DSM: consensus

SwiftRain (swiftrain@geocities.com)
Mon, 18 Sep 2000 06:41:59 -0400

To Scott (& Whomever Else It May Concern):
I must respectfully challenge your opinion on the matter of consensus
decision making. You have said, both online & to me in person, that you
believe that consensus process is 'coercive' and disrespectful to your
right of dissent.
I disagree that this is an inherent property of the consensus model.
The model does not require nor even encourage reaching a false consensus
by means of coercion. This is if anything a misunderstanding imported
from the democratic process, where coercion is the meat & potatoes of
the way decisions are made and enforced.
In fact I would go so far as to say that democracy is by both nature and
intent a method of removing the right of dissent from individuals. You
have the right to dissent in name & symbolism only, the right to cast a
vote which, if overruled, has no effect upon the resulting decision.
Furthermore, having made your symbolic dissent & having been overruled,
you are then expected to assist the majority with their democratically
enacted project, in spite of your own reservations, and are subject to
punishment if you resist. In democracy, your right to dissent amounts
to nothing more than a right to curse the majority while you do their
Consensus (though it has sometimes been strangely & ineffectively
formalized) is not a process for deciding what people will have to do in
spite of their own desires. In entering a consensus process, it is
assumed that no one is going to do anything they don't want to do. Your
right of dissent is an absolute right to determine your own actions --
this right is not bestowed by the group, but merely recognized as
If a consensus process is treated like a democratic process which
requires a 100% majority on all decisions, it will naturally fail
miserably. In fact this mutant hybrid process fails so miserably in
nearly every situation that it is a wonder that anyone has ever adopted
it -- my theory is that this has happened only when people have heard
good things about "consensus" and utterly misunderstood how it works.
True consensus is not a process of "for" vs "against." It is an organic
process through which individuals decide their own individual actions --
while learning of the plans and visions of those people they have chosen
to come together with.
When consensus is reached on a proposal, it does NOT mean:
  - that everyone is completely happy with the proposal
  - that everyone intends to help enact the proposal
  - that the proposal is a "decision" made by the group (who ever got
the crazy idea that groups can make decisions?)
It simply means that no one has any strong/principled objections to the
proposal; that in spite of any reservations they may have, they will
allow the proposed idea/action to go forward.
An essential procedural element in maintaining this open feeling in
consensus is that there is more than one way of expressing dissent --
there is more than one sort of dissent.
One sort of dissent is to say "although I have no objection to this
project happening, I do not wish to put my effort into it." This is
called Standing Aside. If it is proposed that a bridge be built, all do
not have to consent to helping to build the bridge in order for the
construction to go forward. Those who wish to build the bridge may
consent to their decision, while those who are not interested in
building the bridge may Stand Aside.
In situations where those who oppose a proposal not only do not wish to
help enact it, but actually feel that there is something wrong with it,
the process aims not to be one of arguing the merits of the proposal,
but of integrating the substance of the objections. Proposals can often
have an amazing amount of objection integrated into them -- it makes
them fuller, richer, deeper, an expression of the entire participating
community and not merely their advocates.
If there is an objection to building the bridge on the grounds that it
will be ugly, the dialogue will surely focus on finding ways to make the
bridge more beautiful -- not just because this will appease the
objectors, but because when it is brought to their attention the whole
group sees that making the bridge beautiful is something that will
benefit them all. The vision of the group expands as it allows itself
to integrate & respond to objections.
The final sort of dissent is used quite rarely. This is what is called
Blocking Consensus (or Principled Objection). When all of your
objections have been heard and responded to, but you continue to have a
firm moral/ethical reason why you cannot allow a proposal to go forward,
you must Block Consensus. This is not just a matter of disliking a
proposal, or even a vague feeling that something isn't right about it --
those sorts of feelings are fine to express as objections, but in the
end they are not a reason for Blocking a consensus. A block cannot be
for personal reasons; it is not a matter of whim. By Blocking you are
making a very serious claim -- that the proposal is morally/ethically
As I say, when consensus is effectively practiced, there is very rarely
a Block. People will express objections, but when it comes down to, not
"do you like this proposal," but "can you live with this proposal,"
there is almost always agreement. When a Block is made, because it is
considered a serious matter, the feeling is not "Damn! Someone is
getting in our way, what a nuisance!" but "Wow, she thought it was
serious enough to block consensus! We must have been about to really
fuck up, let's take another look at this..." The right to Block is not
so much a priviledge as a responsibility: to bravely stand up against
the will of the group when you see it being led astray.
In summary, effective consensus process is capable of not only
maintaining the right of dissent, but respecting it in many ways which
democracy does not. Under consensus one maintains the right to Stand
Aside, whereas under democracy if the majority decides that an action is
to be taked the minority will often be forced to assist them. Under
consensus one maintains the right to have one's objections heard -- and
heard not as nuisances, but as respected ideas which can lend their
wisdom to the resolution. Finally under consensus one maintains the
right to Block -- for it is recognized that however many should support
a proposal, someone who feels a true moral/ethical obligation to oppose
it must not be complicit in something they know to be wrong.
I apologize for the length of this letter, but having discussed this
subject with you in the past -- and having clarified my understanding of
the consensus process tremendously through experiencing it in practice
-- I felt I should attempt to present to you the bright side of
consensus, what it is capable of being when used intelligently and
My experience with consensus has been mostly with the Councils of the
Rainbow Family Of Living Light. I encourage you to attend a Gathering
Of The Tribes when you can -- they're eternally open to all -- and
experience the fascinating governance (non-governance?) which is my
family's enthusiastic (if sometimes distracted) gesture of unity in
Here's hoping that mob-rule tyranny y'all call SVS is still as boring as
it always has been,
I mean that in a nice way of course,

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