Against consensus, for dissensus

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA[tl;dr for this post: consensus is often a fake consensus, not just because we’re doing it wrong but because we are trying too hard to make it happen and that creates certain pressures, social, animal or otherwise. Sometimes we just don’t agree, and we need to admit that and leave room for disagreement.]

I wanted to summarise and develop some arguments made elsewhere on consensus decision-making. The longer I have thought about it the more I feel that there are better alternatives to consensus decison-making.

Even the evangelist of consensus decision-making, David Graeber, admits in The Democracy Project that the first 20th Century attempt to adopt consensus decision-making (in the 70s feminist movement) failed. His claim is that Occupy got right things that the earlier attempt got wrong. Yet if you read around you find that there is little consensus on the value of consensus at Occupy Wall Street.

Now you can argue that consensus is going to be difficult because we are not used to it. We are not used to speaking for ourselves or acting together. It’s true. Maybe that is the reason it is so hard. But there may be other problems:

1. One weakness of consensus decision-making is already known by those who use it: certain people who are confident, good at speaking, used to speaking, often dominate. We can compensate for that with careful facilitation, but we still have to make a special effort to stop it being swung by the loudest voices. Often, let’s be honest, the efforts fail.

2. The next problem is that the majority can be dominated by the minority. Hardly an improvement on the minority being dominated by the majority. There are ways to deal with this (though I have seen meetings that failed to deal with it). We can allow a ‘stand-aside’ option when things really reach an impasse – this relies on those in disagreement being willing to stand aside. Or we can go for a Consensus-1 or Consensus-2 option, in which we reach consensus with all but one or two people and that’s okay. But we still have a system where a few people (those resisting consensus) can dominate the discussion.

3. What about if someone disagrees with the way the consensus is going, but they either don’t feel strongly enough to try to block it or they don’t feel confident speaking up? This is a very common problem I think. The social pressure on these people not to break the consensus is immense. In the name of banishing oppression we have created an almost irresistable social pressure to keep your mouth shut, particularly if you disagree without feeling strongly about it. We can try to create an attitude of openness to all disagreement but the reality is that, in the face of social pressure felt differently by each person, we try and often fail. And so people don’t speak.

4. Now let’s consider something that consensus decision-making really struggles with: sometimes people’s views simply cannot be brought together. People are different. They see the world in different ways. Perhaps because of their experiences, perhaps because of their position in society – and perhaps you don’t know the reason. But it is dangerous to deny that real differences exist. Try putting a banker and me in the same room to discuss economic policy if you think all viewpoints can be brought together. I suspect most of the examples of functional large-scale consensus decision-making come from more communal societies than ours, where people start from a position of less divergent opinions.

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