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Tuesday
Nov292011

The consensus process may defeat us, unless limits are adopted

By Jeff Johnson

Consensus is a grand ideal. Where practical, it should be attempted. Where it interferes with progress, it should be avoided.

The two attributes of the consensus process—to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to be heard, and to help citizens feel involved in their own governance—can turn into serious liabilities when left unchecked. At times, the process has so stymied decision making and the forward progress of the Occupation, that I even have wondered whether it was introduced by the enemies of the Occupation.

But no, those enemies despise this leaderless, feel-good democracy too much to use it as a tactic. Not just because it slows things down and angers their God of Efficiency, but because nothing threatens those in power more than citizens participating in self-governance, realizing that they could at any time take the reins away from the powerful few.

The problem is that many times, participants enjoy the process too much. Discussions run on beyond usefullness. The decision at hand gets lost amid the insistence of every last speaker airing every last opinion. The value of endless debate and rebuttal pales as the sun sets, the wind turns cold, and the evening evaporates, with seemingly no end to the eager speakers, and indecision the likely final outcome.

Worse than this, if the speaking has finally run its course, and a vote is called, the vast majority might approve a proposal, but a lone dissenter may refuse to accept the decision.

Such dissent is supposed to be reserved for critical disagreement and is intended to prevent schism. Therefore, it should be rare. In practice, dissenters are too inclined to block, and the group is held hostage by dissent.

As the process has been used, it is too deferential to these dissenters. I was inspired to support the Occupation because I was convinced that the changes needed in this country could be accomplished through this Movement. I did not join for decision-less debate.

Without limits on dissent and on excessive opining, the process will fall under its own weight, and we will have missed our opportunity to change the world.

Another unfortunate fact of the process is that its biggest fans insist on extending the process into workgroup meetings. This adds an absurd level to an already over-committee’ed arrangement.

When I called to ask Ms. Bowen to write a column defending the consensus process, before she knew why I was calling, she asked if we should use “the process” during our phone convesation. I wasn’t completely sure she was joking.

Reader Comments (2)

I'm afraid the statements in this piece aren't accurate even as of its posting date. We've had consensus set at 90 percent for quite some time now. in my opinion, if a proposal can't be pleasing to more than 1 in 10 people there's a pretty good chance that it could legitimately use improvement. As for using the process, a big reason for it is to make sure people are heard and that a few voices don't entirely comandeer discussion... which can and does happen when groups reach a cerain mass and no such precaution is taken.

January 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterholly

I'm not sure which part you think is inaccurate, but I bet we agree on quite a bit. Like a lot of things, so much depends on the situation. Sometimes it seems 90% is too high a standard to get "common-sense" proposals passed. Other times it seems that even with that standard the process can be too drawn out and tiresome because some people seem to enjoy debate (which can be so useful sometimes) more than agreeing on something and moving forward. Thanks for your perspective on this.

January 6, 2012 | Registered CommenterEvan Harmon

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