Monday, March 21, 2011

Consensus: When it counts

Consensus is not a nonviolent phenomenon all the time. Achieving consensus to bomb Libya from amongst the political players who tend to use violence was not a nonviolent exercise or outcome, obviously. But if we hope to achieve significant political victories, we will learn that consensus is the basis of coalition and unity and is sine qua non to a challenger movement.

My father and I took a trip from Minneapolis to Vancouver Island in 1993 and it was a hot year for nonviolence on the route. In the mountains in British Columbia, we met the Sri Chimnoy runners and the next day I ran with them on the island. Then we went to Clayquot Sound on the Tofino side, the west of Vancouver Island. The lumber companies were about to log off the magnificent Old Growth there and folks were arriving from all over Canada to offer nonviolent resistance. The resulting actions of blockade, tree sits and trespass produced the largest mass trial in Canadian history with some 932 defendants (Walter, 2007, p. 249).

Some scholars see the heart of social movements as interest-based, that is, who gets what resources and how do we get our fair share? Others interpret such large social movements as expressions of identity-based grievance. Walters (2007) offers a good literature review of these two approaches and their respective roots and champions. In the field of conflict resolution, we would welcome the consideration and acknowledgment of both strong factors. Either perspective shows the possibilities for unity on the one hand, division on the other, and from the standpoint of strategic nonviolence, we want to maximize the unity by producing a consensus with clear boundaries. So, if we wish to preserve the ancient forests because we are interested in the forests as a scenic resource for our vacation time, we are interest-based. If we are tree-hugging, wind-kissing prairie fairies, we are an identity group and will engage as identity conflict with the lumberwagon bar oil, cleat stomping skidder driving loggers, the identity group who wants to desecrate our woodland temple.

In our field of conflict resolution, however, we hope to use adult education to help achieve a consensus that can transform such a complex conflict into something everyone can live with. The worst possible idea is to formulate a complete plan and present it as a fait accompli, as though you are the Mediator Cavalry, riding in to save the day. The first order is to listen, then acknowledge, then elicit, then synthesize, and then seek real consensus.

Listening takes many forms and is best done so that it doesn't further fan the flames. One-on-one listening is time-consuming and still the best. Absorbing the vents and rants professionally without taking sides is far easier in an atmosphere that won't erupt into ad hominem attack. It takes serious preparation to do this in a public session, setting a tone of controversy with civility.

Eliciting ideas is also done in a variety of ways and the important point is to get many of them. This part of the process of seeking consensus cannot be short and generalized. It needs to continue until the well runs dry, at which point the facilitator or mediator may offer a suggested synthesis created entirely from what was proposed by the stakeholders. That is the moment of truth. Can consensus emerge? Can the identities be honored while dividing the resources? If so, the perfect integration of identity-based and interest-based conflict transformation has occurred. Diane Nash and Nashville Mayor Ben West achieved it by the use of many of these methods when they shook hands on the courthouse steps in 1960, ending segregation there. It may be a tough process and may take more insight than we think we have, but the alternatives are all worse.



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