Thursday, March 31, 2011

Consensus: Drawing the Venn

In the world of nonviolence, we either believe in the power of the mass movement and try to recruit toward that, or we stay in our tiny pure sectarian niches, willing to be happy in our own heavenward trajectory. The paradox arises when we consider that the more pure our image is in one sense--that we absolutely refuse to physically attack anyone and we concordantly refuse to support any party physically attacking anyone--the more we can convince our opponents to dialog and negotiate because they do not fear us.

However, as in the 2008 film The Duchess, about an 18th century wife of the most powerful peer in the British political system, when the woman (Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, played by lead actress Keira Knightley) enters a room and declares that she wants to make a deal, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, played by Ralph Fiennes, looks at her quizzically and says, "I don't make deals. Why should I? I am in charge of everything." What does this remind us of as we contemplate our image and our opponents? Hmmm...could it be that even those who are purely nonviolent must induce fear in the opponent?

Of course. It is a sort of bell curve. Too little fear and the Dukes can ignore us. Too much fear and they start shooting instantly. We need the Goldilocks approach. Not too hot, not too cold: we want that fear to be Just Right. But it's not a simple quantum of fear we need to engender; the quality of fear is paramount. Indeed, it is arguable that rather than the bell curve, we need to create a simple monotonic graph but it must be of the sort of fear that does not enable him to better rally his violent forces against you.

If the fear is growing that you are armed and hunting him and his forces, those forces can be convinced to attack you. If the fear is growing that you will make his power wither away the longer the struggle persists--and you give him every reason to believe it will persist--he will feel the pressure to negotiate now. But if he feels that the threat to him is already existential (e.g. Gaddafi in Libya), you've crossed the line of death, to use one of that dictator's old lines from the mid-1980s.

And how do you build a coalition? It needs one point of consensus. In Egypt that was getting Mubarak out with democratic, people-based nonviolence. In Libya, they are struggling to formulate a vision. Since the armed revolution is serious and it's taking casualties, the assumption is that they will decide the future of Libya if they prevail. This means everyone else has little to say, another indication of the anti-democratic nature of violence. This means the popular will is confused. That is the case in most violent rebellions. In nonviolent mass struggle, a coalition is necessary for victory; there is no substitute for people power in the case of nonviolence. If you don't have it, you lose. In violence, you can seize power even if you are not the majority, as long as the majority isn't engaged against you. This is not a democratic approach.

So consensus is far more important to nonviolent success than it is to violence. It requires a vision and a commitment to actualizing that vision. "Without a vision, there is no focus to a consensus and no reason for one" (Williams, 2007, p. ix).

In the end, a way to visualize the creation of consensus around a vision is to draw a Venn diagram with all the circles representing individuals in a team or larger constituencies in a community, statewide, national or transnational effort. The area of overlap helps bound the vision. Achieving that overlap is easy in some cases, tricky in others, but without it, an effort is not based on consensus and will lurch along rather than move steadily ahead.


Williams, R. B. (2007). More than 50 ways to build team consensus (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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