Sunday, December 20, 2009

Consensus of Opinion

Are you familiar with that phrase? I am.

When I was a child, my parents used to drum into my head the redundancy of the expression consensus of opinion (if you ever wondered where my snobbery with words originated, look no further). What else, they reasoned, could a "consensus" refer to, except a collection of viewpoints held in

Today, however, I want to lament the lack of consensus about the meaning of the word consensus, about which I have a definite opinion. My friend Tony Sirna suggested this topic in an email yesterday:

"As the Senate now considers 60 votes needed to pass health care, if the Democrats just forget about the Republicans, then the Democrats essentially need to come to consensus (or at least unanimity) to pass health care.
It's interesting to see how they are stumbling through that process and how up in arms people get about the notion of one person blocking things.
It would be interesting to talk about how this is and is not like consensus."

As this topic appeals to me, here are my thoughts:

The Definitions
Consensus has two main meanings, which unfortunately have a tendency to overlap, fostering confusion: a) it is a specific decision-making process; and b) it refers to a preponderance of people holding a similar viewpoint, which can (sadly, because of the imprecision) mean anything from a bare majority to a unanimous opinion.

The former definition has a couple of roots. The dominant one in US culture is from the meeting practices developed by the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. The lesser known one is from certain Native American tribes, particularly those comprising the Iroquois Confederation. In the '60s, the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society pioneered a secularized version of consensus as a decision-making process, adapting the Quaker practice for use in the realm of political activism. Today, consensus, in one form or another, is the most common mode of decision-making adopted by intentional communities. Mind you, I didn't say it was well understood, or widely practiced with consummate skill; only that is was used a lot.

While there are a number of versions of consensus practiced among communities and cooperative groups today (the confusion around which has substantially contributed to my workload as a process consultant), it is clearly understood that agreements cannot be reached if there is any member—even one—standing in the way of a proposal. This is referred to as blocking.
While I'm constantly amazed at how many groups blithely opt for consensus as their decision-making process without any attempt to learn what it is beyond reading a book or hearing someone describe it once, there's no question that it's a popular choice among groups determined to find a more cooperative method for reaching agreements.

The latter definition is used to indicate which way the wind is blowing when focusing on a particular issue. It is commonly pressed into service to describe the position currently favored in a political analysis and is scale independent (that is, it's just as likely to be used to label a dominant position at a PTA meeting as a position in the US Senate, as Tony did above). While consensus, when used in this sense, often has a flavor of "a strong or overwhelming majority" (as in votes to burn), that is not always the case, contributing merrily to the obfuscation.

The overlap of these two definitions is that they can both be employed to describe a situation where people are trying to decide what to do, and both are associated with the "winning" position. If the process of decision-making is consensus, then the term refers to the absence of any principled objection. If the process is voting (a la the US Senate), then consensus refers to having secured enough votes to win. In both cases, consensus refers to there being sufficient agreement to determine the outcome.

The Confusion
This similarity of definitions and overlap of usage leads to considerable mischief. Because the cultures in which consensus (the decision-making process) and voting are designed to operate are as different as night and day, when a person speaks of "forging a consensus" the implications are wholly dependent on the context.

In consensus, agreement is ideally built by a process that fosters curiosity, compassion, and creativity. In voting, agreement is reached through a process of coalition-building, compromise, and calculation (often augmented by combativeness, concessions, and control). Now, finally, we are getting to the point Tony was raising about the quality of the Senate's machinations regarding the health care bill.

Note how difficult (schizophrenic?) it would be for the Democrats to apply the culture of consensus to forge agreement on their position, only to turn around and apply the power of that agreement in order to win the vote, which decision resides firmly in the other paradigm and is the one they're deeply steeped in. (It generates the kind of brain-freeze headache you get from eating ice cream too fast.) It is all the more improbable (though the goddess only knows our society needs this kind of cultural change) that Senators would embrace the culture of consensus in that they were elected by succeeding at electoral politics. While there are historic examples of people who had epiphanies about the way they conducted business after they ascended to power, they are scarcer than potato seed and I'm not holding my breath waiting for consensus conversations among the US Senate.

When Obama opted during the 2008 election campaign to promote an image as someone who could work both sides of the aisle, he was essentially claiming the ability to use the process of consensus to get things done in Washington without the divisiveness of politics as usual. It is instructive that this message helped to get him elected, yet hard-boiled political professionals are now using this claim against him, as a sign of his weakness and a wishy-washy nature—something not admired or deemed effective in the culture of voting, where the preemptive strike is applauded, and curiosity is spun as indecisiveness and looked upon with scorn.

Note further how ridiculous it is to talk about one or two Democrats "blocking" a unified party position when there are 40 Republicans poised to join them in voting against the health care bill. This kind of high-level posturing is the ponderous dance of the political pachyderms, and there is no lightfootedness or what's-best-for the-country nonpartisan thinking about it—however much breast-beating there is to the contrary.

The Conclusion
I believe that if we want politicians to operate from the culture of consensus, then we'll have to find a way to build neighborhoods and cities that operate from that culture, and then insist that we have representatives just like us. Can I get consensus about that?


Quentin said...

You are exactly right. Good observation. But we are soooooooooo far, far apart no seeing each other for a looooong time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Laird and Tony.

One of the reasons I choose to focus my life in intentional community is because I believe it is the culture from which will arise whatever solutions the world is longing for; the culture that nurtures each of us toward the inner transformations necessary as the foundation of grassroots social transformation.

The other side of that belief coin, for me, is that the political and governmental systems that now exist are completely dysfunctional and beyond repair. For myself, I feel any efforts oriented toward transforming the monster are a waste of my energy. My projection is that whatever will emerge as the result of creating a grassroots consensus culture will emerge from that culture and not from a transformation of the Goliath of the entrenched world power systems. The giant must fall, leaving the new culture to arise in it's place. I could be wrong about this of course, and I pray that whatever happens will be an easy and graceful transformation.

Recently, my community was blessed with a visit by Laird and Ma'ikwe for an enjoyable and inspiring consensus training. Their visit catalyzed a deepening of my ongoing consideration of the nature of consensus.

What is arising in me is a clarity that, in order to be a sustainable new culture movement, consensus must be experienced as a spiritual process rather than simply a replacement social technology. Rather than solely a transition into a secular psychic unanimity, it must become a transformation into a transcendental experience of oneness and unity, an alignment in Spirit as the source of the always already unified field in which resides all solutions. It's not only a gathering of minds with the intent and willingness to foster solutions that are agreeable to all; it's also a faithful surrender that the solutions already exist in Spirit and the "process" here is more of a resting in that faith and allowing the already existing solutions to be recognized.

I believe it's time to open up again to spirituality, not as dogmatic belief system, but as a transformational recognition that Spirit is not elsewhere or other, It is Who We Really Are, always available in, as, and through us as "social change" agents.

My belief is that this must happen as an individual and community experience first and that this will organically and spontaneously expand to affect larger social transformation without us needing to speculate and contrive from a place that can only be base in partial and, in my opinion, counter-productive understanding.

From the Spirit-full space of potent and dynamic rest, as individuals and communitarians we'll always clearly know what to consent toward when the time is ripe.

Robert Griffin