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Synthesis/Regeneration 26   (Fall 2001)

What I Saw at the 2001 Green Congress

by Genevieve Houghton, Shawnee IL Green Party Alternate Delegate

If the following seems a bit simplistic, it may be because it was originally written for Shawnee Chapter members who did not go to the Congress and have never encountered such odd ducks as “consensus,” “standing outside consensus,” and “blocking concerns.”

Nevertheless, I hope there is something here for all of us.

The Greens use “consensus” as their vehicle for face-to-face communication. Consensus is actually quite old. The Friends agreed to talk things out until all could agree. This took time but since Friends were a close-knit group it was very important to them that everyone was on board when they made a decision. A lot of Americans didn’t, and don’t, much like Friends. It was important to stick together.

Greens use a slightly more elaborate version. Anyone who wants to speak signals he or she want to be on the stack. The stack is not exhausted until everyone who wants to has spoken. Then a new stack starts. One can “stand outside the consensus.” This means: I disagree but not enough to halt the process. Or one can have a “blocking concern.” This is supposed to mean “I have a moral objection so strong that I am bringing the whole process to a halt. Either you meet my objection or I am vetoing the prepared action.” Of course, this presupposes everyone has morals and that we understand each other’s morals.

The Greens use “consensus” as their vehicle for face-to-face communication.

If in fact the objection isn’t moral but is just a disagreement, anyone with a blocking concern essentially can outvote everyone else present as an exercise in power, as part of a plot, or just plain for the hell of it. Blocking concerns properly used rely on trust and to some extent a person’s ability to articulate his concern. Blocking concerns improperly used utterly destroy trust. The group becomes the sitting duck of the huntsmen.

Even Greens recognize pure mischief, so they have provided an easy way out of consensus. If there is lack of time (and there always is) they sidle sidewise into conventional voting and Roberts’ Rules. There are no rules as to when this is to be done, for how long, for what purposes, and how completely. From there on chaos ensues. So-called facilitators don’t know Roberts’ Rules, most Greens don’t either, and there follows a creative effort to mix the two systems up together and see what happens.

Here is some of what happens. Stacks that are built up over one question are transferred to discuss another. New issues are constantly introduced when a stacked person gets the floor so issues are never finished. Almost nothing is ruled out of order.

Motions contrary to the bylaws are introduced. If a person has the floor and a limit has been placed on length of speech, he or she defies the facilitator and goes on talking. There is no sergeant-at-arms to stop him and no parliamentarian to determine whether the facilitator or speaker is within his or her rights.

Facilitators (and others) make up rules on the spur of the moment. Sometimes they get consent to the new rules, sometimes they don’t. All this happened and much more at 2001 Green National Congress.

After 10 minutes it was clear that everything would be challenged and by just about everyone. It was also clear that the important issues on the agenda would either never be revealed in a timely manner or would be referred to the Green National Committee, a less representative, subordinate body. It was also clear that the goodwill and trust on which consensus depends were not present.

Here are things I heard: “The penises (i.e., men) are in control.” “Let’s pass a motion that no man (i.e., penis) on the stack can be heard unless at least one woman can get on the stack. (Since anyone can get on the stack by raising a hand, if no woman wanted to be on the stack then the Congress could do no business.) “I didn’t mean by moving to adjourn to bring the Congress to a halt so I move that we do the action proposals (forget the Boston proposal) and then adjourn.”

The motion to adjourn was still on the table, but the group smoothly moved on to the new proposal. The maker of both motions never withdrew his motion to adjourn, thereby showing, I guess, he wasn’t serious about his motion to do some other things first.

I forget what happened next. Nor do I care. There was no good will; there was no rule of law. Neither system consensus nor Roberts’ Rules nor the hybrid could work.

…Congress was given over to the sacredness of self-expression and the indulgence at infinite length of the immature.

At bottom most of the Congress was given over to the sacredness of self-expression and the indulgence at infinite length of the immature. Those who came to accomplish something, whichever side of an issue, were treated with contempt.

I have been to three Green meetings conducted this way. It is clear to me that a majority of Greens do not have the will to accept or respect any kind of authority, even one chosen by themselves; nor to abide by any rules, even those devised by themselves. Their best leadership, such as Howie Hawkins, resorts to written documents. He hardly spoke. He knew, as did most Greens (all I talked to, and I talked to quite a few) that it was hopeless.

At the close of Saturday, the first day of deliberations, I resolved not to return unless obligated to as the Shawnee alternate, because I had better things to do like walking dogs, picking tomatoes, and cleaning house.

Some Greens cling to the form of democracy (consensus) without seeming to notice that the object of its action or agreement is never achieved.

Do not fool yourself. Indulging yourself at endless length in irrelevant (or relevant) talk is not democracy. Democracy is not about self-expression.

It is about having the opportunity to affect outcomes.

Where no outcome is intended and the opportunity to talk is used to prevent an outcome, where is the democracy?

There seems to be immense confusion on this point.

Some Greens cling to the form of democracy (consensus) without seeming to notice that the object of its action or agreement is never achieved. It is as if rather than throwing themselves on the grinding wheels of the government, they must instead throw themselves on the wheels of the Greens, perhaps as a surrogate for oppressive power.

Maybe we are all government provocateurs. We might as well be.

…we have a responsibility to devise a system that can deal with the differences in people right down to their devilishness and subversiveness…

Still, I cannot fathom why those who insisted on this “democratic” system imagined that paying their dues and pledging obeisance to the 10 key values would mean they were thereby purged of egotism, craziness, mischief-making, and joy in subversion. Surely they were not so naďve as to imagine they could bring together all sorts of tightly-knit ideologues, virtual strangers of every type, and that everyone would behave like angels according to their very idealistic model.

Why not use a political model of process (for which Roberts’ Rules is ideally designed) rather than a therapeutic one? Roberts’ Rules presupposes as much rational argument as is needed to come to a decision, or as in the case of Congress 2001, no argument at all, since everyone’s mind, at least on the Boston Proposal, was already made up.

On the other hand, the consensus model presupposes that giving everyone a chance to speak (more than once) was more important to them than doing the business they supposedly came for. I don’t think so.

On a more pragmatic note, I am quite sure that any large gathering of Greens, using the therapy model, will not be able to achieve any objectives involving a decision or actions unless they have previously purged themselves of all potential dissenters.

I heard the facilitation blamed by one of these true believers. Well, the facilitation of the Springfield meeting of the Illinois Greens was excellent, yet the accomplishments were close to nil, and only arrived at after an agonizing and demoralizing amount of time-wasting and floundering.

I think we have a responsibility to devise a system that can deal with the differences in people right down to their devilishness and subversiveness, and not allow these qualities to triumph over us.

These qualities will always be with us; they can be dealt with without being yielded to, but only by a system that incorporates legitimate, fairly arrived at authority and rules. I want a system of law within the Greens, not a group ruled by passion. That is a hard saying, I suppose, but to me it means Green justice.

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