Consensus: a Critique and an Answer

Zoe Mitchell, a media activist (and finishing student), has completed a thesis entitled “A Critique of Consensus Process,” that she has also posted to
the DC IMC, where she has been a volunteer.

In her introduction she notes that one of her motivations for
the piece comes from her experiences in consensus processes at the DC
IMC where she left frustrated over the way things were run, convinced
that dissenting and minority viewpoints were being ignored or overrun.

It is a clear, thoughtful and well researched piece that I think
does well address many of the deficiencies in the democratic processes
of activist groups.

I am very glad to see the question raised and these criticisms
expressed, especially in such a constructive manner. Democracy is about process, and at its best consensus is a process of making the best possible decisions, not just any old decisions. To assume that consensus is unassailable and beyond question attacks the very heart of it and undermines the real goal of democracy.

However, I am less convinced that Zoe’s thesis is actually
a penetrating critique of the philosophy or processs of consensus. Rather, I think it is a
critique of how consensus–and more broadly, democracy–is actually practiced.

I’m familiar with most of the sources that Zoe pulls from, having
researched democratic theory myself during my academic career, and I understand their critiques of
modern American republicanism and consensus. However, I don’t think
that any of them offer an accurate depiction of consensus because
they rely too much on procedure, and not enough on principle and practice.
This may not be the fault of the author’s so much as the fault of the big gaping hole where the
documentation of the theory and pracitice of real working consensus should be.

Nevertheless, democracy is hard, and procedures alone will not make it easier.
Indeed, because it aims to be maximally inclusive and participatory, consensus can be one of the hardest forms of democracy out there.
It challenges us to rethink assumptions that go back to childhood, the
staunchest of which are ideas of majority rule and unanimity. It challenges us both on
a philosophical level and on a practical level, by asking us to act in new ways.

Let me start by clarifying my own position on the subject. Just
a few years ago I was highly critical of the consensus model — quite
convinced of the fairness and feasability of deliberative
majoritarian democracy.
I’d had about 10 years of experience in various volunteer groups
that used different forms of majoritarian democracy.
My experience informed me that this model works quite well when
accompanied by an inclusive
and deliberative procedure — one that relies as much on fairness
and discussion as
on the vote itself.

I was most informed by the time I served as the chair of the
Committee at a community radio station. We had very few truly
votes, and even fewer that split the committee in half. However,
occasionally did happen. But they didn’t happen most of the time
we invested a great deal of time in open discussion that was aimed at
finding the most agreeable proposal and/or compromise for the given

However, for quite some time we did have one member of the committee
was very consistently contrarian on a number of issues. So
contrarian, in fact,
that often he alienated members of the committee who were otherwise
open and
responsive to his concerns, but frustrated over his unwillingness to

Even as this occurred, one member of my committee continually, but
not forcefully,
suggested the committee attempt to use consensus, rather than
majority rule. I
was not to be convinced, especially concerned that our one
contrarian member would
be able to stop the works altogether. I couldn’t see what consensus
would bring us
that we didn’t already have.

And, in fact, I was paritally right. But not entirely.

I ended my membership of that committee in 1998 and for two years
had minimal involvement
in facilitated group decision making processes. But then in 2000
the organizational
stages for the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center started,
and I greatly wanted
to be a part of seeing this organization into existence.

And very early on, it seemed to be the will of the majority of
participants in founding
the IMC that consensus be the process of choice. There were no
voices raised in opposition.
And not mine.

I’d given about two years thought to this idea of consensus, and
become somewhat warmer to the
idea. I’d been moved along this path by my partner Ellen, herself a
political scientist and
a researcher in the area of democracy. Through many, many
conversations, she posed situations
and methodologies where consensus would work as well or better than
majoritarian democracy.

When consensus was proposed as the decision making method for
the Urbana IMC I was not wholly
convinced, but I was not utterly opposed either. I decided to look
at the builing of the Urbana
IMC as both a challenge and learning process. The challenge would
lie in working with people I didn’t
know before, with ideas and approaches more different to mine than I
was accustomed. The learning
would come from giving up a little bit of personal control to see
what would happen if I simply
trusted these other people — many of whom I did not know before —
to do what they believe is right.

Two years later I’m glad I did. And I think I understand more
clearly what consensus is about: TRUST.

Indeed, Zoe admits as much in her critique of consensus
when she quotes Mansbridge, who
claims that consensus only works successfully in small circles of
friends because

“they hold ‘total respect’ for each other and ‘have
common interests.’”

I believe both these aspects essentially boil down to

I share my story about being thrown into the sea of consensus
because I
have become a convert of sorts. But not a starry-eyed believer
of a
newfound cult. No, I am an observant and critical believer, simply
I am to aware of the abuses that Zoe identifies — specifically the
ability to use consensus procedures to utterly stifle dissent and
in favor of creating the appearance of unanimity.

But that’s the problem: unanimity. As well researched her
definition is,
I think that is the chief problem with her thesis — her definition
consensus as “unanimity.”

What Zoe’s essay does quite effectively is deconstruct the notion of
and demonstrate rather well at how difficult it is to achieve, and
moreover, how
it is most often a fiction — an end in search of a means.

But consensus is not unanimity.

To get at what consensus is, I like to go to the root —
“consent.” It’s funny,
in the IMC world I keep hearing people grasping for the proper verb
to denote that
a group has reached consensus. They keep creating a new one (in
English, at least):
“consense” or “consensed.” That’s how far way I think the notion of
consensus has
gotten from the root notion of consent.

In my experience thus far it is the notion of consent that is the
most powerful
element of consensus and most vividly portrays both the power of the
individual and
the group. I think it also explains the difference between
consensus procedures that
don’t work and majoritarian procedures that do.

Roughly speaking, to consent means to agree, but yet seems to
have connotations
that differ some. To give consent also means to give permission, or
to allow.

However, all too often I see people interpret consensus to mean
that everyone
not only allows, but wholeheartedly endorses. It’s a fine
degree of difference,
but a significant difference nonetheless.

My pointing this out, in fact, does not necessarily contradict
Zoe’s criticims of
consensus. That’s because her experiences are real. Because
consensus has not been
used successfully, or dare I say, correctly, in too many

My contention is that this is the result of misunderstanding and
poor execution. Consensus fails as a result of participants not having a mutual
understanding of what their goals and procedures actually are. In the
absence of that understanding (and agreement) most participants in almost any group process will simply do their best not to make waves. And that certainly is not democracy.

See, this is the hard part. ANY democratic procedure can be
railroaded or derailed.
Execution is the very key to democracy. Democracy does not happen
without understanding and practice.

Therefore, my chief complaint with Zoe’s critique is not the fault she finds
with consensus, but, rather
she does not adequately elucidate a majoritarian alternative that
actually addresses the
problems with consensus. If she had a stronger alternative that might
make for a stronger case that the flaws she identifies in consensus are inherent, rather than simple flaws in understanding and execution.

But all that Zoe offers for a ” truly participatory [majoritarian] democracy”is basically :

“[participants] would simply have to make an honorable commitment to valuing
all types of speech and rejecting unanimity in favor of a majority
rule scheme where dissenters can object to the policy and have that
objection well documented in case the policy needs to be revised in
the future.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the principle of “an honorable commitment to valuing all types of speech” and having dissenters properly resepcted. But you can effect the same thing in consensus.

Indeed, I’ll say that you must effect this in consensus, or any other truly democractic process.

But in a majoritarian scheme, you are still left with a minority. Sure, that minority may have
been recognized, but its will has not been done. Its will may even have been
contradicted. I don’t see how this result is necessarily any better than a minority
in consensus process who has been pressured into saying silent, except for the fact
that the expression of dissent is always better than its silence.

Ultimately, however, over a series of majoritarian decisions, that minority can be
utterly disempowered if its key objection is not truly embraced and only merely recognized and documented by the
majority. Indeed, I used recognition as a tool to shut up the lone dissenter when I was
the chair of the Programming Committee. Having his dissenting views recognized and placed
in the record seemed to disarm him and allow us to move on with business, but I’m not sure
that it was any more democratic than if he had been stifled by the collective will to be unanimous. The difference in both cases is whether or not anyone truly listened to and considered that dissenting viewpoint.

Majoritarian democracy works best when all paricipants consent to it. That is, even participants on
the losing end of a given vote consent to being on the losing end. They understand and recognize
the procedures and limitations of the process, but nonetheless allow things to happen that they
otherwise did not explicitly consent to and did not vote for.

In my experience, when the dissenting minority is recognized for their dissent, and not
treated differently or prejudicially for their consent, then majoriarian democracy is most
functional. In this case the minority is not viewed as a strange subset bent on destruction,
but as a group of equals that respectfully dissent on questions or even principles at hand.
I think this is the scenario that Zoe is attempting to define and recommend.

But that’s only one possible scenario. Even a recognized minority may still be minimized or
effectively disempowered, even though their paricipation continues unabated. What’s the difference?
The attitude of the majority.

Indeed, that’s also the difference between a functional and dysfunctional consensus. Except that
in consensus the attitude of the minority matters, too.

I noted earlier that a key element of consensus democracy is trust. I’d like to expand this to
say that the key element of democracy is trust. The more trust you have, the more democratic the
results of any tactic for decision making. The less trust, the less democracy.

If you trust somebody and you trust that she has the best interest of the organization in mind
you will pay her more mind and should be more willing to fairly hear out her ideas and dissent. But
if you distrust someone, believe that she maybe doesn’t have the best interest of the organization
in mind, then you have no reason to trust her dissent either. What you may be inclined to believe
is that her dissent is a tactic — a tactic designed to ruin and destroy rather than build.

Majoritarian procedures deal with distrust much more easily. It’s much more open to alliance
building and side-taking — you only need something like 51% to win and disempower.

On the other hand, consensus doesn’t deal with distrust well at all. How can you find common
consent when you don’t trust each other?

If you can’t trust each other, you can’t find consensus. Majoritarian democracy will gloss over
this distrust by reinforcing the trust of the majority amongst itself, with the possible byproduct
of increasing distrust between the minority and majority.

But distrust is not the logical outcome of either process and should not be a prerequisite.
Neither is trust a logical outcome, but it should be a prerequisite for any democratic process.

That’s where we find the importance of “consent” in consensus. Like the minority in a fair
majoritarian process, the dissenting minority in a consensus process must recognize that their
consent is what is asked for. In majoritarian process the consent of the minority is a given
if they choose to participate — the decision is made even with their explicit “no” vote.

In consensus the consent of a minority is not given, it is asked for and must be made explicitly.
Herein lies the power of “standing down” and compromise. In standing down, a dissentor is making
essentially the same move that the defeated minority is forced into in majoritarian procedure.
That is, the parties who stand down say “OK, I don’t agree, but I don’t so disagree that I wish
to stop action. I consent to moving forward, even if I don’t explicitly consent to the decision, per
se.” To stand down is also to say “although I disagree, I also trust my fellow participants that
they have our best interests in mind.”

To stand down is not to be defeated, nor to give way to a speeding train in order to save face,
nor save the appearance of unanimity.

Compromise is an inherent part of consensus, and can be a part of majoritarian democracy. At its
best, majoritarian procedures bring vote on compromise proposals that have the widest possible
agreement — but this is not inherent.

If there is not consesus, then compromise is absolutely necessary for a decision to be made. Yes,
as Zoe points out, this is the point at which action can be completely and utterly stalled. But why?
Why would a group choose inaction of stasis over action? Answering these questions is how
groups grow past surface disagreements. I argue that distrust is the most significant factor in making stasis being a
preferrable outcome to action. If you distrust someone’s intent, you’d rather see her do nothing at all.

For consensus to work, all participants have to understand and agree that decision making is
important and that there are shared goals and priniciples. This understanding has to be
explicit as possible, because this understanding and agreement is what creates and builds trust.

Participants also have recogize each others as equals, regardless of differences.

Most importantly, for consensus to work, all participants must agree that they are there to
make decisions and to further progress on some project. They are not there just to pal around,
they are not there to feel important.

Finally, participants have to recognize and agree that the airing of concerns and dissent is
inherent to the decision making process. That airing concerns is the path to making better decisions.
Indeed, it is a part of the process whereby a group engages in critical thinking and problem solving.
Dissent must be embraced and truly paid heed in any form of democracy. Consensus requires the further
step that dissent also be integrated as much as possible, not simply recognized and passed by.

Those are the only points on which unanimity is necessary. Without true unanimity on these things,
you have no basis for trust. Beyond that, unanimity is not a goal, nor a requirement.

With these basic principles in mind almost any democratic process should run better. The difference
with consensus is that it will come closest to finding the most agreeable solution to the most people –
not just a majority.

If after the airing and reconciliation of concerns there is still significant dissent, then
there is much work to be done. What’s most important here is for the root of the dissent to be
most accurately identified. This takes time, work and commitment, but can actually save an
organization from itself.

Consensus encourages that the very assumptions underlying difference be aired and dealt with.
Consensus can bring out differences in opinion on mission and goal that majoritarian rule would be
glad to ignore. The airing of such difference might mean that a lone dissenters best option is to leave
the group. But I argue that such an outcome may be the best for everyone, since staying in a group
that is actively pursuing a goal you disagree with can only be a miserable experience for everyone.

In the end, consensus has no better way to resolve an irreconcilable block than majoritarian
procedures. However– for what it’s worth–such a block in consensus is very unlikely to be a 49% minority.
If progress is a goal, decisions have to be made, even in the face of dissent. Trust can make this easier,
distrust can make this ruinous.

I do not claim that consensus is the best or most democratic procedure for decision making. I do
claim that it is potentially one of the most democratic procedures. But I temper this claim with the
recognition that it can be very difficult and challenging. It requires that people be honest and
openly question their assumptions about democracy and agreement. It requires that people question their own will and desires — question why they want things and then question if they have good reasons. It requires that people take the risk to trust others,
even others who they don’t know and have no other reason to trust.

This is all very very hard. It requires commitment, much more so than procedures. In my
limited experience when consensus fails it fails before it gets out of the gate — common goals and trust aren’t
established. Participants aren’t given an opportunity to understand. It’s not so surprising, then,
to read a critique’s like Zoe’s.

Consensus may not be the most appropriate approach for all circumstances. I’ve never tried to use
it in a group bigger than 50 or so — I don’t know how it scales.

What I do know is that no decision making strategy is democratic unless every participant agrees to that common strategy. That is where there must be unanimity — whether using Robert’s Rules, paliamentary procedure or consensus.
Without unanimity on the strategy and what that strategy requires, then you will have failures of
democracy. Unfortunately, it’s right there where most attempts at democracy — regardless of strategy — fail.






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