We still need to talk about consensus

A while back, I posted a few points about consensus decision-making and stimulated a wonderful discussion on its use. In the first piece, I highlighted some major issues I had with the process:

  1. That discussions are most frequently hijacked by a “core group”
  2. That those who speak most tend to be from privileged groups: i.e. they are usually white, cisgendered able-bodied men
  3. That the process can lead to a phenomenon called groupthink which impedes good decision making.

After brilliant discussion in the comments, a partial solution was happened upon: applying the principles of enthusiastic sexual consent to the consensus process. This solution, though, mostly solves the problem of groupthink. The first two, the core group and the unchecked privilege, remain problematic and deserve further discussion.

At the time of writing the prior pieces, I had not yet read “The Tyrrany of Structurelessness“, an essay which highlights these problems in structureless organisation, which was written in the 1970s. It is sad that these problems are still running strong in activist groups: I am hardly the only one who has noticed that core groups tend to take control.

There is a psychological phenomenon at play here: that of minority influence. Minority influence involves a person or small group of people swaying the decision of the majority: this was demonstrated by having people view blue slides of varying brightness and judge the colour. When a minority argued that the blue slide was actually green, the majority tended to follow. Minority influence can affect how people judge a colour. It is hardly surprising therefore that it can sway a group decision towards the views of very few.

Its facilitation of minority influence is both a strength and a weakness of consensus decision making. It is a strength in that it theoretically, it allows outsider’s views to sway the views of others. It is a weakness, though, that in practice the minority who hold the sway are the core group; they are the loud, privileged people.

In The Tyrrany of Structurelessness, a selection of solutions are proposed for countering this dominance by a small group:

  1. Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures
  2. Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them
  3. Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonanbly possible
  4. Rotation of tasks among individuals
  5. Allocation of tasks along rational criteria
  6. Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible
  7. Equal access to resources needed by the group

Applied to consensus decision making, with decent facilitation, these recommendations can certainly make headway, although they do not address some severe problems head-on: particularly that of privilege.

In an impassioned call to arms Forty Shades of Grey says:

It’s time to start kicking arse and taking names. And this time, I mean all of you. I’m sick of being alienated from scenes I like, and I’m not the only one.

Here’s the deal: Challenging one dominant ideal in society (patriarchy, theism, capitalism etc.), whilst displaying sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic or any other discriminatory traits is not on, and I’m calling you all out on it.

It is not enough to simply say “well, our group doesn’t discriminate” when patriarchal, white, cis-centric values are the norm.  

If you’re not actively fighting oppression, you’re propagating it.

I am displaying consensus jazz hands to this sentiment. While many of those who dominate meetings claim to be feminists and fighters of oppression, quite the opposite is true. They sway collective decisions. It is time to call this crap not just in social situations, but as part of formal discussions. We will be accused of derailing for raising a process point, identifying that the same privileged few are those who take over a supposedly collective decision, yet it is imperative to call it where we see it.

When we clear out the shit in our own backyard, maybe we can take on the world.

4 thoughts on “We still need to talk about consensus”

  1. Great post. We recently discussed Jo Freeman’s ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ in our feminist study group – still essential reading I think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.