Saturday, October 08, 2011

Consensus or Truth?

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been its use of consensus decision-making as the basis for a "leaderless" activist community. In New York and elsewhere, the movement employs a complex process - including hand gestures, procedural rules and a whole constellation of facilitators, each charged with a particular task.

In the first days of Occupy DC, we employed a different model - a slightly modified version of Quaker decision-making. Compared to the complex process employed in New York, the Quaker-derived model was streamlined, involving only a single facilitator and her assistants. The facilitator helped gather the agenda, called on individuals who wanted to speak, and generally kept us on track.

More important than the procedural details, however, are the objectives and results of the process. As I discovered this week, the Quaker process and the New York consensus model are essentially different in the ultimate outcome that they seek. While the New York model seeks baseline consent from all participants, the Quaker model encourages participants to seek truth together, and to unite around it.

On Wednesday, some individuals at Occupy DC succeeded in convincing the community to set aside the Quaker-style process that we had been using and to adopt the New York procedure. Since then, I have been witness to the practical differences between the two models. While the modified Quaker process resulted in decisions that the whole community could unite around, the new model has resulted in polarization and unexpressed discontent. The difference lies in the ultimate objective of each process.

In the New York model, a decision is deemed acceptable when a majority of the participants agree with it, and the minority is willing to either stand aside or remain silent about their reservations. The process relies heavily on the power of peer pressure. Few people want to be seen as obstructionist; most of us will go along with decisions that are not intolerable, but which we do not consider to be the best.

In the New York process, decisions are routinely made with individuals "standing aside" from the decision. It is possible for an individual to block a decision, but blocking is only allowed in cases of a serious moral objection. To block a decision is to say, "if you do this, I must leave the group." This sets a very high bar on dissent, and all but the most strident of individuals quickly learn to save their objections for the most extreme cases.

As I have seen in the last few days, this results in decisions that leave much of the community feeling disempowered and silenced. With the criterion for blocking a decision set so high, a small group of charismatic individuals can easily sway the group to make decisions that many - even most - do not consider optimal. No one wants to be the dissenter that holds the group back. In this context, "consensus" is a decision that no one in the group is willing to oppose outright by blocking.

The model derived from Quaker process is different. Rather than seeking such an inadequate consensus, the Quaker model asks participants to cooperate in seeking truth. The point of the exercise is not to build support for a particular viewpoint; instead, each person is invited to share their limited perspective. We trust that, as we hear what each individual can authentically say, the truth of the matter will begin to emerge. When we listen deeply to a variety of limited, human perspectives, the universal reveals itself.

In this process - so different from New York-style consensus - success is measured by the depth of unity in the group. We know that we have reached a solid conclusion when there is a deep sense of peace and settledness in the body regarding the decision we arrive at. It is not enough to assent to a decision that represents the lowest common denominator. When we listen together with patience, gentleness and receptivity, we are brought into a unity that goes far beyond consensus. We seek nothing less than the truth for the group at that time.

I understand why the New York consensus model is so tempting. Consensus does not require trust or vulnerability. Consensus allows us to fight for our own perspective, and the New York style of consensus provides a myriad of rules and regulations to ensure the rights of the individual participant. Consensus does not require us to change.

I was sad to see Occupy DC opt for the New York model of decision-making. While I sympathize with the reasons that folks would choose this path, I believe that we will be stronger if we take the risk of seeking truth rather than mere consensus. For those of us who have experienced the power that is present when a community comes fully into unity around the truth, consensus is a pale shadow.


Bill Samuel said...

Interesting report. One of the things it demonstrates is that the seemingly easier way actually doesn't work nearly as well. It leads to people feeling alienated and that their insights are not respected. What usually happens is that these people start to drift away.

Another thing that occurred to me is that too often Quaker meetings functionally operate something like the New York model. In extreme cases, you sometimes see substantial numbers of Friends insist on being recorded as standing aside. In some ways, it is worse than voting, because you start with higher expectations. Not only do you have a "losing" side, but you have the feeling that the fundamental values which drew you into the community have been trampled upon.

And even when it doesn't reach the level of the losing side being recorded, there is often a lot of perceived pressure to go along with what the dominant group wants. I have known a number of Friends who have dropped out of meetings or become much less active because they were not in unity with actions of the Meeting, but didn't really feel free to express that lack of unity.

Chris said...

Above and beyond the problems introduced by changing a decision-making process after several days of acclimating to what is already a new way of thinking for many, the NY model also seems to be much more dependent on a solid Facilitator to work; any shortcomings there result in confusion, people feeling that their voices aren't heard etc. This alienation obviously breaks down the idea of a true consensus rather than encouraging it and, based on conversations, leaves people feeling like the end result is more of a popularity contest than a real search for truth. This makes it even more crucial for those with true conviction to stand up for what they believe is right. Hopefully there are enough in the crowd with this conviction.

christina said...

Here's a link to another mention of Micah Bales.

Scott King said...

That's because our way only results in Spirit-led guidance and decisions if we are submitted to the Holy Spirit and His voice... are the protestors submitted to the Lord jesus to tell them what to do? Trying to imitate how the Spirit moves and works in decision-making and discerning what the Lord would have us do ONLY works if you are listening to the Lord...that political movement (or chaos) is not Spirit-led from what I have heard them say...

JBG said...

I cannot agree that consensus decision-making can work only if each participant is "submitted to the Lord jesus". What is required is for each participant to be submitted to genuine collective search for the best way forward, as opposed to selling one's own viewpoint. Christians do not have a monopoly lock on either wisdom or virtue.

Micah Bales said...

@JBG I think we probably all agree that human consensus can be achieved without reference to the divine. I think that Scott's point was that Quaker process (which goes beyond consensus) depends on receptivity and submission to God's will for the group.

@Scott As for whether the Occupy movement is Spirit-led, I think that's a complicated question. I think there are lots of individuals who are listening to the voice of God in their hearts and acting accordingly. At the same time, it is true that the movement as a whole has no explicit spiritual basis.

As a follower of Jesus, I seek to hear his voice and walk in his way as I participate in Occupy DC.

Bill Samuel said...

The real difference between the process between a faith-based and a secular basis is that the faith-based is not seeking the best the participants can come up with but the will of God.

Used secularly, it can be far more than a lowest common denominator. It can reach for a response which is indeed better than anyone in the group can conceive of on their own. But it is a human decision.

What muddles the picture is that humans are made in the image of God, and God sometimes speaks through them even though they may be secular and not even believe in God. So it is possible that they may come to God's will even when not consciously seeking it. However, it is much more likely to get that result if the group understands that it is seeking God's will, not its own, and believes that true openness to God leads to God's way being found.

Anonymous said...

Excellent discussion on arriving at 'consensus.' The process is often dominated by the charismatic or those with power, and groups often go 'off task; due to competition and covert aggression.

The Delphi process helps eliminate the inevitable group dynamics that occur with any gathering. Input is done anonymously and then fed back to the group to refine, often with many iterations, until consensus is reached.
This process is a new 'people' technology, just as important as other technologies that have made this movement possible.

There is various software available for this process, but it can also be done with paper and pencil, with facilitators collecting input and presenting it to the group for voting.