Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Consensus Revisited

I was recently given a link to a thoughtful piece that appeared in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology entitled "The Theology of Consensus" by L.A. Kauffman. The article is well researched on the history of consensus as practiced by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and then adapted for secular use by anti-nuclear activists in the '70s, but I have some problems with the analysis.

In this blog I'm going to quote extensively from the article, but have left out chunks that are either repetitive or not particularly germane to the author's critique of consensus.

I agreed with the author's history, but then she went substantially off the rails (in my view) when criticizing it as a decision-making process.

In practice, the process [consensus] often worked well in small-group settings, including within the affinity groups that often formed the building blocks for large [protest] actions. At the scale of a significant mobilization, though, the process was fraught with difficulty from the start. At the 1977 Seabrook blockade, where consensus was first employed in a large-scale action setting, the spokescouncil spent nearly all the time before being ordered to leave the site bogged down in lengthy discussions of minor issues. A similar dynamic played out in Occupy Wall Street almost a quarter century later, where the general assembly proved ill-equipped to address the day-to-day needs of the encampment. Though On Conflict and Consensus [by CT Butler and Amy Rothstein, 1987] assured organizers that “Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming,” experience suggested otherwise. The process favored those with the most time, as meetings tended to drag out for hours; in theory, consensus might include everyone in all deliberations, but in practice, the process greatly favored those who could devote limitless time to the movement — and made full participation difficult for those with ordinary life commitments outside of their activism.

For all of the care that Kauffman took in researching consensus' roots, she does not appear to have exercised equal care in understanding what needs to be in place for consensus to work well. 

While I tend to agree that it gets increasingly unwieldy to hear from everyone when the size of the group gets above 75, and that you probably need some form of representative consensus to make it work well with larger numbers, the vast majority of settings in which consensus is employed is with smaller groups The groups that Kauffman describes above made some fundamental errors:

o  The people who showed up at Seabrook or Occupy Wall Street were not screened for values alignment; they were given rights without any assessment of their ability to understand or use them well. Further, there was minimal training in understanding the process. Taken all together that's a recipe for a train wreck.

o As far as I'm concerned, savvy consensus groups discuss what kinds of issues should be decided in plenary (meetings of the whole) and then get disciplined about not talking about things that are beyond the scope of the group (world peace) or beneath the scope of the group (what color to paint placards). The latter should be delegated. Lacking an understanding about that, you get the experience described, where the group is susceptible to getting bogged down in minutia.

So I agree that there were problems with how consensus was practiced at Seabrook and Occupy, yet I don't think that justifies trashing consensus. Instead, you could learn how to use the tool better.

Movement after movement found, moreover, that the process tended to give great attention and weight to the concerns of a few dissenters. In the purest form of consensus, a block by one or two individuals could bring the whole group to a screeching halt. Sometimes, that forced groups to reckon with important issues that the majority might otherwise ignore, which could indeed be powerful and transformative. But it also consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works, even when groups adopted modifications to strict consensus that allowed super-majorities to override blocks.

While I understand anecdotally that provocateurs have been a real phenomenon in some protest actions, in the world I work in—intentional communities and other cooperative groups, where consensus is by far the most popular form of decision making—I've never met a provocateur in my 28 years as a process consultant. To be sure, I've met jerks, bullies, and people who couldn't listen for shit, but never someone hired to monkey wrench. So let's set that possibility aside as extremely remote, and drill down on the "cranks and malcontents."

Here are the consensus basics that Kauffman has slid past in making this point:

o  Groups need to define the basis for legitimate blocks, as well as the process by which potential blocks will be tested for legitimacy. The rule I advocate is that the proposal would violate a reasonable interpretation of a core value of the group, would contradict existing policy, or would otherwise be seriously detrimental to the well-being of the group (perhaps because it is too risky on a legal basis, or too questionable on moral grounds). Note: It is essential that groups don't put this work off until they need to apply it.

o  For consensus to work there needs to be a basic understanding among members that rights and responsibilities are joined at the hip. Thus, the right for a crank or malcontent to be heard is dependent on both: a) that the concern is linked to a group value (as distinct from a personal preference); and b) that after they have been heard, the group can expect them to turn around and extend that same courtesy to the viewpoints of those with whom they disagree. Those who simply bang their own drum until they get their way are abusing the process and need to be called on it.

The fact that some groups tolerate bad behavior does not mean that the process is flawed.

[Consensus] is also a process that is ill-equipped to deal with disagreements that arise from competing interests rather than simple differences of opinion. The rosy idea embedded in the process that unity and agreement can always be found if a group is willing to discuss and modify a proposal sufficiently is magical thinking, divorced from the real-world rough-and-tumble of political negotiation.

As a group dynamics consultant I work with consensus (in one form or another) all the time and I consistently get breakthrough results with it, so I'm wondering what meetings the author has been observing. That said, it's essential that the group understands and is willing to work with its core values in resolving differences. You have to take the time to hear how concerns are related to core values and then build solutions that honor those concerns. It's not about pounding your shoe on a table until you get your way; it's about first making your impassioned pitch for whatever group value(s) is(are) paramount for you—along with everyone—and then putting the soapbox away to collectively find the most elegant bridge that balances the concerns.

While I'll freely admit that there can be an art to holding the container in which the magic can happen; this process is based on developing and nurturing a culture that is fundamentally different from the one in which party and pressure politics operates as we know it in America. You have to be prepared to invest in culture change to get good results (which is a high bar), yet it's possible and it's badly needed.

Groups hold on to ingrained practices in part because they help reinforce their sense of identity. The complex liturgy of consensus process — from the specialized language and roles (“facilitators,” “vibes watchers,” “progressive stack,” and more) to the elaborate hand signals (“up-twinkles,” “down-twinkles,” and the like) — has functioned as much to signal and consolidate a sense of belonging to a certain tradition as it has to move decisions forward.

I agree with Kauffman insofar as groups do have a tendency to reinforce their uniqueness through over-use of jargon and arcane rules of engagement. That said, the basic principles of consensus are not that hard to lay out or teach (though accessing them in the heat of the moment can be deceptively elusive) and you don't need a lot of techniques so much as the right mindset.

Because consensus process was marked from the start not just by its religious origins but also by its cultural ones, that tradition has been imbued with whiteness. The Clamshell Alliance was, after all, an overwhelmingly white organization, bringing together white residents of the New Hampshire seacoast with white Quakers and an array of mostly white radicals from Boston and beyond for action in a white rural region.

Few of the groups that would adopt consensus in the decades to come would be quite as starkly monochromatic as the Clam, and the use of the process is hardly sufficient to explain the reasons for racial divisions within activist communities. But time and again, activists of color found the use of consensus in majority-white direct action circles to be alienating and off-putting, and white activists’ reverent insistence on the necessity and superiority of the process has exacerbated difficulties in multiracial collaboration and alliance-building.

Kauffman is right to point out that groups using consensus tend to be white, and that's true of the intentional communities movement as well. They also tend to be well-educated. That said, I think the biggest challenge is around how a group acknowledges or works with non-rational input. The default in our mainstream culture—which tends to be recapitulated without reflection in most consensus groups—is that meetings are a setting where participants are expected to work exclusively with rational input (and if you have a feeling, please translate it into a digestible thought before expressing it).

In my experience this is often what's off-putting to people of color (in addition to endless meetings because groups are ill-disciplined when it comes to what they talk about and how they manage input, per the points I made above). If the group discusses and develops an openness to working with people's emotions and passion, this can be turned around. While this often requires facilitators who can work with energy as well as content, these are learnable skills (I know because I teach them).

During the campus anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s, for instance, the use of consensus drove a major wedge at UC-Berkeley between the mostly white Campaign Against Apartheid and United People of Color, a multiracial student group. UPC organizer Patricia Vattuone explained at the time, “We felt it was undemocratic to have these long meetings—four hours, eight hours—when, I have things to do, other students are not only active in their own organizations, but can’t spend hours and hours and hours on Sproul, and that was the only way you could have input or provide leadership.” UPC proposed shifting to a representative decision-making method—but CAA, believing consensus to be intrinsically better and more radical, refused.

Two decades later, similar though less acute tensions arose when white activists streamed to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to participate in the Common Ground relief effort “with a preconceived notion that collectives use consensus as the decision-making process,” according to participants Sue Hilderbrand, Scott Crow, and Lisa Fithian. Local black activists preferred a different course of action, in which “the group defines itself and establishes the decision-making process collectively,” particularly since “the consensus process brought in by white activists confused many community members, who were often unfamiliar with the ‘rules’ of participation.”

These are sad stories in that they describe activists who were more intent on the process than building a connection to the people they wanted to support or create an alliance with. In consensus, the first order of business is demonstrating that you've fully heard the other person and can show—to their satisfaction— that you understand what their position means to them. It's not clear that either of those things happened in the above stories. Yuck.

The irony here, of course, is that activists have adopted consensus as part of a larger aspiration to prefigure the world they hope to create — presumably not one as racially bounded as the practice of consensus process has been. There’s long been a deep yearning at the heart of that prefigurative project for a kind of community and connection otherwise missing from many movement participants’ lives. 

I think this is a valid point. We are largely a rootless culture and we crave connection and belonging with our own kind.

The prime appeal of consensus process for 40 years has been its promise to be more profoundly democratic than other methods. This promise has been repeated again and again like dogma. But let’s face it: the real-world evidence is shaky at best. Perhaps the reason why it has endured so long in activist circles despite its evident practical shortcomings has something to do with the theological character it carried over from Quaker religious practice, the way it addresses a deep desire for transcendent group unity and “higher truth.”

I think this misses the point. Consensus has endured, I believe, because it, more than any other decision-making process, is consonant with a desirable shift to cooperative culture. We don't need a more democratic culture nearly so much as we need a more cooperative one. And if you can make the shift to being more curious than combative, to seeing the power of coming into a meeting with an open mind (rather than prepared to do battle with whoever disagrees with you), then consensus can bloom.
If the forty-year persistence of consensus has been a matter of faith, surely the time has now come for apostasy. Piety and habit are bad reasons to keep using a process whose benefits are more notional than real. Outside of small-group settings, consensus process is unwieldy, off-putting, tiresome, and ineffective. Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically. If we want to change the world, let’s pick ones that work.

First, let's pick a culture that works.

1 comment:

Clinton J Parker said...

Did the author provide or talk about any of the 'inclusive, accountable alternative models' they talked about?