1. In daily reading of the Internet, you can forget just how many breathtakingly wonderful various small acts of creative generosity it offers. Most of them are also fragile and ephemeral: you have to be there. I was reading one of my favorite sites, Comics Curmudgeon, this morning, particularly for the continued coverage of the weird, entertaining current storyline in the comic strip Mary Worth, which features a stalker who looks like Captain Kangaroo trying to romantically pursue Mary Worth herself. And what do I find? This amazing poem written by a commenter using the name Uncle Lumpy. I know it sounds like I’m making too much out of this sort of thing, but I think taken as a whole, there’s a kind of collective imagination, wit, and spontaneity under the surface of all the dreck and dull-wittedness of Internet blabbery that is so precious to me, that seems one of the most wonderful if fragile beauties of 21st Century global civilization.
2) One of three comments on this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer: Quakers are discussing (no doubt interminably) whether they need less discussion. As someone teaching at an institution with a Quaker heritage, I can only say, Gee, ya think? Seriously, this is the problem with consensus as an organizational commitment: it’s an endless license for busybodies, trivially-minded second-guessers, energy creatures and plotters to tangle up even the smallest decision or initiative in endless coils of process-discussion, where you debate the debate about the debate about debating. Even in a spiritual community, you need to put aside ordinary worldly matters and just let someone make a judicious decision.
3) Speaking of people who get entangled in endless second-guessing, I have some sympathy for the producers of Sesame Street who are dealing with a lot of sniping about their new girl muppet, Abby Cadabby. On the other hand, they pretty much invite some of that sniping when they talk about nine months of expert research, or about their characters as role models. If they concentrated more on creativity, imagination and entertainment and less on justifying themselves to every middle-class liberal parent with a sanctimonious view of television (let alone the Christian activists who complain that Abby is justifying black magic), they’d be a lot better off. That’s one of the reasons why PBS’ kids shows are a backwater when you compare them with the much more nimble, entertaining and yes, educational, offerings over at Noggin/Nickleodeon: PBS is much more captive to constituency politics and to its own long-developed and overdone claims about the value of its programming for children. That’s why they have to do things like make Cookie Monster eat fewer cookies (can the castration of Oscar the Grouch be far behind?) or fire a perfectly lovely program host because she once made a humorous video about sex toys.
4) STOP THE PRESSES! This morning’s Inquirer has an exclusive from Gail Shister. Aaron Brown will not, I repeat NOT, be attending any 9-11 films because it’s “too soon”. Coming tomorrow from Shister: a guy in Manayunk says he’s not going to any animated films this summer because he’s 34 and doesn’t have kids. On Thursday: a dude in South Philly says that some movies have too many naked people in them and what’s America coming to these days. On Friday, Shister talks to a guy in the video store who says that he thinks George Lucas is an asshole for not putting “Greedo shoots first” on the initial DVD release of Star Wars. Next week, maybe she can talk to more ex-media people about how it’s hanging and all that.
I went to Haverford, and my wife taught at the AFSC child care center for several years, so we have quite a bit of experience with consensus processes. I’ve seen two structural problems, one easily solved and one rather problematic. The easy-to-solve problem is that many people who facilitate meetings with a requirement for consensus confuse the need for consensus with a lack of structure. You can easily build a sequence that is nominally open-ended but practically task-oriented. In many ways, having nominal open-endedness shortens the discussion, as people don’t feel obligated to come to closure at every little step.
For example, when I was chairing a committee to revise my college’s T&P procedures, I used a pretty simple three-question process: what are the issues we need to address? what are our options for each issue? which is the best option? At several points in the first meeting, as the group got into a heated discussion that I thought was unproductive, I said something like, “We don’t need to come to an agreement today. Unless there are any other options we can think of, let’s come back to this at the next meeting.” My colleagues were joking at the end of the meeting about my phrase, “We can always come back to this later,” but after 90 minutes we had listed all the issues, had options for 2/3rds of them, and come to agreement on about half. The next meeting was shorter, and we finished with solid agreement on the direction of the procedures. I thought my colleagues worked hard to change our T&P process in only two meetings, but the structure of the conversation helped and would be perfectly consistent with consensus.
The other, more difficult problem is the potential for Quaker respect for dissent to allow individuals to veto a consensus. I’ve seen such manipulation both as crank behavior (typically those not raised as a Friend) and also a more sophisticated variant by middle-aged Quakers who blocked consensus through constant demurrals. Where there is a significant minority who disagrees with the majority view, then you’re fairly far from consensus, and the spirit (not Spirit) of consensual processes is that moving ahead with a slim majority isn’t wise in any case on an issue of values. With a very small number of individuals in opposition, that’s a tougher call. You can always adjourn and come back to the issue in a later meeting, hoping that time away from the meeting will cool egos and that peer pressure outside the meeting can shift minds. And, of course, if that doesn’t “work” (to achieve consensus), then whether you find the ability to block consensus valuable at that point is entirely a matter of how you look at dissent.
But at the very least, there are certainly ways to improve consensual processes, especially at institutions that adhere to them but without a critical mass raised as Quakers
Yes to the first point. Good organization of meetings solves a lot of these problems. In fact, to be honest, when I’ve been in political contexts outside the college where consensus process is in force, this is how ‘leadership’ operates–through pre-meeting agreements to organize the agenda in particular ways, presented as a fait accompli. But I think part of this is also about putting everyday logistical matters formally outside the scope of decision-making or deliberative process, about cutting people slack to carry out ordinary business in an efficient way.
Yes also to the problem of consensus veto being genuinely difficult. I think that one of the virtues of consensus is that it does make any decision that produces thin majorities into a decision that needs to be revisited. But it can also make a decision that virtually everyone agrees with become unduly difficult to reach because a small, highly aggrieved minority poses or acts like they represent a much larger constituency. It can be really difficult, especially within the kind of politesse that holds in both academic and spiritual institutions, to “call out” such a minority view as marginal or egregiously self-interested when it wraps itself around a claim about consensus or “the Quaker way”.
Most vitally, Abby C doesn’t actually look like a muppet. What’s with those eyes?
In my experience, Quakerism is not a necessary basis for endless debate about debate.
“Quakers Discuss Need for Less Discussion” sounds like an Onion headline.
As for Sesame Street, even as a kid I always suspected that the show was devised by a committee. That story serves as adult confirmation #1,786.
Back in 2000 I chaired the planning committee for a yearly event commemorating the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was a relative newbie — I had been in San Diego for only four years, while everyone else on the committee had been doing local disability rights activism since the 1970s. I quickly discovered that they were the most dysfunctional group of people I’ve ever worked with. They claimed that they did everything by consensus, but really it was more like a form of democratic centralism in which everyone thought he or she was Lenin: Meetings went on for hours, committee members interrupted each other constantly, discussions would be re-opened on issues that had seemingly been resolved several meetings before, people would assent to a decision and then undercut the consensus between meetings. I managed to impose a little order on the chaos — mostly by introducing written agendas and meeting minutes and insisting on a no-interruptions rule — but at the cost of being labeled an “Alpha male” and probably a fascist, too. The event itself came off with fewer glitches than in previous years.
(I’m not sure what my story adds to this thread. I mostly just felt the need to get it off my chest.)
Poor Melanie. I have no idea how to explain it to Leonarda. On the other hand, she was a horrible host so I won’t miss her and her “I don’t know what to do with my hands” gestures.