[Noisebridge-discuss] In Defense of Consensus

Matthew Senate mattsenate at gmail.com
Thu Mar 27 10:36:10 UTC 2014

Howdy all,

Long time fan, first time caller.

*Please welcome this friendly message in regard to changes to the
Noisebridge decision-making policies
which were explained to have been executed after a board meeting with the
new Noisebridge board.*

After a brief walk along the March archives of this mailing list, I didn't
quite find anyone talking about consensus the way I've come to know and
practice it. I'd love to hear and see how ya'll conceive of consensus, so
please chime in.

I'm one of the co-founders of sudo room, and we've gone through our own
learning processes around decision-making and the like. Something I've
found at sudo, and in other communities as well, is that sometimes we
unfortunately let a functional understanding of consensus stand in for the
actual process of consensus itself. Sort of like a synecdoche gone wrong or
a reductive model that unfortunately leaves a gap of ambiguity between
results and observation.

Concretely, in my experience, some folks tend to think of consensus as a
mere decision function, a simplified system in which any one qualified
participant may "block" and act as an empowered minority voice to prevent a
proposal from being passed. This is also seen in narrative forms, perhaps
as a dire statement to the effect of "blocking means that one would rather
leave the community entirely rather than allow the proposal to be passed,
and therefore weighs at stake their very continued participation." In a
way, this can be an interesting and valuable way to look at consensus.
However, I think it misses the heart of the matter.

Consensus, to me, is about a good-faith collaborative process to address
common problems and reach common goals. It's a communal process that
benefits from accepting the invaluable contributions and experiences of all
participants. Meaning, each person is treated as a fair and equal

In a consensus process, if there is disagreement and a lack of consensus
around a proposal, even if frustrating, it is in fact a great opportunity!
There need not be some coercive or strict adherence to any person's whim
and hand-waiving. There is no need to fear the arbitrary, the unknown, or
one another. You can and will work it out, that's precisely what this
process is for.

Discussion should bubble and precipitate proposals for necessary action or
resolution. Proposals should be questioned, augmented, improved, or
otherwise revised until they reach a state by which all feel proud and
comfortable. If there is some issue preventing the proposal from moving
forward, it must be stated plainly, accepted as valuable feedback, and
contributed back to improve the proposal. If there is a participant hung up
on an issue and this is unable to be reasoned through with the other
participants, as long as this participant is acting in good faith, then
compromise will be possible!

It is only when participants may act in bad faith that this process does
not work at first. When it doesn't work, when there is bad faith, it's very
very clear what is going on. In these circumstances you can show directly
where a participant's actions do not match with an obvious and baseline
good faith participation in the consensus process. In the face of these
circumstances, you can engage in a process to deal with those issues as
necessary, such as a conflict resolution process.

Here is a valuable diagram to illustrate consensus in this fashion:

Here's an interesting addition to that diagram (but I call in question
usage of the term "block", I think this step could be stated more

In *The Democracy Project, *David Graeber writes about consensus process,
Occupy Wall St, and such. The ideas and solutions he shares are pretty
interesting, and I think worth a read:

As you may read in that section of Graeber's book, consensus can be
modified, intentionally, in order to afford a practical and sufficiently
democratic process for particular circumstances (for them, a very large
crowd in a park). I am very much in favor of this type of hacking! In fact,
if the Noisebridge community spent some time figuring out some really great
and radical ways to make decisions more democratic and more effective, and
went through a process to include as many folks as possible in trying out
this system, it would be a great and helpful experiment for us all!

However, as the situation currently stands, it seems to me this has yet to
take place for the Noisebridge community, so maybe y'all could spend some
time dreaming up new, creative hacks, and not capitulate to arbitrary or
legacy forms of decision-making.

Love and solidarity.

// Matt

p.s. In regard to my note on "... weighs at stake their very continued
participation" above: Mitch Altman is weighing his very participation in
Noisebridge at this moment, which maybe says more about this situation than
my ramblings on seeing the light in consensus.
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