By David Parkinson

Truer words were never spoken.

… the artist, as a definite creative individual, uses the art-form that he finds ready to his hand in order express a something personal; this personal must therefore be somehow connected with the prevailing artistic or cultural ideology, since otherwise he could not make use of them, but it must also differ, since otherwise he would not need to use them to produce something of his own. […] But the general ideology of the culture, which determines its religion, morality, and society as well as its art, is again only the expression of the human types of the age, and of this the artist and the creative personality generally are the most definite crystallization.
(Otto Rank, Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development, pp. 6-7)

The deadliest traps are disguised as safe havens; and the worst mistake is to take even the safest of them for granted. Although it’s hard to make headway when constantly questioning the ground we stand on, we’d better start wising up and learning how to be skeptical of everything. This kind of radical skepticism is easily dismissed as cynicism, but cynicism is at its worst when it dolls itself up as a weary acceptance of every shortfall or outrage — the attitude that nothing is to be done anyway, so we might as well dig in and get our cut of the action. Skepticism has its costs too, and the main one is that we find ourselves biting our tongues rather than rain on someone’s parade. It’s an attitude that thrives best underground, reaching out tentatively to find the like-minded who aren’t afraid to undermine good sense or good taste; skepticism can and should have a core of deep optimism that behind the easy non-answers, once they’re knocked out of the way, are harder answers to tougher questions — and that we’re better off asking these questions and having to live with the answers we give them.

An insistence on pushing our understanding as far as it will go, though, tends to take us far from safe and easy opinions and into areas out on the fringes of acceptable discourse. It’s lonely out there, and that’s one reason not to go. Every society devotes considerable energy to rewarding people who amplify the core messages that constitute that society’s belief system, while isolating or ridiculing those who try to step outside and look inward more than is comfortable. This does not happen as the result of some unspoken conspiracy, but is one of the things we mean when we talk about a society. A society which did not defend its constituting stories and create spaces not to be explored would not be a society at all.

What hold true on the macro scale holds equally, although with greater variability, at smaller scales. You put some humans together and get them working together on anything, no matter how mundane, and an orthodoxy will very quickly emerge. Orthodoxy is a social condition in which the gravitational forces of human interaction begin to form a core of shared values or beliefs out of a cloud of individual ones; in so doing, the no-go fringe areas also emerge along with penalties for exploring these darker regions. As this cloud condenses into a fixed constellation — a process usually sped along by the stronger or more convincing members of the group exerting the force of their personality — some people find themselves on the fringes of good opinion. They may unconsciously migrate closer to the centre or do so tactically, unwilling to hold out against the pull of received thought. Either way, this results in a diminishing of possibilities and the warping of the group’s potential.

The emergent shared belief system of a group of individuals represents the best overall solution to the problem of finding a consensus common to those individuals, but it will often be a solution which does not coincide very closely with any one of these people’s actual felt beliefs or desires. The smaller the group, the more likely the ‘best’ solution is to satisfy no one. It may happen to be the preferred position of the most persuasive or powerful member of the group, with no accompanying guarantee that this person will have the will or ability to corral the others into cooperation. Instead, anyone who held a different position from the outset will likely surrender quickly, pretend to get on board with the prescription, and then disconnect from the rest of the conversation. If this sort of thing happens enough, the result is cynicism in its worst form: lip service and sham allegiance.

And yet… one of those unquestioned or rarely questioned orthodoxies is the idea that we ought to impose consensus on our group activities. The device by which this happens is the core-periphery distinction within the group, which corresponds to the membership-board relationship when formalized in the context of a not-for-profit organization, to the in-group-vs.-out-group relationship when less formal, and sometimes to the relationship between the dominant group member and the other or others in a small group or duo. It’s obvious that we do this to maximize our ability to act with unified collective force, but I can’t help wondering whether it impedes progress as much as aids it. My impression from watching all kinds of groups try to engage with complex challenges is that they converge too quickly on a single solution, find consensus with very little constructive debate or consideration of alternatives, and then proceed to implement the chosen solution as though it has the complete support of everyone concerned. This may be the only way to move forward. Often, though, it results in the weak endorsement of a poorly-thought-through approach which eventually fizzles out (to everyone’s surprise).

One of the problems here comes from thinking about consensus as a destination to get to as quickly as possible via the path of least resistance, when we need to think of consensus as a process which allows for — or even encourages — dissent and debate. Typically, the rules of consensus decision-making allow for a participant to block, stand aside, or support the eventual decision. I haven’t used consensus enough in tricky cases to be sure, but I strongly suspect that people will choose to stand aside when they would rather block what they see as a bad decision; or support a decision they would rather stand aside from or block. Getting to consensus is so seemingly important a goal that it shortens the conversation from which the most interesting insights will emerge. The outcome is a decision that satisfies everyone but inspires no one. And these disgruntled and disempowered decision-makers, frustrated in their ability to block or stand aside from a bad decision during its planning, can more easily block or stand aside from its implementation. After all, nothing comes easier to us than silently but effectively dragging our heels and mysteriously failing to succeed.

All this to say that we need to take a long hard look at these and other processes we engage in and engage others in. There is no sense banging our heads against the same predictable walls over and over while expecting different outcomes. Instead, we need to find ways to let dissent and criticism enter the picture; not for their own sakes, but because counterfeit consensus is likely to stall a group project even more than open dissensus: the latter, at least, will highlight points of disagreement and lead to conversations that allow everyone to see the terrain more clearly. I know that nothing drives me crazy quicker than being in a room of people rushing headlong towards a conclusion — any conclusion — so long as it puts an end to a phony discussion with a predictable endpoint.

It now looks to me as though we need to, whenever possible, instigate every organization as though it is a platform for collective efforts spearheaded by individual champions. (The ability to do this depends on the nature of the work that the organization intends to accomplish; sometimes this needs to be kept under tight central control, but this is the case far less often than it is assumed to be so.) Platform meaning that it’s the responsibility of the group steering the organization to put the pieces in place that allow members and inspired individuals to step up and quickly grok the rules and boundaries around action in that context.  Anything made possible by and not ruled out by those rules and boundaries should be fair game, and the larger group needs to make every effort to bring people in and get them working on their areas of interest.

A good example here is Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative, whose board (of whom I am a member) is currently putting the finishing touches on a working version of a project proposal form and accompanying processes which will empower its members to move from idea to working project with the support of the board and membership. The overarching goal is to create a large array of working projects all of which contribute to increasing food security and community connection in the region, rather than making the board responsible for devising and implementing a small number of high-stakes projects chosen via the standard consensus model.

Another example is CJMP FM, which has begun to invite people in the region to submit program proposals in order that its programming schedule will be as diverse as possible. This is the usual way of doing things in community radio, but it’s new to CJMP, whose previous modus operandi was more along the lines of designing a board-approved programming strategy and then find programmers willing to conform to this plan. This might have worked better in an area with a population large enough to supply would-be programmers for whom this centralized plan matched their passion; but otherwise it only shuts out the majority who have their own idiosyncratic and brilliant notion of what radio should be and do.

In both of these cases and others that come to mind, the only way to move forward and engage the energy and passion of a large number of people is to give them as much freedom as possible in conjunction with reasonable and transparent constraints on this freedom. It should be the job of the core group to maintain and expand this freedom; to ensure that participants understand, respect, and observe the constraints; and to cast a wide net of recruitment for new participants. Micromanagement and phony consensus give the illusion of control by driving away all refractory individuals and defining huge areas of imagination and action as out of bounds; so the core group can imagine it’s getting more done by focusing its energy on a small number of tasks and not having to worry about the human capacity to invent new problems and surprising solutions. The cost of that approach might well be stagnation and an inability to understand why the group is making so little progress — or, worse, mistaking failure for success and wandering right off the edge of the map. The trap of micromanagement is so deadly because the people who form core groups within collective efforts tend to be believers in control and rigidity. All the more reason to make an explicit and deliberate effort to minimize needless control over the activities and members of the group.

We need to learn not to be afraid of what might happen if we consciously design social systems for unified action that maximize freedom and autonomy for participants willing to play by the rules. Better yet would be to put those rules under the management of the participants, so as to create a proper feedback loop between participants and rules of action within the micro-world they are collectively creating and populating. Rules shape action, and action shapes rules in an endless and productive cycle of complex interaction. We’re looking to release energy outward in all directions but hold it together through a shared vision and some constraints; having done that we should be as hands-off as possible (and then some), sit back, and enjoy the spectacle of an emergent rich ecology of intertwined efforts feeding into and off one another and producing higher-level patterns. There’s no way to predict the outcome, nor should we want to.


Post facto

December 2010
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