Form and FunctionThe Consensus Process used within the Green Party addresses conflicts, and allows for majority rule as well as assimilation of minority desires
By Kamran Alavi
Form and function are intimately related. In autocracies, people's interactions take hierarchical forms. Robert's Rules of Order defined the rules of parliamentary conduct appropriate to social orders where there is an elite minority. Our vision of a society where the purest form of politics wells up from the bottom is heralding a new form of interaction. This new form, defying the artificial segmentation and layering of our hierarchical past, is a natural way to invite participation by a majority that was habituated to forfeiting its right to participate.
Different people have different perceptions of what is the most essential thing to do. Although persuasion is the only way we can get others to do what we think needs to be done, usually there is no time for persuasion. The illusion has taken hold that expedience leaves us no choice but to do things the way they have always been done (usually also limited by personal viewpoints.) Since our human history has divided us into groups and identities (female-male, black-white...) with varying degrees of assertiveness, and since assertiveness easily overlaps with competitiveness and belligerence, we need to adopt procedures that enable everyone to creatively participate. How else can we have their sustained contribution and participation? This is one implication of our belief in sustainable practices.
It is the nature of beliefs to appear, to the believers, as reality. One requirement of an open mind is that we always take into consideration what appears to be real may be false. But still the most honest thing we can do is to collect data with our own senses and integrate those data with our own brain. The choice of seeing with your eyes, listening with your ears, and synthesizing with your brain is not available to me. And vice versa. This difference in perceptions plants the seeds of contradiction, germinating and growing into conflicts. Murphy's Law holds that they would. We, neither obligated to Murphy nor this law, are of a different mind. We are committed to an untiring search for the slightest probability of finding common ground, overwhelming the odds with our desire for unity and achieving consensus.
Consensus (best reached by the interactive method) is even more thorough than strict majority rule. It allows for majority rule plus experimentation with and evolution, all the way up to assimilation of minority desires. As an example, if 80 percent want action only, and 20 percent want intellectual discussion only, one (albeit simplistic and mechanical) way to resolve the conflict is to have action oriented meetings 80 percent of the time and intellectual discussions at 20 percent of the meetings. Another alternative is to divide the allotted time of each meeting, discussion, etc., 80-20. This will evolve to a point when, with no artificial division, issues will take appropriate proportions of our resources. Please note that these are my own examples and not the rule.
Power tends to concentrate. Then a vicious cycle escalates until implosion. An integral part of the interactive method is separation of powers. The most usual way this is done is:
(1) Those who control the process, the facilitator, the timekeeper and the recorder (scribe), are excluded from participation in and therefore control of the substance.
(2) Rotate powers and functions as frequently as possible. This will, at times, reduce efficiency. But it will greatly add to effectiveness by allowing the harmonious development of the organization in all spheres, theoretical/intellectual as well as action oriented. An added benefit is that the organization is not forced to rely on aces and stars; should we lose someone, to a better cause hopefully, many can step up to bat. In most cases, until better times come, it is also desirable to artificially maintain gender balance (as well as similar consideration to other suppressed groups) in all rotations. I know we all think we do not believe in and contribute to segmented identity formations. But human psyche operates in many layers, most below the conscious level. Statistical evidence points to great chasms that are accentuated in group situations.
(3) Seating is arranged so that those who control the substance (content of discussions or action planning etc.) do not face each other. They sit in a semi circle (better an open crescent or rows of crescents with taller people in the rows farther back) facing the recorder so they get to see their brainchildren recorded on group memory. This combination reduces stress, alleviates anxiety ("Will I ever be heard?") and reinforces ownership of the results by every participant.
(4) The facilitator controls the process by soliciting everyone's participation in determining the agenda and time allotment to each item. (S)he does not contribute to what needs to be discussed and how much time is needed for each item of the agenda.
If there are too many items and too many participants to have enough time for everyone, the group is broken into subgroups to delve into the details of each item. At the end the facilitator asks if everyone is satisfied and also if they wish to extend more time for any item. The Facilitator only asks, then enforces according to how the group instructs.
(5) If an individual controlling the process wishes to contribute to the content, they should ask the group's permission to change hats. This would be more OK for the timekeeper or the recorder to do than the facilitator, since their functions require fewer judgment calls.
If anyone has doubts that this is too cumbersome to be practical, attend a California Green Party state plenary and you will be convinced. Even in very small meetings, a conceptual separation of powers and prominent recording of everyone's ideas, can serve to decentralize power. If history has proven one thing this has got to be it: One hundred million people, each practicing their own versions of "wrong", produce a better outcome than if they all followed one person's version of "right."
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