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August 9, 2010 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Everyday revolution

Consensus decision-making: not a cult

In early 2009 I arrived back from my first Camp for Climate Action get-together. I’d been remarkably cheerful the entire bus ride home: gossiping with middle-aged women, smiling at dairy owners, not even scowling at small children. My joy was almost tangible: I couldn’t wait to tell everyone what I’d discovered. Surprisingly, my flatmates appeared more worried than pleased at my happiness—there was suspicion when, instead of silently-staring-at-my-cup-of-coffee, I chose to wax lyrical at breakfast. They listened to my chatter, observed my newly learned hand signals, accepted my enthusiasm, and concluded that I had been wooed into a cult.

There was no cult. Rather, I had been seduced by the charms of consensus decision making. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it: a process where everyone agrees and everyone has a say. In a group of 40 people each was welcome—no, encouraged—to give their opinion. Minor disagreements were worked out relatively easily and the atmosphere of trust was so thick you could’ve sliced it and eaten it on toast.

Consensus is defined as process of making decisions collectively, where individuals come to agreement together through discussion and synthesis of ideas. While voting must always deliver a win-lose verdict, consensus aims to reach a decision every single person is happy with.

Hand signals are used to aid effective consensus processes (and I think this is where my flatmates got worried): a display of jazz hands indicates “yes” or “I agree”, a ‘time out T’ signifies “technical point”, and a large forearmed formed ‘X’ is a “block”, showing that you disagree with a proposal or decision. Initially, waggling my ‘spirit-fingers’ simultaneously with 40-odd activists felt like an episode of Glee staged in an alternate reality, but soon consensus became my decision-making process of choice. I’m now ruined for conventional groups. When Steve talks out of turn I burn with anger; when shy Simone is left out I despair; when Ying dominates the entire conversation I shrivel inside. Give me a facilitator and a speaking order and I’ll be in fairness nirvana.

The length of time needed is the one serious downfall, but it’s worth it. When people know that their view must be heard, arguing caused by egos and defensiveness practically disintegrates. Consensus works not from a basis of rainbows, unicorns and magic, but from the positive assumption that everyone actually might agree. Crazy, eh.

I get annoyed when people talk exclusively about “fostering leadership” and “young leaders”, as increasing participation and equality in society also needs to be heavily underlined. For me, getting involved with a group that utilises horizontal decision-making processes resulted in recognising how many peeps’ opinions are suppressed daily. Not by force, but simply by not making room for them.

Direct democracy: it just makes consensus. Groan.


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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    “The revolution has not yet succeeded. Work hard, comrades!”

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