Saturday, 23 July 2011

Feminist critique of consensus-based decision making

I've written a little about my own struggles with the participatory consensus model (PCM) of decision making, with a specific view to the inclusivity for women and disabled people. The PCM is common in lefty activist circles, especially anarchist-leaning circles.

Stavvers of Another Angry Woman presents a very thorough and thoughtful two-part critique of PCM (hat tip: Flaming Culture). Stavvers raises some really good points, and I really like the way the issues are discussed, and some possible alternatives, so be sure to check it out. The two pieces are:

Part one: The trouble with the consensus model

Part two: We still need to talk about consensus

In the first part, "The trouble with the consensus model", Stavvers discusses the ways tht PCM tends to privilege "insiders" who tend to be people with more social privilege -- people who are non-disabled cis men, etc. Stavvers also presents a few potential alternatives that could help with the problem, and discusses the use of anonymisation, giving priority to those who have not yet spoken, and talking to those outside the group. I've certainly been involved in groups that prioritise of people who have not yet spoken or who have spoken less (and where this is uncontroversial), and while I think it's a good idea, I don't think it's a solution on its own (in fairness to Stavvers, it's presented as a partial fix, not a full solution). My experience is that self-censorship is a major issue, and newcomers or people who feel themselves to be "outsiders" don't always volunteer to speak, so prioritising them makes little difference; additionally implicit bias may significantly affect the threshholds we use to consider what counts as "speaking less". I'd be interested to know more about anonymisation, and experiences of how that works out in practice, especially for time-sensitive decision-making.

In the second part, "We still need to talk about consensus", Stavvers talks about applying the principles of enthusiastic sexual consent to PCM, and minority influence. For what it's worth, I'm not sure that minority influence is always a bad thing. We want to make sure that, or example, if even a tiny minority of a group a single parents, their concerns still get air time, for example. However, Stavvers is right to point out that this is a two-edged sword, and we also need to be concerned about whether single parents have access to these spaces, and are able to speak and be listened to.

All in all, a very interesting and thought provoking read, and I highly recommend it. As activists we need to make sure that our spaces are not perpetuating the same kinds of hierarchies we're trying to break down.


Friday, 22 July 2011

California: US history no longer consists entirely of dead white dudes

A new California law (PDF) requires that California public (=state-funded) schools include (PDF):
(a) The contributions of both men and women in all types of roles, including professional, vocational, and executive roles.
(b) The role and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups to the total development of California and the United States.

Curiously, the NPR coverage has reported this as: "California Brings Gay History Into The Classroom" and reporting on all the usual suspects are saying all the usual things.

But I find the headline curious.

Ok, so there are good reasons we might consider history lessons featuring or emphasising LGBT people, or comflicts over LGBT rights issues and prejudice to be "gay history", but it's a problematic label, and it's strange that that's what is being picked up by the media.

A good reason to consider such history lessons to be "gay history" is that it might have particular importance to LGBT students by reducing stereotype threat. It can also be descriptive of the particular political focus of a course, in the way of "women's history" courses, where the purpose is to understand overall trends in political and historical trajectories for a particular group.

But there are other important ways in which this is US history, and the change in emphasis from straight white non-disabled men to ... um, more people, is one that is important for all students. Making history more representative can improve the welfare of individuals of any demographic by reducing bias in the classroom. It might help, in the long run, to challenge widespread prejudices.

But there's another point, that I have written before, and it's that many of the major confrontations between oppressed people and privileged people are ones everyone should learn about. When I was at school, we were taught that segregation was "black history", as if no White people were involved in that at all, as if Jim Crow laws dreamed themselves up all by themselves, and crosses burned themselves onto lawns, and Black people lynched themselves. But that's not how it happened, and kids need to know that. Even, and maybe especially, when the history that they're taught is one we're not proud of. How else will they learn?


Sunday, 12 June 2011

Just stuff

I never meant to become such an unreliable blogger. But the offline stuff that I would usually be using to feed the blog has, of late, been stuff I can't talk about publicly. I hate that, but there it is. The offline stuff is also sapping my energy at a truly alarming rate, hence less of my output here.

There's so much I have meant to write about. The privatisation of things that matter. Ken Clarke. Healthcare. Some stuff from my own life. SlutWalk. Political policing.

Oh well. Instead I refer you to an excellent post by the Goldfish, on Looking After Yourself As Radical Political Activism. Sounds like just my sort of gig. A taster:

It's radical because this is a message you are unlikely to receive anywhere in the media or from culture. You may receive messages advocating material self-interest. You may receive messages advocating a healthy lifestyle, but very often these messages come with a dose of shame and angst for your inevitable failure to follow all available advice. If you watch television, read the news or step outside in a built-up area today, you will receive lots and lots of messages. None of them will tell you that you matter and you need to look after yourself. Many of them will suggest reasons why you don't really matter.

Rush, don't walk.


Sunday, 24 April 2011

Sunday papers: Pronouns

So, inspired by Resonance, here's some alternative Easter Sunday papers. On Friday I was misgendered and publicly wrong-pronoun'd, in what was described as a queer space, and so I've been thinking about pronoun etiquette. I make just a many assumptions as everyone else and 'he' and 'she' people all the time based on their appearance, so I'm interested in working out what to do to make things better. Here's some readings on that topic.
A lot of this is centred around trans people, but it's not just trans people this is for. This is for everyone, because you actually just can't tell what gender or pronoun people prefer from looking at them. You might think you can. And if you assume, you might get it right 90-99% of the time. Liberation isn't about 99% of people though, it's about everyone.

If we want to be inclusive, we need to work out new social etiquette and practice it. So, homework for this week: start a conversation with someone about pronouns. What should we do differently? Where do we start? Hand in your answers in the comments below.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Why I love

Via Richard Jeffrey Newman comes this really moving post called "Why I love my straight boyfriend":

So what exactly does a contemporary relationship between a gay man and a straight man look like? I don’t know. This is a love affair and it looks like this. Every day we email and text back and forth about who we’re sleeping with, how we’re sleeping with them, and if we should continue to do so (in his case it’s just one girl in Paris who he’s in love with). We email poems to one another (this is less gay than it sounds since we’re both poets, which is more gay than it sounds), we have event nights, non-event nights, and date nights where we get together for really expensive drinks we can’t afford and remix Chrissie Hynde with Camus and (oh my god) our feelings.


I kind of knew things were serious with D when he sent me a love poem he wrote for me some months ago. I think it may have originally been a kind of, I wrote this for you what do you think of it thing, but I wasn’t about to give him any edits. Please. Send that shit to The New Yorker stat. I can’t remember a time when a man wrote a poem for me and called it a Love poem, capital L. And it better be capitalized twice because I like those kind of typos. Give it all or don’t give it at all. I hope all the gay men I’ve slept with are reading this.

It's just beautiful, and powerful. Lots of politics, lots of love. Do yourself a favour and read the whole thing.

This is something we don't talk about enough -- love between men. Well, love between anybody that doesn't fit a "there's a mommy and a daddy and then they love each other very much" kind of pattern. But perhaps especially love between men, and the heteronormative requirement that men shut down so much of their psychoemotional lives seems such a terrible price to pay.


Thursday, 14 April 2011

Decisions, decisions

In the last few weeks, the press has been abuzz with talk of this consensus decision-making that all the kool kids in lefty activist communities use. Although it's a little unpopular in many lefty activist communities to admit, I personally have mixed feelings about consensus decision-making.

The participatory consensus model (PCM) is a system for groups to make decisions. The idea is that everyone should work to find a mutually acceptable solution to a given problem, not settle on something which is acceptable to majority. The reasoning for this is that a majoritarian view can alienate minorities, and a group decisions should be one that the whole group can feel part of and ownership of (so "alienate" here means not only "exclude", but also the Marxist sense of "alienation"). A consensus is reached when everyone in the group agrees on a decision.

The PCM makes some basic assumptions about participants, and the decision-making context. It assumes people are willing to accommodate to each other's points of view, that everyone actively wants to find a solution that works for everyone and resolve any problems that might be standing in the way of that. It assumes that everyone has an equal right to participate, and that everyone is committed to learning from each other. In a lot of ways, it's very much like the consciousness-raising model -- consciousness-raising for decision-making. Typically, PCM discussions are facilitated, to make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak and speaking turns are allocated fairly. However, PCM is generally used in non-hierarchical settings.

On a more fundamental level: PCM assumes everyone has an equal ability to participate, and there is a very real sense in which PCM is relies on the idea that "decisions are made by those who turn up". PCM is not a representative democracy.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

"Don't let it get to you"

I know it's well-meant. I know people say it to help. But I hate hearing it.

People usually say this to me not when some little thing has happened. Little is when someone parks over the dropped kerb and I have to go a block out of my way to the next dropped kerb. Little is when someone wolf whistles in the street. Little is when there's a problem, but I can deal with it.

Big deals are the ones I can't get round, because it's not dependent on my effort, or because it would take so much effort it would cut short my working day. Big is when there are no toilets in the building I can use (eg, because none are accessible), and I have to just go home. Big is when I have nowhere accessible to work in my workplace. Big is when the pharmacist says "it'll only be a minute" and they have no chairs, and 20 "just one minute"s later you don't know whether you should keep standing with pain shooting up through your tired swollen feet, or should just leave, without your painkillers. Big is when people don't give priority to the wheelchair user, the person with the walking stick, the person carrying a toddler, in lifts and on the bus, and they can't get to where they need. Big is when stuff is scheduled in places without child licenses and wheelchair access and people then shrug and say "some people just never come to these things".

Big is when people talk to me like other people's bigotry is something I "let" happen, or allow to affect me, as if I enjoy these limitations on my life. As if I don't spend hours out of each day trying to find a way around the little things, trying to keep them from becoming big things. As if I don't spend hours out of each day trying to live my life. Also? Having to categorise the shitty behaviour I encounter into "big" and "little", so that other people won't be made uncomfortable hearing me talk about a problem I encountered and how I dealt with it? Is crap.

I know it's well meant, and I am grateful for the people who mean well, and the people who listen when I'm tired and worn. But sometimes, I just wish I didn't have to be grateful for the little cruelties that are packed into the well-meaning words.


Friday, 25 March 2011

Race Revolt

I've been reading bits of Race Revolt, a zine about race and queerness. Their articles are online, too, go check them out.