Hello, how are you doing? I attended a workshop about consensus. It was put on by the intentional community Snake Village and gave me delicious food for thought. Still digesting it.
what it is
Consensus is a decision making style that anarchists such as myself are supposed to do or at least have a good grasp of. But a lot of people don’t know how it works. A basic understanding is that we all need to agree in decision making. There can be nuances about blocks, stand asides, alliances within the group, caveats, and considerations. But for the most part, everyone should agree.
Does it work? How do we get there?
People often figure out what something is by considering what it’s not. Many of us grow up with majority vote being the main way of making decisions, when effort is even made toward fairness.
Really, the main way of decision making I grew up with was force. Who had the most power? They got to choose, and all the rest of us had to go along with it or suffer violence.
Consensus is trying to respect all people and make sure no one’s needs get left out. It requires a strong container and clear process. Deep understanding of our motivation also helps, since consensus can be a lot of work. We need motivation to stick with it–motivation to stick with any group work.
I love learning about group processes and how decisions are made. I need nonviolence and to relate in a happy way. Doing community is one of my callings, and it’s hard. I’m an outlier introvert and love people but get exhausted by people quickly. Some things about being social I understand deeply and quickly–other things I understand not at all.
One of the big impediments to consensus is unbalanced power. In groups it’s almost impossible to have the power shared equally. Some people have more knowledge than others and hold the history, which can be power. Some have seniority and get very rooted in place. Age can matter, gender, racism, trans phobia, hate of queer people. Prejudice against people who are rural, have a different accent, might be less educated.
Disabled people are usually seen as less valuable, which we encountered a lot as Ming and I traveled during our four months under-housed. Ableism is painful, and few people see disabilities in a clear way. Who takes the time to sit with the truth until it precipitates out of solution and is clear before us? And then sit more patiently, as truth changes, and we change?
Most people glance, decide, and move on, which leaves them with a very inaccurate picture.
Confidence is a common way of having power. Being a white guy with a big voice or who seems vaguely threatening can be a way of having power, unfortunately. Having fingers in many pies, being very good looking, having money, having a car.
Being employed, sometimes. Being conventionally partnered. Parents can lose power, when they are treated as lesser than and not accommodated with their little ones.
How eloquently we use language, how well known we are, how we use humor, how legible we are. How long we’ve been in the area, social connectedness, who our family is.
All that can matter, and little things add up. How housed we are, the style of clothes we wear, many cultural practices.
Even if all the other things are equal, power has to do with how capable we are of speaking up and advocating for ourselves. I used to live with BIPOC who were disabled and chronically homeless. They were not used to their voices mattering. Their disconnection from their own personal power was a huge impediment for them getting what they needed in decision making.
If your basic understanding of whether you matter in a culture, community, family, room, or conversation is very different from everyone else’s, what can you do? Entitled people can rarely even see the lack of entitlement of others, let alone compensate for it.
The formerly chronically homeless BIPOC I lived with were not going to therapy to heal their trauma. They had been horrifically abused by systems, orgs, and individual people for decades, and didn’t even express desire to heal their trauma. They were living in survival mode; it was great if they could eat a good meal and get some temporary relief from their pain.
This level of disempowerment is all too common in severely traumatized people. But even more people are walking around disempowered to a lesser degree.
How common are these things?
- social skills
- emotional skills
- basic stability
- sense of self-worth
- ability to think on your feet in a meeting setting
- knowing how to do conflict
- even knowing your own truth
Not common enough!
I’m sorry we don’t have a functional culture with respect for all, where everyone’s needs are met. Working on it. Meanwhile, super damaged people are walking around, deeply suffering, and suffering more from lack of connection and lack of love.
Add to all these unmet needs an unfamiliar decision making style and some related new vocabulary, and doing consensus seems super difficult. Cliches like “you do you” and “we can agree to disagree” are everywhere. Long attention spans for ideas are rare.
Some geeks who love community might be able to do consensus. But the whole point is that it’s for all of us. Not just the language-bright, experienced community geeks.
Like so many big questions, like how to curb gun violence, how to reduce sexual assault, and how to stop racism–there can be policy change and money funneled into it. But what we really need to do is heal ourselves individually and heal culture. In my experience, only love can do that.