keep blocking. Absolutely not. Not unless someone has rewritten the decades-long process central to our anti-nuke movement. But what is demanded is a couple people stepping forward to engage the person, first of all talking with the person and slowly walking away from the meeting. Invariably the person is so starved to be heard that, she/ he will follow and engage. You can say something along the lines of, “Well, obviously you do not agree with a lot of what is going on here. What would you like to see happen?” Get the person talking and you might find that 1) the person has various creative ideas but doesn’t know how to have them heard seriously by the larger group, in which case you have the opportunity to explain consensus process to her/ him, and could even offer to help the person formulate language for a proposal and help her/ him make the proposal; 2) the person seems not to have clear ideas but at least you have probably helped to bring down a level of tension, and probably volume. You have the opportunity to tell this person that you understand that the meetings or actions don’t seem to work for her/ him, and remind this person that if she/ he really doesn’t feel any affinity for what is going on, perhaps she/ he might not want to be part of the action, or at least part of the meetings, which you can acknowledge can sometimes be trying, but you can make clear that blocking proposals is intended only for extreme cases of having ethical or moral qualms about a proposal, not simply for logging basic disagreements. If a person persists in blocking, do not think that this is an accepted part of the consensus process; instead, it is more likely a symptom of our society’s discomfort with individuals taking any personal responsibility for overseeing our own events and meetings, for instance. Western society is rife with authoritarianism, so much so that we do not grow up understanding how to step forward and “take charge” in good ways. But we must. Sometimes we need to engage even the people from whom we feel repelled. It takes only a couple people to distract people who otherwise are driving away others from meetings. And this goes for activists who drone on and on and on and seem to have so much to say they don’t listen to others, and sit planning their next grand statements. Such people, too, we might want to think about distracting. It’s hard to want to do that if we want to be part of a meeting, so it becomes the job of all of us to now and then do this, for the sake of having meetings which have some balance of efficiency with compassion.

    Maxina Ventura

    Posted by Maxina Ventura | October 17, 2011, 1:26 am

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