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.

Revolutionary envy

As I write this, Athens is aflame with metaphorical revolutionary spirit, and literal fire from firebombs and the revolutionary tendency to burn stuff.

They call themselves the Αγανακτισμένων, the indignant. In parallel, the Spanish have the Indignados.

Greece and Spain are doing fairly well in terms of revolution. Srtiking images of crowds of people sick of the parasitic system they inhabit flood the news. Their efforts may prove futile in the future, but they are not without soul. It is a beautiful sight: a roiling mass of faces screaming against their masters. They have, for now at least, had enough.

Contrast with the British anti-cuts movement.

We are not indignant. We are a little bit pissed off.

There are those of us who care, of course there are. We are the ones who expressed disappointment at the failure of the March 26th marches. Some of us tried to occupy Trafalgar Square, imitating the Egyptian example. It seems to be working well in Greece and Spain, the occupation of public squares.

Our revolution is currently confined to interminable consensus meetings leading to small direct actions leading to arrests. We do not have the tipping point, where seemingly most of the population of a city runs riot through clouds of tear gas and smoke. We sit and listen to the same male voices drone about minor theoretical points.

Our “anti-cuts movement” lacks rage, lacks anger. Perhaps it is a by-product of British culture. Perhaps it is because the majority of British people see no reason to be furious.

We are not the indignant. We are the dry, the boring, the floundering; against something, but unemotional.

Is it time to become the Absolutely Fucking Livids?

It speaks!: on being a woman and an activist

I protest quite a bit. Sometimes I march. Sometimes I charge around with a megaphone. Sometimes I commit acts of aggravated sitting or aggravated banner waving or other aggravated perfectly legal activities. Sometimes I might get a little stubborn about melted cheese on my food and throw a bit of a strop.

I protest quite a bit.

I also happen to be a woman. A cis, somewhat femme woman.

In a perfectly gender-neutral, equal society in which women are viewed as people rather than objects, these two facts should be entirely unrelated. This is the world I am fighting to build. It is not a world we inhabit.

The media tend to view women who protest as something of an anomaly: a fascinating creature to be documented and photographed meticulously. A particularly striking example of this is this Daily Mail article [clean link; they will not be getting the clicks they crave] which mixes images of “riot porn” with young women, breathlessly commenting on how exciting and new it is that girls are worrying their pretty little heads with politics. The images are strikingly similar to the annual newspaper feeding frenzy of printing pictures of girls celebrating their A Level results, which tend to imply that the route to four As at A Level is to appear female and jump a lot. Many of the photo collections of actions feature a young woman holding a placard or shouting as their front page, reducing the message of the protest down to”you’re cute when you’re angry”. These photographs are invariable captioned “a female protester joins in”.

From personal experience, this is because photographers tend to gravitate towards the women, buzzing like wasps at a jam sandwich. I recall one instance in which a photographer lay down on the floor in front of me, attempting an upskirt shot. A comrade of mine once attracted the attention of a particular photographer, who spent the entire action taking close up pictures of her face and breasts. Another comrade is prominently featured in the photosets of every action she has ever attended.

These women are intelligent, articulate, opinionated and angry, and yet their participation is reduced to little more than a bit of cheap eye candy.

Then there are the trolls: an example of this is the overt misogyny in criticism of articles written by journalist Laurie Penny, who happens to be a young woman. These criticisms are rarely related to the content of her writing, or even to her politics, but, rather a stinking mire of hatred, much of it focused on her gender, including calls for her to be raped and an obsessive deconstruction of her looks.

I have experienced this to a much, much smaller extent on Twitter. Members of the EDL have a fondness for talking about my breasts rather than responding to the fact that I called them a bunch of fucking fascists.

The objectification of women is not merely external, though. Some of it comes from our own back garden.

I have expressed my frustration before that the dominant voices in consensus meetings tend to be male. This can sometimes trickle down into actions.

On more than one occasion, I have heard a frantic whisper ripple through the group:

“Can we have a woman talk on the megaphone?”

On more than one occasion, I have heard this succeeded by:

“We don’t want it looking like it’s all blokes. It doesn’t matter what you say. We just need a woman to speak.”

Before I stopped worrying and learned to love the megaphone, a part of me believed that perhaps this should be the extent of my participation in a protest planned by someone else. These days, I have no such qualms, and that megaphone will be pried from my cold, dead hand.

At the back of my mind, though, I still fear that my words are less important than my gender to the media and some of my comrades.

In the comments to my post on decision making among activists, it was noted that male privilege can sometimes be left unchecked. I have some comrades who identify as feminists, but their behaviour is far from it. They are not misogynistic, rather, they display benevolent sexism.

When I speak with them, I see a look cross their faces of bewilderment mixed with paternalistic delight.

It speaks, they seem to silently say. Isn’t that sweet?

I believe this to be the crux of all of these experiences: the photogenicity of woman activists, the resorts to misogyny rather than political debate, the manarchists finding opinions coming from a woman more adorable than valid.

It speaks. 

We are still lumbered with the belief that women should be seen but not heard, that we are objects rather than people. Our opinions, therefore, are less worthy. Even among those leading the charge for social change, there is unchecked privilege, which, in the unlikely event of a revolution, would mean building a world in which a woman’s opinion is still novel and surprising.

These attitudes need to be destroyed. Benevolent sexism is as dangerous as hostile sexism.

An angry woman is not cute. An angry woman is a person. It speaks. Why should this be exceptional?

The trouble with the consensus model

I write this post with a horrifying blend of psychological literature and my own personal observations. It makes my scientist side cringe. What it therefore represents is the subjective experience of a person with too many psychology degrees.

The consensus model for decision making is used large swathes of the protest movement. It is adopted as it is thought to be democratic, inclusive and non-hierarchical. A consensus meeting is facilitated by a person whose job it is to make sure that everyone who wishes to speak, will speak. Somebody will raise a point, and others will address the point, called upon by the facilitator when they indicate they wish to speak. Through hand signals, people express agreement and disagreement. Agreement is represented by “jazz hands”; disagreement by downward-facing jazz hands. People may make direct responses to any point, and anybody can raise a proposal. I may have done a poor job of explaining consensus meetings for those who have never attended one. This page gives a good overview of the process.

Many people give enthusiastic jazz hands of agreement to consensus decision making due to its leaderless, non-hierarchical nature.

This does not mean the model is without its problems.

First of all, as acknowledged by Maeve McKeown and Lisa Ansell , the model is open to issues with power relations. Both identify an issue which I have noted in my experience of consensus meetings: that typically the same voices will dominate a consensus meeting, and that these dominant voices will often reflect unequal power relations that are inherent in our society. To put it more bluntly, it’s often the loud white guys doing the talking.

In a situation like this, many people do not feel able to speak up. Some feel unable to speak because they feel as though they know less than the dominant voices wheeling out minor, inaccessible theoretical points. Others do not speak as they are afraid of being shouted down with a “direct response” from a dominant voice. Others, still, are overlooked by the (often white, male, able-bodied) faciliator and never get called upon to speak. Some people cannot even attend the meetings: for example, when I visited the old Anti Cuts Space on Bedford Square, the building was not readily accessible to people with disabilities.

Another very important effect, one which I experience in every consensus meeting I attend,  is that of feeling unable to speak because I am an “outsider”. In situations where consensus decisions are made–occupations, direct action groups, and the like–there is often an “ingroup”: a core group of individuals. These cliques are often highly cohesive–they share an identity as members of the group. To those in the group, and those outside, powerful effects emerge.

Outside the ingroup, it is difficult to sway the opinion of the group–the consensus. This makes it harder for outsiders to speak and to be heard.

Inside the ingroup, a sometimes toxic effect emerges: groupthink. The word “groupthink” is loaded, melodramatic, reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia, but this does not mean it does not happen. Through analysis of historical decision-making, and observations of group decision-making, a well-documented effect emerges: cohesive groups, particularly those under pressure, often make poor decisions. Crucially, this tends to happen when the group is attempting to reach a consensus.

The theory behind groupthink proposes eight “symptoms”:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

While I have not observed all of the symptoms, I have certainly noticed a few. Silence–and/or the absence of any form of jazz hands–is generally viewed as a sign of agreement. With all of the talk that goes on, warnings are rationalised. As I outlined above, self censorship can–and does–occur.

So how is groputhink bad for decision-making? Decisions made by groupthink may not be opimal for the following reasons:

  1. Incomplete survey of alternatives
  2. Incomplete survey of objectives
  3. Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
  4. Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives
  5. Poor information search
  6. Selection bias in collecting information
  7. Failure to work out contingency plans.

One more concept from social psychology and the study of group processes is a concern for the consensus model: the Abilene paradox.  This happens when a group decides upon a course of action which is to the preferences of none of the members of the group. Again, it is linked to self-censorship: people do not want to rock the boat and speak up against what they mistakenly believe to be the consensus of the group as a whole.

While, theoretically, the consensus model should stop these group processes from occurring and allow the voices of people from marginalised groups to be heard, in practice this does not happen. For some, like Maeve, the consensus model still represents the best we can get, and it is better than alternatives. For others, like Lisa, the issues relating to inclusivity are insurmountable hurdles to reaching a decision which is genuinely representative of all involved.

I myself think that these problems with the consensus model need to be addressed. I hope that the movement will lead to widespread social change. This will not be good enough if voices are still marginalised.

An example of this is what happened in Egypt to the women of Tahrir Square. The women were part of the revolution, or at least they believed that they were. And yet, they were marginalised and silenced, put back into their place after the government had been overthrown.

If we cannot check our privilege within our own meetings, if we cannot genuinely ensure that all voices are heard as we make plans–from anything to the cleaning of an occupied space to a full-scale revolution–how can we expect to create positive, lasting social change?

Just because we say that the consensus model is non-hierarchical and inclusive does not mean that it is.

So how do we fight the group processes that lead to poor decision-making? How do we genuinely make sure that each voice is heard?

There are alternatives, some more palatable than others.

One could be to anonymise everything. The Delphi Method is used frequently in medical decision making to reach a consensus.  I have used this method in my own research. It is an iterative process in which the decision-makers fill in questionnaires anonymously, indicating their agreement or disagreement with particular courses of action. A facilitator will then provide anonymous feedback and the decision makers fill in the questionnaires again, eventually converging on an acceptable course of action. A strength of this approach is that the dominant voices are now given equal weight to those afraid to speak out. Another strength is that those with disabilities who cannot access spaces in which meetings are held can still participate. There are two limitations, though. Firstly, it is time-consuming, although arguably traditional consensus decision meetings can be long and drawn-out. A second limitation is resources: rather a lot of paper or webspace and internet is required for the Delphi method.

Or, perhaps, one of the proposed “cures” to groputhink may be useful–talking to others outside the group, formally or informally. A drawback to this is security concerns, but in making decisions regarding something which is safe and legal, surely it is good to get as much divergent opinion as possible.

A final suggestion may be unpalatable to many: giving priority to those who have not yet spoken. It may seem undemocratic to bump a person up the queue, but for those who do not feel empowered to speak, it may make the difference between being heard and not being heard. Affirmative action may be required to ensure that we are truly listening to every voice.

It is important that we become aware with the flaws in the consensus model. It is not good enough that it is “the best we have”. We must address these flaws, and be mindful of them. It is not the panacea of perfect decision-making. It is rooted in group processes and societal forces which allow the loudest and most privileged to express their opinions.

To fight this, knowing our enemy is a good place to start.

I warmly invite comment on this post. There is an alternative; the traditional consensus model is not the best we can ever have. Together, we can find this and make better, more inclusive decisions as a result.

Special thanks to Lisa Ansell and Ellen for great conversations which helped me write this.

Edit: I followed up on some of these thoughts and some things which emerged from the comments here.