A reply to The Theology of Consensus

L.A. Kauffman’s cri­tique of con­sen­sus deci­sion mak­ing in The The­ol­o­gy of Con­sen­sus is a rather peren­ni­al argu­ment in lefty cir­cles and this arti­cle makes a num­ber of log­i­cal leaps. Still, it does map out the half-forgotten Quak­er roots of activist con­sen­sus and she does a good job map­ping out some of the pit­falls to using it dog­mat­i­cal­ly:

Con­sen­sus decision-making’s little-known reli­gious ori­gins shed light on why this activist prac­tice has per­sist­ed so long despite being unwieldy, off-putting, and inef­fec­tive.

All that said, it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes while read­ing this. Per­haps I just sat in on too many meet­ings in my twen­ties where the Trot­sky­ists berat­ed the paci­fists for slow process (and tried to take over meet­ings) and the black bloc anar­chists berat­ed paci­fists for not being brave enough to over­turn dump­sters. As often as not these shenani­gans tor­pe­doed any chance of real coali­tion build­ing but the most bor­ing part were the inter­minable hours-long meet­ings about styles. A lot of it was fash­ion, real­ly, when you come down to it.

This piece just feels so…. 1992 to me. Like: we’re still talk­ing about this? Real­ly? Like: real­ly? Much of evi­dence Kauff­mann cites dates back to the frig­ging Clamshell Alliance—I’ve put the Wikipedia link to the 99.9% of my read­ers who have nev­er heard of this 1970s move­ment. More recent­ly she talks about a Food Not Bombs man­u­al from the 1980s. The lan­guage and con­tin­ued cri­tique over large­ly for­got­ten move­ments from 40 years ago doesn’t quite pass the Muham­mad Ali test:

Con­sen­sus deci­sion mak­ing is a tool, but there’s no mag­ic to it. It can be use­ful but it can get bogged down. Some­times we get so enam­ored of the process that we for­get our urgent cause. Clever peo­ple can use it to manip­u­late oth­ers, and like any tool those who know how to use it have an advan­tage over those who don’t. It can be a trib­al mark­er, which gives it a great to pull togeth­er peo­ple but also intro­duces a whole set of dynam­ics that dis­miss­es peo­ple who don’t fit the trib­al mod­el. These are uni­ver­sal human prob­lems that any sys­tem faces.

Con­sen­sus is just one mod­el of orga­niz­ing. When a com­mit­ted group uses it for com­mon effect, it can pull togeth­er and coör­di­nate large groups of strangers more quick­ly and cre­ative­ly than any oth­er orga­niz­ing method I’ve seen.

Just about every suc­cess­ful move­ment for social change works because it builds a diver­si­ty of sup­port­ers who will use all sorts of styles toward a com­mon goal: the angry youth, the African Amer­i­can cler­gy, the paci­fist vig­ilers, the shout­ing anar­chists. But change doesn’t only hap­pen in the streets. It’s also swirling through the news­pa­per rooms, attor­neys gen­er­al offices, investor board­rooms. We can and should squab­ble over tac­tics but the last thing we need is an enforce­ment of some kind of move­ment puri­ty that “calls for the demise” of a par­tic­u­lar brand of activist cul­ture. Please let’s leave the lefty puri­ty wars in the 20th cen­tu­ry.

Lessons in Social Media from Egyptian Protesters

A few days ago the NYTimes ran a fas­ci­nat­ing ear­ly look-back at the rela­tion­ship between social media and the largely-nonviolent rev­o­lu­tion in Egypt writ­ten by David D Kirk­patrick and David E Sanger. I doubt we’ve seen the last twist and turn of this tumul­tuous time but as I write this, the world sighs relief that long­time auto­crat Hos­ni Mubarak is final­ly out. Most of the quotes and inside knowl­ege came via Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civ­il engi­neer and a lead­ing orga­niz­er of the April 6 Youth Move­ment, who became an activist in 2005.

Les­son One: Years in the Mak­ing

The Times starts off by point­ing out that the “blog­gers lead the way” and that the “Egypt­ian revolt was years in the mak­ing.” It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that these things don’t come out of nowhere. Blog­gers have been active for years: lead­ing, learn­ing, mak­ing mis­takes and col­lect­ing knowl­edge. Many of the first round of blog­gers were ignored and repressed. Some of them were effec­tive­ly neu­tral­ized when they were co-opted into what the Times calls “the timid, legal­ly rec­og­nized oppo­si­tion par­ties.” “What destroyed the move­ment was the old par­ties,” said one blog­ger. A les­son we might draw for that is that blog­ging isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a step­ping stone to “real activism” but is instead it’s own kind of activism. The cul­ture of blogs and main­stream move­ments are not always com­pat­i­ble.

Les­son Two: Share Your Expe­ri­ences

The Egypt­ian protests began after ones in Tunisia. The con­text was not the same: “The Tunisians faced a more per­va­sive police state than the Egyp­tians, with less lat­i­tude for blog­ging or press free­dom, but their trade unions were stronger and more inde­pen­dent.” Still, it was impor­tant to share tips: “We shared our expe­ri­ence with strikes and blog­ging,” a blog­ger recalled. Some of the tips were exceed­ing­ly prac­ti­cal (how to avert tear gas – brought lemons, onions and vine­gar, appar­ent­ly) and oth­ers more social (shar­ing tor­ture expe­ri­ences). Les­son: we all have many things to learn. It’s best to be ready for counter-tactics.

One of the inter­est­ing side­lights was how the teach­ings of Amer­i­can non­vi­o­lence strate­gist Gene Sharp made it to Cairo. A Ser­bian youth move­ment had based their rebel­lion on his tac­tics and the Egyp­tians fol­lowed their lead, with exiled orga­niz­ers set­ting up a web­site (warn­ing: annoy­ing sound) com­pil­ing Sharp’s strate­gies:

For their part, Mr. Maher and his col­leagues began read­ing about non­vi­o­lent strug­gles. They were espe­cial­ly drawn to a Ser­bian youth move­ment called Otpor, which had helped top­ple the dic­ta­tor Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic by draw­ing on the ideas of an Amer­i­can polit­i­cal thinker, Gene Sharp. The hall­mark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that non­vi­o­lence is a sin­gu­lar­ly effec­tive way to under­mine police states that might cite vio­lent resis­tance to jus­ti­fy repres­sion in the name of sta­bil­i­ty.

As an aside, I have to say that as a longterm peace activist, it tick­les me no end to see Gene Sharp’s ideas at the heart of the Egypt­ian protests. Amer­i­ca real­ly can export democ­ra­cy some­times!

Les­son Three: Be Relent­less in Con­fronting Lies

The Times reports that Maher “took spe­cial aim at the dis­tor­tions of the offi­cial media.” He told them that when peo­ple “dis­trust the media then you know you are not going to lose them. When the press is full of lies, social media takes on the fact check­ing role. Peo­ple turn to inde­pen­dent sources when they sense a pro­pa­gan­da machine. The cre­ator of a Face­book site was a Google mar­ket­ing exec­u­tive work­ing on his own. He filled the site We Are all Khaled Said “with video clips and news­pa­per arti­cles [and] repeat­ed­ly ham­mered home a sim­ple mes­sage.”

Les­son Four: Don’t Wait for Those Sup­posed To Do This Work

Most of this social media was cre­at­ed by stu­dents for good­ness sake and it all relied on essentially-free ser­vices. Everyone’s always thought that if Egypt were to explode it would be the dreaded-but-popular Mus­lim Broth­er­hood that would lead the charge. But they didn’t. They scram­bled not know­ing what to do as protests erupt­ed in the major cities. Even­tu­al­ly the Brotherhood’s youth wing joined the protests and the full orga­ni­za­tion fol­lowed suit but it was not the lead­ers in any of this.

When we’re talk­ing about pop­u­lar orga­ni­zat­ing, mon­ey and estab­lished cre­den­tials aren’t always an advan­tage. What’s inter­est­ing to learn with the Egypt protests is that the gen­er­a­tion lead­ing it doesn’t seem to have as strict a reli­gious world­view as its par­ents. This came out most dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the images of Chris­t­ian Egyp­tians pro­tect­ing their Mus­lim broth­ers in Tahir Square dur­ing times of prayer. This is hav­ing ram­i­fi­ca­tion in copy­cat protests in Tehran. Iran­ian lead­ers tried to paint the Egypt­ian stu­dents as heirs to their own Islam­ic rev­o­lu­tion but it seems prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions are more impor­tant than set­ting up an Islamist state (stay tuned on this one – protests have begun in Tehran on one hand and the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood might well take over from Egypt pro­test­ers now that Mubarak is out).

On a per­son­al note…

It’s inter­est­ing to watch how the three-year old Save St Mary’s cam­paign has mim­ic­ked some of the fea­tures of the Egypt­ian protests. Their blog has been pret­ty relent­less in expos­ing the lies. It’s attract­ed far more media atten­tion than the professionally-staffed Dioce­san press office has been able to muster. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes talk­ing with church­es in oth­er regions to com­pare tac­tics and antic­i­pate counter-moves. As far as I know it’s one of sev­en church­es nation­wide with round-the-clock vig­ils but it’s the only one with a strong social media com­po­nent. It’s aver­age age is prob­a­bly a gen­er­a­tion or two younger than the oth­er vig­ils which gives it a cer­tain frank style that’s not found else­where. The Philadel­phia Arch­dio­cese is explod­ing now with arrests of recent Dioce­san offi­cials and rev­e­la­tions from the Dis­trict Attore­ny that dozens of priests with “cred­i­ble accu­sa­tions” of pedophil­ia are still min­is­ter­ing around kids and while church clos­ings and the pedophil­ia scan­dals are not offi­cial­ly con­nect­ed, as a non-Catholic I’m fine admit­ting that they arise from a shared Dioce­san cul­ture of mon­ey and cover-ups. Again, “repeat­ing­ly ham­mer­ing home a sim­ple mes­sage” is a good strat­e­gy.

Reading John Woolman 2: The Last Safe Quaker

Read­ing John Wool­man: Parts 123, 4 (miss­ing)

Some­one who only knew Wool­man from arti­cles in pop­u­lar Quak­er peri­od­i­cals might be for­giv­en for a moment of shock when open­ing his book. John Wool­man is so much more reli­gious than we usu­al­ly acknowl­edge. We describe him as an activist even though he and his con­tem­po­raries clear­ly saw and named him a min­is­ter. There are many instances where he described the inhu­man­i­ty of the slave trade and he clear­ly iden­ti­fied with the oppressed but he almost always did so with from a Bib­li­cal per­spec­tive. He acknowl­edged that reli­gious faith­ful­ness could exist out­side his beloved Soci­ety of Friends but his life’s work was call­ing Friends to live a pro­found­ly Chris­t­ian life. Flip to a ran­dom page of the jour­nal and you’ll prob­a­bly count half a dozen metaphors for God. Yes, he was a social activist but he was also a deeply reli­gious min­is­ter of the gospel.

So why do we wrap our­selves up in Wool­man like he’s the flag of proto-liberal Quak­erism? In an cul­ture where Quak­er author­i­ty is deeply dis­trust­ed and appeals to the Bible or to Quak­er his­to­ry are rou­tine­ly dis­missed, he has become the last safe Friend to claim. His name is invoked as a sort of tal­is­man against cri­tique, as a rhetor­i­cal show-stopper. “If you don’t agree with my take on the environment/tax resistance/universalism, you’re the moral equiv­a­lent of Woolman’s slave hold­ers.” (Before the emails start flood­ing in, remem­ber I’m writ­ing this as a dues-paying activist Quak­er myself.) We don’t need to agree with him to engage with him and learn from him. But we do need to be hon­est about what he believed and open to admit­ting when we dis­agree. We shouldn’t use him sim­ply as a stooge for our own agen­da.

I like Wool­man but I have my dis­agree­ments. His scrupu­lous­ness was over the top. My own per­son­al­i­ty tends toward a cer­tain puri­ty, exem­pli­fied by fif­teen years of veg­an­ism, my plain dress, my being car-less into my late thir­ties. I’ve learned that I need to mod­er­ate this ten­den­cy. My puri­ty can some­times be a sign of an elit­ism that wants to sep­a­rate myself from the world (I’ve learned to laugh at myself more). Asceti­cism can be a pow­er­ful spir­i­tu­al lens but it can also burn a self- and world-hatred into us. I’ve had friends on the brink of sui­cide (lit­er­al­ly) over this kind of scrupu­lous­ness. I wor­ry when a new Friend finds my plain pages and is in broad­falls and bon­nets a few weeks lat­er, know­ing from my own expe­ri­ence that the speed of their gus­to some­times rush­es a dis­cern­ment prac­tice that needs to rest and set­tle before it is ful­ly owned (the most per­son­al­ly chal­leng­ing of the tra­di­tion­al tests of Quak­er dis­cern­ment is “patience”).

John Wool­man presents an awful­ly high bar for future gen­er­a­tions. He reports refus­ing med­i­cine when ill­ness brought him to the brink of death, pre­fer­ring to see fevers as signs of God’s will. While that might have been the smarter course in an pre-hygienic era when doc­tors often did more harm than good, this Chris­t­ian Scientist-like atti­tude is not one I can endorse. He sailed to Eng­land deep in the hold along with the cat­tle because he thought the wood­work unnec­es­sar­i­ly pret­ty in the pas­sen­ger cab­ins. While his famous wear­ing of un-dyed gar­ments was root­ed part­ly in the out­rages of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process, he talked much more elo­quent­ly about the inher­ent evil of wear­ing clothes that might hide stains, argu­ing that any­one who would try to hide stains on their clothes would be that much more like­ly to hide their inter­nal spir­i­tu­al stains (all I could think about when read­ing this was that he must have left child-rearing duties to the well-inclined Sarah).

Wool­man proud­ly relates (in his famous­ly hum­ble style) how he once tried to shut down a trav­el­ing mag­ic act that was sched­uled to play at the local inn. I sus­pect that if any of us some­how found our­selves on his clear­ness com­mit­tee we might find a way to tell him to… well, light­en up. I sym­pa­thize with his con­cerns against mind­less enter­tain­ment but telling the good peo­ple of Mount Hol­ly that they can’t see a dis­ap­pear­ing rab­bit act because of his reli­gious sen­si­bil­i­ties is more Tal­iban than most of us would feel com­fort­able with.

He was a man of his times and that’s okay. We can take him for what he is. We shouldn’t dis­miss any of his opin­ions too light­ly for he real­ly was a great reli­gious and eth­i­cal fig­ure. But we might think twice before enlist­ing the par­ty poop­er of Mount Hol­ly for our cause.

Sheen: Appealing to almighty God

In the Bruder­hof mag­a­zine, an “inter­view with actor Mar­tin Sheen”:www.bruderhof.com/articles/sheen.htm?source=DailyDig. It’s a pro­file that focus­es not only on his act­ing fame or activist caus­es but on his reli­gious faith and how it under­pins the rest of his life. Read, for instance, Sheen on civ­il dis­obe­di­ence:
bq. It is one of the only tools that is avail­able to us where you can express a deeply per­son­al, deeply moral opin­ion and be held account­able. You have to be pre­pared for the con­se­quences. I hon­est­ly do not know if civ­il dis­obe­di­ence has any effect on the gov­ern­ment. I can promise you it has a great effect on the per­son who choos­es to do it.
Sheen’s rad­i­cal Catholic faith is not a super­fi­cial con­fes­sion that pro­vides him with a place to go on Sun­day morn­ing, and it’s not pas­sive iden­ti­ty from which to do polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing. Rather, it’s a rela­tion­ship with God and truth that demands wit­ness and sac­ri­fice and suf­fer­ing. It’s the faith of some­one who has per­son­al­ly gone through the depths of spir­i­tu­al hedo­nism, and who has watched his coun­try become the “most con­fused, warped, addict­ed soci­ety,” and who has found only God left stand­ing:
bq. God has not aban­doned us. I don’t know what oth­er force to appeal to oth­er than almighty God, I real­ly don’t.
I could quote him for hours, but read the inter­view.

Confessions of an Anti-Sactions Activist

There are a bunch of fas­ci­nat­ing rants against the con­tem­po­rary peace move­ment as the result of an arti­cle by Charles M. Brown, an anti-sanctions activist that has somewhat-unfairly chal­lenged his for­mer col­leagues at the Nonviolence.org-affiliated Voic­es in the Wilder­ness. Brown talks quite frankly about his feel­ings that Sad­dam Hus­sein used the peace group for pro­pa­gan­da pur­pos­es and he chal­lenges many of the cul­tur­al norms of the peace move­ment. I don’t know if Brown real­ized just how much the anti-peace move­ment crowd would jump at his arti­cle. It’s got­ten play in InstaPun­dit and In Con­text: None So Blind.
Brown’s cri­tique is inter­est­ing but not real­ly fair: he faults Voic­es for hav­ing a sin­gle focus (sanc­tions) and sin­gle goal (chang­ing U.S. pol­i­cy) but what else should be expect­ed of a small group with no sig­nif­i­cant bud­get? Over the course of his work against sanc­tions Brown start­ed study­ing Iraqi his­to­ry as an aca­d­e­m­ic and he began to wor­ry that Voic­es dis­re­gard­ed his­tor­i­cal analy­sis that “did not take … Desert Storm as their point of depar­ture.” But was he sur­prised? Of course an aca­d­e­m­ic is going to have a longer his­tor­i­cal view than an under­fund­ed peace group. The sharp focus of Voic­es made it a wel­come anom­aly in the peace move­ment and gave it a strength of a clear mes­sage. Yes it was a prophet­ic voice and yes it was a large­ly U.S.-centric voice but as I under­stand it, that was much of the point behind its work: We can do bet­ter in the world. It was Amer­i­cans tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for our own people’s blind­ness and dis­re­gard for human life. That Iraq has prob­lems doesn’t let us off the hook of look­ing at our own culture’s skele­tons.
What I do find fas­ci­nat­ing is his behind-the-scenes descrip­tion of the cul­ture of the 1990s peace move­ment. He talks about the roots of the anti-sanctions activism in Catholic-Worker “dra­matur­gy.” He’s undoubt­ed­ly right that peace activists didn’t chal­lenge Baathist par­ty pro­pa­gan­da enough, that we used the suf­fer­ing of Iraqi peo­ple for our own anti-war pro­pa­gan­da, and that our analy­sis was often too sim­plis­tic. That doesn’t change the fact that hun­dreds of thou­sands of Iraqi chil­dren died from sanc­tions that most Amer­i­cans knew lit­tle about.
The peace move­ment doesn’t chal­lenge its own assump­tions enough and I’m glad Brown is shar­ing a self-critique. I wish he were a bit gen­tler and sus­pect he’ll look back at his work with Voic­es with more char­i­ty in years to come. Did he know the fod­der his cri­tique would give to the hawk­ish groups? Rather than recant his past as per the neo-conservative play­book, he could had offered his reflec­tions and cri­tique with an acknowl­eg­ment that there are plen­ty of good moti­va­tions behind the work of many peace activists. I like a lot of what Brown has to say but I won­der if peace activists will be able to hear it now. I think Brown will even­tu­al­ly find his new hawk­ish friends are at least as caught up in group-think, his­tor­i­cal myopia, and pro­pa­gan­da prop­a­ga­tion as the peo­ple he cri­tiques.
Voic­es in the Wilder­ness has done a lot of good edu­cat­ing Amer­i­cans about the effects of our poli­cies over­seas. It’s been hard and often-thankless work in a cli­mate that didn’t sup­port peace work­ers either moral­ly or finan­cial­ly. The U.S. is a much bet­ter place because of Voic­es and the peace move­ment was cer­tain­ly invig­o­rat­ed by its breath of fresh air.

History of Non​vi​o​lence​.org, 1995 – 2008

Non​vi​o​lence​.Org was found­ed by Mar­tin Kel­ley out of a home office way back in 1995. Over the 13 or so years of its exis­tence, it won acco­lades and atten­tion from the main­stream media and mil­lions of vis­i­tors. It’s arti­cles have been reprint­ed in count­less move­ment jour­nals and even in a fea­tured USAToday edi­to­r­i­al.

From 2006:

The past eleven years have seen count­less inter­net projects burst on the scene only to with­er away. Yet Non​vi​o​lence​.org con­tin­ues with­out any fund­ing, attract­ing a larg­er audi­ence every year. As the years have gone by and I’ve found the strength to con­tin­ue it, I’ve real­ized more and more that this is a min­istry. As a mem­ber of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends I’m com­mit­ted to spread­ing the good news that war is unnec­es­sary. In my per­son­al life this is a mat­ter of faith in the “pow­er that takes away occas­sion for all war.” In my work with Non​vi​o​lence​.org I also draw on all the prac­ti­cal and prag­mat­ic rea­sons why war is wrong. For more per­son­al moti­va­tions you can see at Quak​er​Ran​ter​.org, my per­son­al blog.

A Non​vi​o​lence​.org Timeline

Screenshot from 1996 via Archive.org
Screen­shot from 1996 via Archive​.org

In 1995 I was edi­tor at an activist pub­lish­er strug­gling to adapt to a rapid­ly chang­ing book world. Many of the inde­pen­dent book­stores that had always sup­port­ed us were clos­ing just as print­ing costs were ris­ing. The need to re-invent activist orga­niz­ing and pub­lish­ing for the 1990’s became obvi­ous and I saw the inter­net as a place to do that. One of the ear­li­est man­i­festos and intro­duc­tions to the Non­vi­o­lence Web was an essay called The Rev­o­lu­tion Will be Online.

I began by approached lead­ing U.S. peace groups with a crazy pro­pos­al: if they gave me their mate­r­i­al I would put it up on the web for them for free. My goal was to live off of sav­ings until I could raise the oper­at­ing funds from foun­da­tions. “Free type­set­ting for the move­ment by the move­ment” was the ral­ly­ing cry and I quick­ly brought a who’s-who of Amer­i­can peace groups over to Non​vi​o​lence​.org. I knew that there was lots of great peace writ­ing that wasn’t get­ting the dis­tri­b­u­tion it deserved and with the inter­net I could get it out faster and more wide­ly then with any tra­di­tion­al media. For three years I lived off of sav­ings, very part-time jobs and occa­sion­al small grants.

Through 1998, Nonviolence.ommarg devel­oped into a web “por­tal” for non­vi­o­lence. We would fea­ture the most provoca­tive and time­ly pieces from the NVWeb mem­ber groups on the newly-redesigned home­page, dubbed “Non­vi­o­lence Web Upfront.” A online mag­a­zine for­mat loose­ly mod­eled on Slate and the now-defunct Feed Mag­a­zine, it also con­tained orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al and links to inter­est­ing threads on the inte­grat­ed dis­cus­sion board. With these pop­u­lar fea­tures, the Non​vi​o​lence​.Org became a “sticky” site, one which attract­ed reg­u­lar vis­i­tors. The com­bined vis­i­bil­i­ty for mem­ber groups was much greater than any­one could obtain alone and we earned plen­ty of awards and links. There was a New York Times tech pro­file (boy was that a weird pho­to shoot!) and I was invit­ed to write the guest Op/Ed in USA Today.

But this mod­el couldn’t last. A big prob­lem was mon­ey: there’s were too few phil­an­thropists for this sort of work, and estab­lished foun­da­tions didn’t even know the right ques­tions to ask in eval­u­at­ing an inter­net project. Non​vi​o​lence​.Org was kept afloat by my own dwin­dling per­son­al sav­ings, and I nev­er did find the sort of mon­ey that could pay even pover­ty wages. I took more and more part-time jobs till they became the full-time ones I have today. At the same time, inter­net pub­lish­ing was also chang­ing. With the advent of “Blogs” and open-source bul­letin board soft­ware, Non​vi​o​lence​.org has con­tin­ued to evolve and stay rel­e­vant.


Non​vi​o​lence​.org con­tin­ued to be one of the most highly-visible and vis­it­ed peace web­sites, being high­ly ranked through the first Gulf War II, the biggest U.S. mil­i­tary action since the web began. This mod­el of inde­pen­dent activist web pub­lish­ing was still crit­i­cal. The Non​vi​o​lence​.org mis­sion of fea­tur­ing the best writ­ing and analy­sis con­tin­ued until 2008 when Mar­tin final­ly moth­balled the Non​vi​o​lence​.org project and sold the domain.