Consensus is Not Unanimity: Making Decisions Co-operatively
Adapted from Randy Schutt
What is Consensus?
Is it a co-operative, process in which people share their best ideas and come up with superior decisions or a coercive, manipulative, time-wasting process in which those which are most treacherous, are most verbal, or have the most time can get their way? Or is it an idealistic fantasy where every problem always has a good simple solution that incorporates everyone’s ideas (no matter how ridiculous) and satisfies everyone completely?
Consensus is Not Unanimity.
Many people think of consensus as simply an extended voting method in which every one must cast their votes the same way. Since unanimity of this kind only rarely occurs in groups with more than one member, groups that try to use this kind of process usually end up being either extremely frustrated or coercive. Either decisions are never made (leading to the demise of the group, its conversion into a social group that does not accomplish any tasks), they are made covertly, or some group or individual dominates the rest. Sometimes a majority dominates, sometimes a minority, sometimes an individual who employs “the Block”. But no matter how it is done, it is NOT consensus.
Consensus is a Process for Deciding What is Best for a Group.
The final decision is often not the first preference of each individual in the group and they may not even like the final result. But it is a decision to which they all consent because it is best for the group.
Consensus is Not Just a Process, but a Valuable Goal. Consensus is a Co-operative Process.
Consensus is a process for people who want to work together honestly in good faith to find good solutions for the group It cannot be used by people who do not, can not or will not co-operate. Consensus should not be attempted in a group with people who want to maintain their wealth and privilege or want to dominate or control others. In these situations, nonviolent struggle would be more appropriate.
Consensus is a process that allows everyone in a group to participate and work together nonviolently to make decisions – the ultimate realisation of a true democracy and very attractive to anyone who has ever been dominated or oppressed. It gives people the power to make decisions and also demands that they take responsibility for those decisions. Rather than abdicating power to an individual or representative, it demands that that we take complete responsibility.
Consensus is One of the Best Processes.
If not consensus, then what? Usually voting is proposed as a reasonably democratic alternative. But voting is not a meeting process, it is simply a procedure. The goal of a vote is to tally the (existing ) preferences of a group of people, and in some logical, fair, and equitable way come up with a good decision. Kenneth Arrow received a Nobel Prize for proving it was impossible to do this except under very simple circumstances e.g. Situations when there are only two possible options. Furthermore, voting necessarily ignores the intensity of preference, each individual feels or the distribution of consequences that a decision imposes. And even under the best of circumstances, voting necessarily means that some group of people will not get what they want and if severely trampled by the majority, may leave the group or retaliate.
Voting can therefore only produce satisfying decisions where everyone is extremely tolerant or there is unanimity of opinion. Unanimity can sometimes be achieved if one person or group can persuade everyone else of the validity of their perspective and solution. But it the problem has no easy, clear solution, some people are personally devoted to a particular solution, or there is competition for power in the group, the process, will quickly bog down, factionalize , and/or revert to coercion.
Good consensus process gets around these problems by allowing the members of the group to explore in depth the complete range of options and concerns in a non-adversarial, co-operative atmosphere. Discussions in small groups allows everyone, even those who are not verbally adept, to express their ideas, concerns and opinions. Members of the group get a chance to learn from each other’s experiences and thinking, empathise with people with other experiences and backgrounds, and gracefully change their minds as they hear these new ideas and arguments. They can challenge dumb, obsolete, or immoral assumptions and solutions, and they can explore unusual solutions ( radical transformations, compromises, bargains etc ) that are often overlooked when the discussion gets polarised or restrained by formal proposals. Individuals can offer to give of their time or wealth or to suffer a loss for the good of the group. And people can be persuaded, inspired, loved, or counseled out of their prejudices, biases, and other rigidities or if this fails, nonviolently prevented from acting immorally.
Of course a good process that ends in a vote can also have all these co-operative aspects. In fact, a good voting process may be indistinguishable form a good consensus process until the end. But non-consensual processes usually rely on formal proposals, debates, and other parliamentary procedures that interfere with co-operation. Knowing that there will be an up-down vote at the end often polarises the discussion. Also, if the group should develop a lynch mob or group thinking mentality , there is no avenue for an individual or minority to slow or thwart their immoral decisions.
Consensus is Not Conflict-Free or Painless.
Good consensus process relies heavily on problem-solving, questioning, empathy, self-sacrifice, and nonviolent direct action. In a good process, conflict is not ignored or covered up, but encouraged. Issues and proposed solutions are thoroughly thrashed out until a good solution is found. Like any good nonviolent action, the ideas are severely challenged, but the people involved are listened to loved, and supported. When there are no easy solutions, then individuals must be willing to sacrifice for the good of the group or the group must divide or disband. When one person or a group (minority or majority refuses or is unable to work co-operatively, everyone else must boldly, yet tenderly resist and challenge them, or if necessary throw them out of the group (ideally, offering support and guidance to their next endeavor).