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.


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