Dangerous Compassions



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.

cultural practices

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.

speaking up

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.

By Laura-Marie

Good at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

One reply on “consensus”

Hitting the nail on the head Laura-Marie. It feels like you’ve helped to recognize a depth of the issue in most collaborative groups. We can’t take consensus out of it’s native context. It wasn’t used to build contracts between an employing class and a working class, between people and enclosed parcels of land. It was and is entered into as a process a dream that takes time and reflection, in meetings and between them.
We need to foster the uncommon things in your list, not least: “even knowing your own truth” before we can teach each other polity. We must gift each other with loving glances and feel warmly invited. In our longer-term anti-capitalist goals, restoring the commons, ending racism, land re-matriation, people need groups with this depth of relation. In the shorter-term goals, we may need “temporary collaborations” which may not think too hard about polity for the sake of getting the work done and then disbanding. My friends speak often of the special role of understanding the process more easily than others who are in it and how we may have to endure the tyranny of structurlessness in shorter-lived projects, put up with the imballances. I concern myself that this invalidates a social role of those who tend the polity in a culture but don’t wield the power. They don’t even distribute it. It just is, in our relating and listening. I have concerns that this idea stems from the isolationism implicit in a capitalist world, the same rigid individualism which seek to climb a social ladder to the owning class. And I think it’s a calling to invite people through processes which equalize voicing, but deeper than that actually synergize a people to that people’s spirit so we can listen together to what choices our spirit is placing before us and which ones hold a great sway of energy. This means in our current context of traumatized individuals that one must be a counselor if they are successfully to facilitate a consensus process (rather than an adversarial process with a modulated decision-test of unanimity). The geeks have got to also be healers, have got to be equipped and care enough about the group’s sustaining to interrupt re-enactments of trauma patterns and to do so with a more hopeful turn of events. Pay a facilitate to tend the fire of a meeting a million dollars, they won’t keep any fire going without actually caring about the groups vision and where it wants to go, and also having some degree of love for each person. I’ve tried before to facilitate a group finding its mission statement and I didn’t interrupt where I could have because I was planning to leave the group and saw it would ruffle feathers too much for those keeping quiet and those keeping talking. Some left the room. They all agreed but it was to a proposal the loudest voices wove before listening to anyone else’s input. Their mission statement wasn’t a consensus in process only in tested consent.
There is hope for our healing though. This example was an exception to what I’ve exerienced. Usually when everyone is invited at the beginning to think well of each other, to intend for each other’s hearts’ dreams, not interrupt each others’ rounds, to seek common ground, to keep who said what or had what idea or concern confidential, to openly disagree and to help the group re-frame the way we’re looking at the topic, everyone actually does these things and we feel the spirit of our group move through a proposal which we all twinkle without a sense of forcedness.
There is more to recollect sometime. I love this conversation. It will be handed to generations and generations to come.
Thanks again for being with the workshop space Laura-Marie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *