by Julie Orlemanski
From its first days the Occupy movement has held fast to an ideal of democratic decision-making. In General Assemblies across the country the promise and difficulties of direct democracy have been put on display nightly. This Tuesday afternoon in Dewey Square, longtime activist and founder of Food Not Bombs C.T. Lawrence Butler stood in the center a ring of listeners eager to learn how truly democratic decisions are made.
The crowd was diverse – young and old, campers and tourists, seasoned activists and newbie protesters. Questioning hands flew up frequently, and with the aplomb of an expert Butler negotiated the queries of his audience and the urgency of his message.
C.T. Lawrence Butler has probably thought and written more about the process of consensus than anyone else around. His 1987 book on the subject, On Conflict and Consensus, is a must-read for anyone interested in group dynamics and decision-making. Recently, Butler wrote a sequel attempting to adapt his process for larger groups, Consensus for Cities. This, combined with decades of experience organizing for progressive causes, makes him well-suited to teach the philosophy of cooperative decision-making.
His Free School University workshop entitled “Consensus: So that All Voices May Be Heard,” began by pointing out the downsides of majority rule. The success of a majority tends to create “losers,” or those who find themselves in the minority time after time.
Butler believes that majority rule “doesn’t necessarily favor what’s best for the group.” Instead, popularity carries the day. Majority rule enshrines the values of “competition, rather than cooperation”, and can corrupt the heart of a decision-making process.
Consensus offers an alternative. “The methods of consensus,” as Butler describes them, “make it possible for every voice to be heard”. Decisions begin from common ground shared by all present. Then, through intensive discussion, the group moves toward resolutions that achieve the greatest commonality.
While voting necessarily produces winners and losers, consensus systematically rewards cooperation and empathy. Butler eschews the need for so-called ‘representative democracy’; an oxymoron, as he sees it. Rather, “consensus holds out the possibility of direct democracy for everyone.”
Since the Occupy movement began, Butler’s phone has been ringing non-stop with calls from those eager to understand what consensus is all about.
“The key at this point,” Butler says, “is education”. Organizations as disparate as the League of Women Voters to the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra have learned to use consensus to make decisions, and others can, too. To replace familiar paradigms of competition with those of cooperation requires skill, training, and practice. Butler and his partner, Wren Tuatha, are kicking off a tour of Occupy sites in order to share their knowledge of consensus with anyone willing to learn.
As an experienced practitioner and teacher of this process, it would seem that Butler is ready to help the Occupy movement achieve its democratic goals.