Occupiers! Stop Using Consensus!
April 5, 2017 8:11 PM   Subscribe

Consensus process (the idea that a group must strictly adhere to a protocol where all decisions are unanimous) is the absolute worst idea that has ever been introduced to the activist community.
posted by the hot hot side of randy (60 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's fairly ironic that both the Occupy movement and the WTO use consensus decision making.

It doesn't work in either context, apparently. Though at least the WTO has evolved from the GATT era, when a Dispute Resolution finding that went against a particular country could always be defeated by a single vote ... from that particular country.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:19 PM on April 5 [9 favorites]


it was invented by Quakers for religious reasons

See also: Liberum veto, aka "Polish parliament".
posted by effbot at 8:30 PM on April 5 [10 favorites]


Thank you! Sharing this where I hope it will help.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:49 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


Consensus can be exceedingly effective (if exceedingly exhausting!) in fairly small groups of people who at least kind of know each other, and where decisions don't need to be made immediately. It is vulnerable to bullies (like every other decision-making system).

It is work. It is valuable work, and I encourage everyone who does regular small-group-we-know-each-other work to make use of it. It is extremely useful in learning how to listen, and hear, and translate and interpret how others are listening and hearing. And it will give you an instant bond with every other person who has worked in consensus-based groups.
posted by rtha at 8:57 PM on April 5 [32 favorites]


and this is why I quit going to quaker meeting
posted by rocket at 9:09 PM on April 5 [7 favorites]


Hats off to effbot, who beat me to citing the Polish Sejm's Liberum Veto process, which as a student of history I believe is one of the most important reasons Poland did not become (and remain) a super-power during the early modern period of 17th and 18th centuries.

Yeah, it's a dumb way to run things, and there are plenty of examples to prove it.
posted by seasparrow at 9:16 PM on April 5 [10 favorites]


I'm a Quaker, and we could tell a lot of stories about both the triumphs and tragedies of seeking unity as a body. One of the things that makes it work better in a Quaker setting than I've experienced in other places (like collectively-run feminist and lesbian bodies back in the 80s and 90s) is that there is a strong shared value placed on the process—which is to say, we really deeply believe that it is possible to find a shared perspective and that how we get to a decision is at least as important as the decision itself. So, for instance, there is a Quaker practice of minuting when unity can't be found—we accept that sometimes it's just not possible. It's rare, but some of the most powerful Quaker business meetings I've been at have ended in a painful shared recognition that we couldn't all come together on an issue.

Also, we do this unity shit all the fucking time. It's how we make every decision in our monthly meetings (the odd Quaker name for the body that meets every week for worship and meets for business meeting once a month, hence the name); in committee meetings; at Quarterly and Yearly meetings. Our kids start having business meetings "in the manner of Friends" as, like, kindergartners. As a result we have vast experience in every kind of outcome: someone strongly disagrees and blocks a decision; someone strongly disagrees and, realizing that they are out of step with the body as a whole, "steps aside"; easy unity; and hard unity that comes only after weeks, months, or years of working on an issue. We have meetings called "threshing meetings" where we get together over a difficult decision with no intention of making a decision, but only to listen to each other. We are deeply trained not to speak more than once on an issue unless we are very strongly led to do so; we allow silence between speakers; we have no taboo against changing one's mind—it is expected that listening deeply to the insights and experiences of others will change hearts and minds, and when someone says, "I came into this meeting feeling strongly that X, but after listening to you all, I am now comfortable proceeding with Y," we accept that as part of the process. We rarely dig in our heels or defend an initial position (if someone is regularly doing this, they are not in order and will usually be called out on it).

In addition, every meeting is clerked. It has one person (sometimes two sharing the role) whose job is to facilitate things, but more deeply to listen and try to hear an emerging unity. You'll hear a clerk say, "I'd like to propose a minute," and then they will sum up what we call the "sense of the meeting," and surprisingly often, even when we didn't think we were coming together, they will have found the place where we agree. If a meeting is getting contentious, the clerk will often call for silence. Hands are up all over the room, everybody wants to throw in their two cents, and the clerk will say, "Let's settling into some silent worship," and after a couple of minutes, when you can feel the energy of the room has come down a bit, they'll say, "OK. Now, I'd like to hear from people who haven't spoken before, or who have points that haven't been made before, or who feel very strongly about being heard." Usually 9 out of 10 of those hands won't go back up, because on reflection a person has cooled off, or realized they were just repeating someone else.

We also say, "This Friend speaks my mind" when we strongly agree with someone. That way you don't have to stand up and spend five minutes repeating what that person said.

A clear can ask someone if they're willing to stand aside, if it's clear they're alone outside unity. This is why we talk about the "sense of the meeting" and not "universal agreement." If someone does step aside, this is minuted. When my meeting was thinking of building a meetinghouse after decades of meeting in rented spaces, one woman who had belonged to a meeting with a meetinghouse really opposed the idea. She felt, based on her experience on the Building and Grounds committee there, that a meeting that owns a building can find its energy and purpose diverted to supporting the building. Finally, when it had become clear that the meeting as a whole was ready to buy property, she stood up and said, "You all know I oppose this, and that hasn't changed. I do feel, however, that my concerns have been heard, and I recognize that I am out of step. I'd like to stand aside on this decision." This meant that we didn't have to persuade her to support building a meetinghouse; she thought we'd listened and taken her concerns seriously, and she was willing to let it go.

We take clerking really seriously. We study how to do it; there are workshops and books and retreats on how to do it well. Everybody clerks at some point. Every committee has a clerk; even a casual one-off meeting to discuss, oh, what we're serving at the annual picnic will start by choosing someone to clerk the meeting. In this way we build experience, and we also discover who has particular gifts at clerking. A good clerk is a joy to behold; a weak one is a burden to be borne until their term ends. It is common in Quaker organizations to limit terms of service on committees and as clerks, so as to give everyone experience and also to avoid individuals becoming entrenched. I have a friend who has been holding a monthly meeting for worship for a particular purpose in his home every months for, oh, twenty years? He keeps it going; he hosts it; he provides food and tea every month. But he doesn't clerk it. At the beginning of every month's meeting, somebody volunteers.

Of course, we are also very aware that every contentious decision eventually gets made in part because some people leave. Same-sex marriage, for instance, has been supported by many liberal Quaker meetings for decades. When my partner and I, then a same-sex couple, attended our first meeting at our local Friends meeting back in 1994 or so, somebody came up to us after the meeting to tell us that they did same-sex union ceremonies. They'd minuted their support not long before, and hadn't had a chance to actually do one yet. (The meeting has done quite a few by now; but not one for me and my partner, although we are still together.)

Every meeting that minuted support for same-sex marriage lost people over it. Sometimes unity is reached in part because the people who are not unity go away, leaving behind a bunch of people who agree with each other. Some of the more conservative branches of Quakerism are experiencing schisms, or at risk of them, over same-sex marriage. Heck, over whether it's OK to be gay at all. This is very painful, but hard to avoid.

We've also seen meetings go to hell over the most minor issues: the color of the new carpet, say. A friend of mine recently visited a meeting while traveling, and reported to me with an eyeroll that, in this time of political strife and the deep need for people to stand up for human rights and help the vulnerable, they were embroiled in a lengthy and contentious conflict over whether to install air conditioning in their meeting house.

We also can end up wasting a lot of time on trivial issues. Until you've sat in a poorly-clerked meeting of 50 people, all having their say on where the commas should go in a minute or epistle, while the first truly beautiful spring day of the year fades into twilight outside the window, you haven't really experienced Quakerism. At its best, Quaker process is transcendent, holy, a powerful force for human connection and good in the world. At its worst, you spend the best years of your life getting way too invested in whether the windows in the social hall have blinds or curtains.

I talked about a person not in unity standing aside. Although it's rare, Quaker process also allows for a meeting that is otherwise unified to make a decision even if Friend Decision-Blocker won't stand aside. I think I've seen this happen once in all my years of Quakering; it's a less-than-ideal outcome and always feels a bit like we've failed. But there are times when time is tight or action has to be taken quickly, and at those times "sense of the meeting" doesn't necessarily mean "everybody agrees 100%."

Yours in the Light, as we Quakers say,

Friend Orlop.
posted by Orlop at 9:20 PM on April 5 [450 favorites]


Interestingly the comments suggest that this was written by Occupy-turned-(later)-pseudo-fascist-troll Justine Tunney. But I will say my personal experience with consensus-based processes is somewhat mixed.
posted by atoxyl at 9:27 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]


The interesting thing about the veto in the Sejm is that it did work for so long. My understanding is it didn't really go out of control until the deluge in the 17th century, which the wiki article essentially confirms. It was there before then, but not a disaster. There were ways to bring szlachta who opposed something along without triggering their veto. The success is the fascinating part for me.

So I found Orlop's description of how it can be successful in some cases fascinating. The closest I've come to seeing it work is in book clubs.

In Occupy? No, I agree it seems like a bad idea.
posted by mark k at 9:34 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


My hat off to effbot as well for posting the liberum veto link. I was a part of the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco in its early years and was elected to the board of directors twice (insert joke about being an authority figure of an anarchist collective here).

Consensus is at the core of everything dysfunctional about Noisebridge. Every organization has problems, but consensus prevents problems from being solved. It worked fine when NB was less than two dozen people who all knew each other, but quickly stopped scaling. In theory, people work together to come to a decision everyone can compromise and live with. In practice, blocking was a unilateral veto and a way to stop discussion. Toxic people who intentionally stole and broke other members' things would stay on because it only took one friend to block their banning. People lived out of the space, literally walling off sections for their sleeping quarters.

When a single person can block a person becoming a member, it quickly became an echo chamber where ideological purity was demanded. But who could blame them? Blocking is such a nuclear option you don't dare give it to anyone you suspect of having different views.

I get the appeal for radical groups: on the surface consensus seems like a more personal, less political way to make group decisions. But after years of seeing it action, I can attest that it is a disaster that can't be reformed.

The now-notorious Jacob Appelbaum was a huge proponent of consensus: he's able to get his way through charisma, whereas rules and organizational process are only things people can leverage against him. Consensus is a strategy for ensuring group decisions (like punishing problematic behavior) never get made. It's a breeding ground for bullies.

Aside from the 17th century experience in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jo Freeman wrote about similar problems in The Tyranny of Structurelessness in the 1970s and is worth a read.
posted by AlSweigart at 9:42 PM on April 5 [37 favorites]


I experienced how disruptive Consensus and Structurelessness was first hand as on Occupy Portland organizer. We went from being a fairly focused and diverse coalition (pre- September 18th) that had a plan to a death spiral of polarization and ostracization, due to the infection on consensus.

Disruptive personalities, single-issue fanatics, narcissisists, control freaks, the mentally ill, and actual agents provacateur (as we later learned) all used Consensus to usurp space, time, and shout down any coherent plan or focus.

I tried, all the way through February, but it got so bad. People calling me a traitor and a sellout for the simple and radical idea of talking to our elected officials and lobbying them like any other interest group would do.


Between my experiences in the Portland activist/ protest community and the 2000 and 2016 elections, frankly, I've lost all belief in the utility of democracy as a method for achieving progress. Plato was right- Democracy is merely the chrysalis of an incipient tyranny, whether oligarchic or populist.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 9:56 PM on April 5 [15 favorites]


I cut my activist teeth in a group that used consensus. It worked until it didn't, and the group split over decision making processes (which was, as most disagreements over process turn out to be, actually about political priorities and values). The meeting facilitation skills I learned have stood me in good stead and I wish that more people had consensus meeting facilitation training, as it would make a lot of meetings go more smoothly. There's definitely a value in developing really strong and deep agreement among everyone in a group, but it's only possible with a group that has already agreed on underlying values and has a shared culture of consensus. It's really powerful in the right places. It just isn't right for all groups.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:59 PM on April 5 [18 favorites]


> Between my experiences in the Portland activist/ protest community and the 2000 and 2016 elections, frankly, I've lost all belief in the utility of democracy as a method for achieving progress. Plato was right- Democracy is merely the chrysalis of an incipient tyranny, whether oligarchic or populist.

I'm with you on consensus, but 2000 and 2016 stand as evidence of the efficacy of democracy — if those elections had been held under democratic rules, the Presidency would have gone to Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:22 PM on April 5 [7 favorites]


definitely let's continue taking lots of political organizing advice from Justine Tunney
posted by RogerB at 10:25 PM on April 5 [6 favorites]


Wow, Friend Orlop. That reads almost like a bunch of impossible things you need to have that someone might list to argue that decision-making by consensus would never work. It's wonderful to hear that there are still communities that actually have those traditions and resources.

I'm told that at Quaker-founded George Fox University faculty meetings (and administration?!) make decisions by consensus, which blows my mind.
posted by straight at 10:34 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


I cannot imagine how consensus-based decision making would work on a large scale, especially when involving hot-button issues and strong opinions. It seems at its heart consensus requires all parties involved to believe everyone is sound of mind and acting in good faith. But when things get really contentious, the maintenance of that belief requires personal connections and trust--and at a certain point a group gets too large for every member to have formed that sort of relationship with every other member.

I think both conservative and liberal thinkers can fall into the trap of basing their ideas around the assumption that large organizations (and countries) can operate like small, close-knit communitie.s Conservatives think we should drop social welfare and trust that charity will take care of it; similarly, mandating consensus in all things assumes a 5-person organization and a 500-person organization retain the same dynamics.
posted by schroedinger at 11:09 PM on April 5 [15 favorites]


Christiania has consensus democracy, and it works and has worked for more than 40 years. It doesn't work smoothly, and there are huge issues about how to fight crime within the community, but there is a community with all the functions of a modern community like taxes, infrastructure, childcare, healthcare etc. (Though it seems that today the community website is down)
One example of how consensus is beneficial is that everyone in Christiania pays their "taxes" - the community contribution that makes everything work. And if consensus agrees on a deal made with official Denmark, that deal will be honored 100%. On the other hand, consensus is really slow and by nature, conservative.
It was very interesting for me to read Orlop's description of Quaker meetings, because I can see how the Christiania "common meeting" is gradually developing some of the methods of the Quaker meetings. Is there some literature on your rules and methods, Orlop? I'd like to give it to my Christiania friends, next time I go.
posted by mumimor at 11:29 PM on April 5 [5 favorites]


The interesting thing about the veto in the Sejm is that it did work for so long.

I wonder sometimes if your US separation of legislature and executive is a similar Bad Idea that good behaviour has kept going and is only now breaking down because of bad faith actors. It has worked very poorly in other countries.

General point about systems always needing good faith OR minority rule? Or can good people use any system and bad people none?
posted by alasdair at 11:31 PM on April 5 [6 favorites]


So, that article is more than four years old.

Did Occupiers stop using consensus?
posted by dersins at 11:31 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]




I'm reminded of Quinn Norton's A Eulogy for Occupy:

By the time I returned to NY from visiting the camp in DC, exhausted with the pain of six evictions, the NYC GA was a place where women were threatened with beatings, and street kids with calls to the police. All the reasonable people had gotten the fuck out. It had become a gladiator pit no one enjoyed watching. Even Weev, the famous internet troll, didn’t last through the nastiness of the GA I took him to. He left while I wasn’t looking, without saying goodbye. We never spoke about it. I didn’t blame him, and I didn’t have to ask why. It was the tiny, brutal, and bitter politics of failed people.

This is what the GA became in so many places.

“I saw women trying to talk, trying to question where the money was going,” an occupier in San Francisco named Morgan told me, “and the meth fiends running finance would get directly in their faces (and) give them the meth glare from just inches away. People would try to pull them back, and within a minute they’d be doing it again. No one got into Occupy to get into physical conflicts with speedfreaks.”

After pouring all his spare time and expertise into Occupy Morgan too left, defeated by the process. “I think all of us who believed in it feel the failure as part of ourselves. It was really difficult to see what it had become.”

The idea of the GA — its process, its form, inclusiveness — failed. It had all the best chances to evolve, imprinted on the consciousness of thousands of occupiers like a second language. No idea gets a better chance than that, and it still failed.

Fuck the GA. Bury it at a crossroads, staked through the heart, and pray it never rises again.


Man, when weev is beaten down by consensus, you know it's rough.
posted by zabuni at 11:50 PM on April 5 [8 favorites]


I think this article makes several ridiculous arguments - demanding consensus against adoption, in particular, is absurd, but can apparently be achieved via "compelling argument"? What's dismissed entirely is the responsibility of dissenters to evaluate the depth of their dissent, and consider that the deeply-held convictions of a minority (even a very small one) might, reasonably, outweigh the less deeply-held opposite opinions of a majority. Basically, you know, act like sensitive human beings instead of democracy machines.
Letting an individual with a marginal argument disrupt an entire proposition is not consensus (taking the example from the post; so far as I know, the strictest consensus rules still require a 10% opposition to block, and there was no reason the vast majority of supporters could not have just gone and joined the Verizon march, regardless of any official(?!) endorsement).
In my experience, opposition to consensus arises from the laziness and indifference of people involved in projects they don't actually care about, willing to submit a vote, but unwilling to invest the time or attention sometimes needed to reach mutually agreeable resolutions.
On the other hand, if participants literally can not reach consensus, then, by definition, they don't have the same goals or opinions on methods, and their association is probably better off splintered or dissolved (as my personal experience with Occupy reflects).
posted by relooreloo at 11:58 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]


Quakers: We do this unity shit all the fucking time.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:01 AM on April 6 [15 favorites]


It was the tiny, brutal, and bitter politics of failed people.

weev is an actual white nationalist and harasser of women, the latter of which was well known before that article was written. I don't think his problem would have been that women or any other minority group were being treated too poorly, but that he himself was not being paid enough attention in the process and that he wasn't the person doing the bullying. Not a great source to be citing as evidence in this particular case, though the problem itself is real.
posted by Sequence at 12:42 AM on April 6 [9 favorites]


I'm feeling a bit like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer here (Your world frightens and confuses me!) reading all of this, or maybe like the Flatlander trying to understand the Sphere, because I've always instinctively shied away from any role in group decision-making processes for any subject more substantial than what to eat for dinner—though even that can come to blows—and I'm pretty sure I rarely achieve consensus when it's just me by myself making a decision.
posted by XMLicious at 12:44 AM on April 6 [11 favorites]


Weev fooled a lot of people into sticking up for him back then, especially when he was facing prison. But yeah, I imagine him being bored with that scene more than being shocked by it.
posted by atoxyl at 2:00 AM on April 6 [4 favorites]


Disruptive personalities, single-issue fanatics, narcissisists, control freaks, the mentally ill, and actual agents provacateur (as we later learned) all used Consensus to usurp space, time, and shout down any coherent plan or focus.

Yeah, even sincerely well-intentioned people, concerned that a proposed resolution fails to completely implement Utopia at once, could block anything productive from being done.
posted by thelonius at 3:22 AM on April 6 [10 favorites]


I love orlop's comment so much.
I'm (broadly) an anarchist and I'm a relational ethicist and I'm very very committed to the notion that consensus is difficult, and sometimes impossible, but that it's a necessary process if there is going to be maximal justice and minimal abuse...
posted by the north sea at 4:16 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]


"Don't put all your eggs in one basket"
If you can find one or two people that agrees with you on a subject, do not hesitate to let that idea evolve into some sort of action. Then start over from where you now are.
posted by beesbees at 4:45 AM on April 6


Oh, AlSweigart, NoiseBridge is regularly a reference point we at Nottingham Hackspace use whenever someone starts saying "But complete consensus!"

It's a pain, because not only are you trying to make this as egalitarian as possible, but then you have those Geek Social Fallacies as well as general social issues, and you just want to scream because you're trying to make the space better, but it's just so bloody difficult.
posted by Katemonkey at 5:39 AM on April 6 [5 favorites]


I'm told that at Quaker-founded George Fox University faculty meetings (and administration?!) make decisions by consensus, which blows my mind.

At Haverford (which is historically Quaker and still holds a relatively strong Quaker culture, but is not formally a religious, Quaker institution the way George Fox is) decisions for clubs and student organizations are traditionally made by consensus, as are rulings in cases heard by the student Honor Council (though I can't speak for if it plays in to any faculty or administrative decisions). At its best it's a thoughtful, thorough, amazing way to reach decisions. At worst it's a total clusterfuck. Usually it's somewhere between the two.

I essentially came here to say that consensus works for the Quakers in large part because of shared religious and cultural technology (for lack of a better word) honed over centuries, and that attempts at consensus decision-making without that are at a severe disadvantage. Thank you, Orlop, for making that point more thoughtfully and eloquently than I ever could have.
posted by Itaxpica at 5:44 AM on April 6 [8 favorites]


This stuff is honestly why I tend to only join activist organizations very tentatively and slowly until I can observe how they function in reality and what all the personalities are like, and how decisions are made. If there's an unwavering commitment to consensus, I won't join. Those groups can do what they are doing, and they don't need me, so that's fine. I've just seen first-hand and heard about way too many groups where a single person (or, much more effectively, a single person + one ally) was able to abuse, bully, harass and derail through charisma and manipulation and no one felt empowered to do anything about it because of the process.

People in religious communion I think are a different situation. There's a lot more deep structure underpinning the process than an open-to-all-comers broad-based movement.

I was just at a nascent activist group last night that adopted Roberts Rules of Order and I breathed a sigh of relief. Things might actually get done in a timely manner! Yay!
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:27 AM on April 6 [14 favorites]


Okay, I have heard this "don't use consensus" conversation about fifty million times since I was first a young and truculent activist. I've been in groups that always used consensus; I've been in a group that used consensus for a while and abandoned it; I've been in groups that voted; and I've been in a group that used "consensus-that-defaults-to-emergency-vote-in-certain-situations".

And you know what? The problem isn't consensus. The problem is that deep in our hearts we believe that if we get our heads right, we'll never have any problems and everything will be on wheels. Also we'll never have to think again.

We believe that it's either "consensus is always right and because it's right it should be easy and requires no parameters or effort" or "consensus is a terrible idea, that's why it's difficult". We never interrogate the problems with, like, voting, or try to consider problems that may inhere to the types of groups that use consensus.

Consensus is difficult and not suited to all situations; consensus requires some parameters and shared culture. Voting, likewise, is difficult and not suited to all situations, etc.

Seriously, I have sat in a room full of well-intentioned people and watched slightly over one half vote to do something that was both a terrible idea and kind of racist, followed by slightly less than half walking out. I've been in a room where people voted to expel someone who was terrible, and people left over that. I've watched votes drag out over meeting after meeting even when they're about stupid shit. And if you think that queer and feminist organizations founder because of consensus and therefore flourish when there's voting, you haven't spent much time in those particular trenches.

One of the best-run groups I've been part of used consensus. We devoted several hours a week to meetings, which was a bit of a drag, but we made good decisions and built a successful project.

There is no way to automate human interaction or political activism. You can't just say "follow this process, regardless of the size, purpose or nature of the group, and you're on wheels". Either you put in the work to build a group that has a culture appropriate to its size, values and purpose, or you have a group that attrites because it becomes terrible.
posted by Frowner at 6:34 AM on April 6 [42 favorites]


soren_lorensen: I've just seen first-hand and heard about way too many groups where a single person (or, much more effectively, a single person + one ally) was able to abuse, bully, harass and derail through charisma and manipulation and no one felt empowered to do anything about it because of the process. ... People in religious communion I think are a different situation. There's a lot more deep structure underpinning the process than an open-to-all-comers broad-based movement.

There are plenty of religious communities which are all about one charismatic bully - here is just one of many, many examples - so it's not like religion is a magic bullet that makes organizations better. Religious communities have all the same challenges that you and others have talked about for any group of humans.
posted by clawsoon at 6:57 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]


There's a lot more deep structure underpinning the process than an open-to-all-comers broad-based movement.

More importantly than structure, the people self-select for all being roughly on the same page about the goals and values of the structure. Consensus probably works fine when there's sufficient homogeneity. Majoritarian decision making, on the other hand, is the process of decision making when there isn't homogeneity.
posted by jpe at 6:58 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


Being roughly on the same page doesn't stop religious groups from schisming over, say, what kind of hats to wear.
posted by clawsoon at 7:08 AM on April 6 [5 favorites]


...which is just to re-affirm that working groups are hard work. What Orlop describes above is a rare achievement, even in (especially in?) religious groups.
posted by clawsoon at 7:18 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]


Canada's newest territorial government, Nunavut, uses consensus.

And what are we? Chopped liver!?
posted by ODiV at 7:25 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]


I know some people who were heavily involved in NYC Occupy (in the sense of having a certain amount of legal responsibility) and they were incredibly frustrated by this issue. They felt it was one major part of the reason Occupy fizzled.

One of those friends was having dinner with my family, and was telling us about it. My dad, who was very involved in 1970s protest movements said something along the lines of "sounds familiar - the ones who stay at the meetings longest always win."
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:30 AM on April 6 [4 favorites]


Geek Social Fallacies

Geek Social Fallacy #4: Friendship Is Transitive is the main reason Facebook is so stupid.
posted by BentFranklin at 7:51 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


Also, before we're like "consensus sucks and allows bullying and stymies progress", it's worth noting that many indigenous societies use or have used consensus decision making. Consensus works in some applications, and what's more, no decision-making system really works to preserve the group and forward its aims if the group culture is toxic.

Some years ago, I took a really good "train the trainer" training (!!!!) through Training for Change. Probably the most important thing I learned from it was the idea that any group process requires "building the container" - creating, whether for a few hours or for a long-lasting group, a sense of groupness that "contains" what happens in the group. People tend to think that "building the container" is a waste of time, or else they do it badly - that's what all those "Hi my name is Clelia and if I were ice cream I'd be peppermint" group go-round introductions are supposed to do and don't.

You need to devote longer than you think you do to introducing people to each other and building appropriate social bonds. For a one-time, short term thing, you only need to create weak and simple bonds, so a few minutes spend on a small group activity or some other structured introduction/interaction are fine. The longer-term and more intensive the interaction will be, the more time and care you need to devote to the container.

A "container" creates a sense of group norms (is this a group where we say 'fuck' or just 'damn'?). It creates a sense of group identity ('we are all middle managers!!!'; 'we are all theosophists!!!'). It clarifies and improves purpose. It gives people some sense of who the others in the room are and what their concerns are. IME, it also gives people who like to chat a little time to run their mouths, and people who are shy a little time to warm up. A "container" should match the nature and purpose of the group - you don't push people to get really emotionally intimate, and you don't push people to share what they don't want to share or do things that make them uncomfortable - there are no trust falls in container building. And again, we're looking at a process that needs to match the length and nature of the project.

If you build your container well and maintain it over many meetings, you are far more likely to naturally determine a good way of making decisions, less likely to bully and more likely to succeed with the decision-making process that you choose.

Most of the groups that I've seen founder on the rocks of consensus had, basically, really shitty containers for group work - either they didn't have one, or the group itself always functioned in a bully-led/charismatic-led way, or the group itself always-already ignored the concerns of marginalized people.
posted by Frowner at 8:15 AM on April 6 [58 favorites]


Yeah, I think Orlop's description of Quaker consensus is very instructive about what makes a successful group dynamic. The formal process is almost the least important part, compared with building a shared sense of community and culture that allows people to trust in the process used by that community.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:42 AM on April 6 [10 favorites]


This is what makes MetaFilter so great.

The article is really good and the comments and discussion are very valuable and have taught me much. Orlop's detailed comment is pure gold.
posted by brokeaspoke at 8:45 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


Is there some literature on your rules and methods, Orlop? I'd like to give it to my Christiania friends, next time I go.

I can't speak for Orlop, but many Quaker communities draft and publish books that express their shared understanding of both their community's beliefs and of their day-to-day (and month-to-month) practices; a 'book of discipline,' or of 'faith and practice.' The exact rules, methods, and guidance vary between different communities.

So, for example, New England Yearly Meeting:
The meeting for business is not a body whose members engage in debate; rather business is raised and decisions are made in the same expectant waiting upon the Spirit as in the meeting for worship. In searching together for the will of God in matters before the meeting, Friends are seeking the Truth so that all may join in its affirmation. It is the responsibility of all members to participate in this search.
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting:
The goal of Friends’ decision-making is a Spirit-led sense of the meeting—a crystallization of the search for clarity on the topic under consideration. Even in the face of strong difference of opinion, that goal is achievable when there is spiritual unity.

Our search is for unity, not unanimity. We consider ourselves to be in unity when our search for Truth is shared; when our listening for God is faithful; when our wills are caught up in the presence of Christ; and when our love for one another is constant. A united meeting is not necessarily all of one mind, but it is all of one heart.
New York Yearly Meeting:
In the transaction of business the same reverent waiting upon the Lord should prevail as in meetings for worship. Friends should give patient and sympathetic consideration to all proposals and expression of opinion. We reach decisions through a sense of the meeting rather than by vote.

The meeting for worship with a concern for business provides an opportunity for consideration of individual concerns. The meeting may choose to act corporately on such concerns.

However, if the meeting does not feel that it can adopt a concern as part of the corporate policy of the meeting, it may authorize the person who has proposed it to proceed as an individual, with the clear understanding that the name of the meeting is not to be involved. In this case the meeting will usually offer prayerful support and provide guidance or counsel. Where circumstances warrant, it may provide financial assistance for the individual or the individual’s family.
Those are all Yearly Meetings stating a similar, but not identical, sentiment -- that meeting together for worship and for business aren't separable; that meetings seek to find unity rather than strict consensus; that reaching agreement as a corporate body does not mean winning over every individual member. But there are real differences, too, in how those Meetings are organized; and if you look farther afield than the north-east of America, you'll find greater variation still.
posted by cjelli at 9:06 AM on April 6 [13 favorites]


Majoritarian decision making, on the other hand, is the process of decision making when there isn't homogeneity.

Only if you're willing to alienate minorities. Majoritarian voting doesn't accommodate heterogeneity, it overrules it. And a process like Robert's Rules exacerbates the problem - it's all too easy for the chair to minimize deliberation and quash dissent. If you want to actually take heterogeneous perspectives into account, you're way better off with some kind of consensus process.

That doesn't have to mean you let cranks and trolls derail everything. A group I was involved with used rough consensus for precisely this reason. You deliberate, you ensure that differing views are addressed, but you don't let a single voice override everyone else.

Between my experiences in the Portland activist/ protest community and the 2000 and 2016 elections, frankly, I've lost all belief in the utility of democracy as a method for achieving progress. Plato was right- Democracy is merely the chrysalis of an incipient tyranny, whether oligarchic or populist.

But technocrats and authoritarians have a shitty track record, and benevolent god-emperors are in short supply. Democracy is hard work, but it beats the alternatives. (And the US electoral system is not exactly a shining example of "democracy.")
posted by Gerald Bostock at 9:40 AM on April 6 [7 favorites]


A group I was involved with used rough consensus for precisely this reason. You deliberate, you ensure that differing views are addressed, but you don't let a single voice override everyone else.

Speaking of which, I thought it was a noteworthy omission that the article didn't say anything about "consensus minus n" procedures.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:54 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]


Also, before we're like "consensus sucks and allows bullying and stymies progress", it's worth noting that many indigenous societies use or have used consensus decision making.

This does not mean that these indigenous societies don't allow bullying or stymie progress. Not saying they do, but "some groups have done it for a long time" doesn't really disprove criticisms without more information. Cf. all manner of things various cultural groups did for a long time that are Actually Bad
posted by thedaniel at 10:30 AM on April 6 [4 favorites]


Me: "That's a really good comment cjelli made about Quakerism. I'd like to know more about them. I wonder where they're from?"

*clicks through to cjelli's profile*

Me: "Ah, Philadelphia. Of course."

If you're interested in non-Faith & Practice info about Quakers and how they/we do things, there are a couple of books you might read.

Beyond Majority Rule is a 1983 book about Quaker decision-making written by Jesuit priest who was interested in what Catholics and other religious bodies could learn from Quakers.

Silence and Witness by Michael Birkel is a good overview.

Howard Brinton's Guide to Quaker Practice and Barry Morley'sBeyond Consensus: Salvaging Sense of the Meeting are two useful pamphlets.
posted by Orlop at 11:06 AM on April 6 [11 favorites]


The problem with that article is in its first sentence - because reaching consensus does not mean "strictly adhere to a protocol where all decisions are unanimous." What fell apart with Occupy's consensus process, is (1) too many people believed that consensus means "everyone votes yes" rather than "nobody will leave the group over this decision," and (2) the General Meetings had no effective way to have discussions rather than announcements.

Consensus is also used by some Pagan groups, and it's noted that while the process can be very fulfilling and leads to good community, it's often exhausting. It means making sure that everyone is heard, that everyone's concerns are understood and addressed. It means agreeing that we are all here together because we want to be here together, doing this thing, which is alien to a whole lot of modern US business, education, and legal practices.

Where we see consensus most often is in informal social settings - a group of friends gets together to decide on a movie, and half want to see one, and the other half are split, but Chris can't tolerate gore so the horror movie is out, and Pat's already seen the blockbuster and doesn't want to see it again, and so on. Most of these consensus decisions are resolved in a few minutes, so quickly that the group didn't even notice that they were engaging in a decision-making process.

Of course, change it from "5 friends" to "50 people in a classroom," and the process gets a lot longer. Change it to "500 activists with no prior connections deciding how to spend several thousand dollars of donations" and... yeah, it's no wonder the Occupy process broke down. Consensus only works when there's an underlying trust of shared values and interest in the community itself, and Occupy didn't start with that.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:15 PM on April 6 [9 favorites]


I can only add that the late mayor Richard J. Daley was a master at using the protocols of Robert's Rules of Order to quash any and all dissent within the chambers of the Chicago City Council, so, yeah, it ain't your ticket out of bully town.
posted by Chitownfats at 4:59 PM on April 6 [4 favorites]


The Tao of IETF: https://www.ietf.org/tao.html

> One of the "founding beliefs" is embodied in an early quote about the IETF from David Clark: "We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code".
posted by nickzoic at 5:29 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


I've seen Robert's Rules of Order wielded into virtual oligarchy by adroit bureaucrats, but it isn't in itself any worse than any other form of decision making that has been tried before.

Consensus probably works fine in small groups with some shared values. Occupy had lots of random people with very different values wandering in. But the thing about Occupy is that it wasn't designed to provide the leadership structure of the next new order, it was designed to protest the existing order, and in that sense it succeeded.
posted by ovvl at 7:50 PM on April 6 [2 favorites]


So-called consensus seems like an obvious bias in favor of the few over the many, within the same group no less. It looks like a David versus Goliath mentality put into action, but in a self-defeating way. There may be a better way to manage this veto power and retain the emphasis on personal consideration. A group can have a simple election, then place the top two winners as joint consuls to make all key decisions proposed within the group, at open hearings. Each consul may veto the other, so anyone who opposes a change may convince one of these consuls. Besides letting those be heard, those that trust the leadership process can skip the meeting in good faith.
posted by Brian B. at 8:40 PM on April 6


Building on ALSweigart's (whose presence I miss at Noisebridge) comment a little.

We still use consensus at Noisebridge, but during the period ALSweigart is describing (2013-2014) we ran into serious problems with consensus being overused and used specifically to stop people from improving the space. Before this time, there was an sense in the community of what topics or proposals were appropriate to run through consensus and which weren't. Then the process got overrun by people who found they could use it to paralyze discussions at Noisebridge, so that they could keep living in the space and even stealing from it.

We eventually closed the space for a while to break that behavior. This closure was not done via a broad consensus, but by a group of members and long time regulars that believed that shutting down and fixing up the place was a worthwhile last effort to try to restore Noisebridge as a functioning Hackerspace.

Since that time, most of the improvements and progress in making the place better and safer for people to work in have been done without (formal meeting discussion type) consensus, and instead by various persons and groups just doing things; which is the process thru which most things were expected to be done in the space, since its founding, anyway.

I think that Noisebridge's consensus problems stemmed from realizing too late that it was being overused/misused for the wrong things.

The space has been operating much better since, but at the same time we have only had maybe a few consensus related discussions during the meetings since. So I suppose Consensus at Noisebridge seems to work best when it is rarely used. It remains to be seen if we have really learned our lessons regarding our Consensus process, but we have addressed some of the other issues that led to the closure in 2014.

We definitely didn't have or use the methods and tools that Orlop outlines above. (great comment)
posted by Hicksu at 4:33 PM on April 7 [3 favorites]


Sorry ODiv. You are definitely not chopped liver.
Northwest Territories also has a consensus government.
posted by chapps at 8:21 PM on April 7 [1 favorite]


Oh for fuck's sake. Justine Tunney? A four year old article? Is this a troll?
posted by Yowser at 12:51 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


At the student housing co-ops in Ann Arbor, consensus is used at two levels of organization: at the house level, where people who live in the house meet every couple weeks to discuss matters pertaining to their house; and at the board of directors, which is composed of the presidents from each house, and some non-voting officers. In total, about 30 people were at the BoD meetings - mostly eager undergrads who lived in the co-ops 0-1.5 years.

The board of directors was run by a president elected at-large from the whole co-op system. It was usually someone who had lived in the co-ops for a year or so, and had previously been a house president. So this was someone with some experience running a consensus-based meeting. Because each of the house-president board members learned about the consensus process by being in these meetings, and applied that knowledge by running the meetings at their own house.

The Board makes decisions about a budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, in an organization with tens of millions in assets. And I think it works pretty well! I lived in that co-op system for ten years.

I think that this process accomplishes some of the training that Orlop was talking about, but it also shows that you don't have to have been raised from birth to be a lean, mean, consensus machine. You can learn it in the course of just a year or two.

I also think that it shows that a well-trained facilitator can make a huge difference. Now, these co-ops didn't have a door that was quite as open as that of Occupy -- people couldn't just wander in off the street and block decisions or whatever. But these were also not people who had got together with a powerful unity of purpose informed by their religion -- these were mostly undergrads who wanted a cheap place to live.

Other things going in our favor: All the board members attended a weekend retreat at the beginning of the school year, where they got some training, and also some bonding, to form the "container" that Frowner talked about. Also, while I was living there, the national student co-op conference happened in Ann Arbor each year, so a lot of people from Ann Arbor went there every year and learned a lot.

We also benefited from having some organization-level committees composed of board members and volunteers. So when there were conflicts at the house level, they could be appealed to these outside-the-house bodies.

But I think the biggest thing we had going for us was just that the institution had existed long enough that it was able to develop traditions and norms, and command respect.

One thing that could be an obstacle in the co-ops was that, unlike Occupy, it was hard to leave the group if you didn't agree with a decision. With Occupy, it's as easy as ceasing to show up at meetings. But to leave the co-ops, you'd hafta find some other place to live, and it was gonna cost more money, and you'd have to find a way to get out of your contract - usually by finding a replacement. But thing generally are able to function, even though we were stuck together with some random strangers and forced to make consensus decisions with actual social and economic impact.

One note: We also had a "consensus minus n" process - it took three people to block a proposal.

But also, what we considered "the consensus process" was our entire flowchart of how to run a meeting (we called it the Kwunsensus process, named after the person who wrote it initially or something). Kind of a mini Robert's Rules, but with fewer esoteric things that could be abused by an evil facilitator. I think the most important part of the process was that we had a "clarifying questions" section at the beginning of considering each proposal. Questions only - do not make a declarative statement. We would only proceed to the "discussion" section once nobody had any further clarifying questions. That cut down on a lot of time we could have wasted having two people take vigorous positions on different matters because they didn't have a shared understanding of what we were discussing.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 1:41 PM on April 12 [7 favorites]


I'd like to add that the meetings were, at times, frustrating. That's how you could tell it was working! If the meeting is going too smoothly, it's probably because someone is not speaking up with their concerns, and this will cause problems later.

But as frustrating as it was sometimes, these were the best-run and most satisfying meetings I've ever seen.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 1:45 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


Oh! Another important tenet of the Kwunsensus process: If you are one of the three people that votes to block the proposal, then hey! You've just signed up to be on the committee that's going to bring a revised proposal to the next meeting!
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 1:50 PM on April 12 [5 favorites]


That last bit is bloody genius. You're increasing the cost of being the blocker, but in a way that punishes shit-stirring obstructionists more than it does people who have honest concerns about the proposal.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:12 PM on April 12 [2 favorites]


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