good read: Tom Atlee on consensus & co-option


Richard Moore

From: Tom Atlee <•••@••.•••>
To: Brian Hill <•••@••.•••>
Date: 9/27/2005 4:38:32 PM
Subject: dialogue with fascists?

Dear Brian,

Thanks for passing on the notes from Tadit, Michael Givel,
Trent Schroyer, Bob Wallace, and others on the TOES list. 
While there's nothing wrong with a good battle of ideas, I
personally find shared exploration more productive and have
more than enough of that to keep me busily involved with
colleagues in my field.  I offer the thoughts below for
whoever on the TOES list might find them useful.  I admit that
they come from within my framework and that I prefer (as Tadit
notes) to talk with people within that framework (a trait not
exclusively mine, I might add).  Which is not to say that
other frameworks aren't valid and vital.

I think the concerns expressed in this dialogue about
co-optation are very real.  I have a book on my shelf,
PRESSURE GROUPS by PR guru Denise Deegan, who explains in
detail how corporations can sponsor well-publicized dialogues
with mainstream reform-oriented activist groups, make minor
compromises with them to reach well-publicized agreements, and
use the vocal protests of more substantive (radical) activists
groups to marginalize them in the media.  There are at least
as many ways to co-opt, undermine and marginalize substantive
dialogue and deliberation activities as there are to co-opt,
undermine and marginalize substantive protest and grassroots
organizing activities. This must be taken into account in any
effort at effective social change.

That is, however, no reason to stop efforts at either dialogue
and deliberation or grassroots organizing.

Activists are also properly wary of "dialogue" and "consensus"
approaches which silence minority views and engineer
compromises that do not serve justice and healthy societies
and communities. Gsparling wrote "If the Tao [of Democracy's
approach] creates majoritarianism, and eliminates minority
views, maybe it is indeed another variant of facism."  Luckily
"the Tao" is NOT about eliminating minority views -- which is
a formula for collective stupidity, not collective
intelligence.  It is rather about using differences
creatively.  (I understand how hard it is to read the books we
critique.  I have a hard time doing it myself.  But I thought
I'd take the opportunity to share what I actually wrote in my
book.  Maybe Tadit will respond to my self-promotion and buy a

Chapter 18 of THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY, "Consensus: Manipulation
or Magic" addresses this issue directly in sections entitled
"The dark side of consensus" and "A spectrum of consensus." It
advocates "creative consensus without compromise," based on
"the assumption that greater truth emerges through the
inclusive interaction among all our differences," not their
suppression.  Few people have experience this form of
consensus, but it exists nevertheless.

The reference above also describes a form of consensus beyond
agreement, nicknamed "co-sensing" or sensing together.  This
approach not only involves the search for "some understanding
or option that really meets all of our needs and deeply
excites every single one of us," but is an ongoing way "to be
aware of the collective pictures we are painting with our
differences, to see things through all our eyes, together, and
to feel things through all of our hearts."  "Our consensus
might be a coming to terms with the need to do something
different than any of us would choose by ourselves, simply
because it has become clear that any of our isolated
approaches would be a disaster, given where everyone else is
at."  "At its best, consensus involves living through our
changing experiences together."  And whatever we come up with
through our shared inquiry can later be overthrown, just as
theories come and go in scientific inquiry.

As Tadit noted in a letter to Richard Moore two years ago,
Mary Parker Follett, author of the truly remarkable book, THE
NEW STATE (1918), thought "consensus was a principle that
needed to be integrated through both organizations and
communities, not just practiced during a decision making
process but [as] a way of life. As an approach it builds
consensus by integrating the interests and needs of all."  I
live in a 9-person co-op house owned by a resident-controlled
co-op corporation, which operates on such consensus.  It is a
challenging, powerful and extremely rewarding process, in
which minority views, once understood, often turn the group
180 degrees around.  We are not talking majoritarian
domination here.

Mary Parker Follett says, "Social process may be conceived
either as the opposing and battle of desires with the victory
of one over the other, or as the confronting and integrating
of desires.  The former means non-freedom for both sides, the
defeated bound to the victor, the victor bound to the false
situation thus created -- both bound. The latter means a
freeing for both sides and increased total power or increased
capacity in the world."

Can such processes be practiced with "fascists"?  Perhaps that
depends on your definition of fascist.  Is a "pro-life",
anti-Iraq war, pro-community empowerment, anti-Patriot act,
Christian fundamentalist redneck parent who supports President
Bush and a strong conservationist agenda (based on God's
expectation of humanity's stewardship of nature), and
homeschools her three children a fascist?  She is certainly
right-wing, by most standards.  In the meantime, she works
with local lefty hippy families to co-create a political
climate amenable to home-schooling.  Some issues they talk
about together, others they don't.  They live in the same
town.  They get along.

I was fascinated to find, in talking to a top conservative
(whose speeches, which I'd read before meeting him, deeply
upset me), that he was actively opposed to the Patriot Act and
believed abortion was a private matter that should not be
legislated.  I hadn't realized that "conservatives" believed
such things.  I decided that my putting people in Left/Right
boxes oversimplified our differences -- and obfuscated our
similarites -- so much that it disempowered me, making it
difficult to see allies who were right in front of my face.

As far as I can tell, dialogue between the Left and the Right
isn't about establishing "quotas on how many Jews, blacks,
women, homosexuals, peasants, etc. would be allowed killed
within a year." I haven't yet heard any proposals for that. 
Nor is it about abolishing advocacy, protest, and efforts to
organize against power abuses and institutionalized oppression
and exploitation.  It IS, however, about removing our
ideological blinders so we can actually see the real people we
are dealing with, in their full diversity, not just through
movement-crippling polarized lenses.  It's about being able to
talk to each other when we share problems or live in the same
community or when we are in a family or business relationship
or friendship with someone who thinks dramatically differently
from us. It is about being creatively human together, not just

An exercise sometimes done in classrooms and community groups
has participants line up against opposite walls depending on
how they fit various categories (with a "don't know/other"
option, as well).  The facilitator calls out such dichotomies
as pro-life/pro-choice, man/woman, parent/not a parent,
evolutionist/creationist, equal rights for gays or not, income
under or over $30,000, college educated or not,
Republican/Democrat, veteran/no military experience, immigrant
parents or grandparents, etc.  What is enlightening is how
much the group shifts, divides differently depending on the
categories declared.  It opens everyone's eyes to their
radical hidden diversity.

So how about the real fascists, the proclaimed neo-Nazis, for
example?  I have little experience with them, but I have a
friend who facilitated a community meeting that was being
disrupted by a neo-Nazi skinhead.  She listened to him
carefully, reflected back to him what she heard (with the full
emotional load), was curious what he thought.  No one had ever
listened to him so well before, and it is remarkable how
behaviors can change when someone feels fully heard, often for
the first time.  He soon became engaged as a positive
participant in the group.

Does that mean every fascist will respond that way?  Certainly
not -- especially where there are extreme power differentials
and a lot of manipulation going on behind the scenes or in the
media (or, worse, with police or military power, or organized
vigilante violence) -- all of which require a more militant
activism, which can often be usefully combined with dialogue,
as practiced (for example) by Gandhi and King.

Dialogue with extremists and powerholders can be extremely
difficult. It is worth noting that the skinhead example above
took an exceptionally skilled facilitator, which most groups
seldom have.  My point is not that we should always include
fascists in our meetings and activism, but that the category
"fascist" may limit our thinking and sense of what is
possible.  It is obviously much easier to find common ground
among those who share values, experiences, political
ideologies, etc.  But it is also possible to extend our reach
to include more and more diversity.  It takes knowledge,
skill, and proper preparation for this, but for some of us
this seems worth exploring and learning -- even as our
activist brothers and sisters pursue more adversarial modes of
action.  Since the vast majority of the population are not
fascists, I suggest that building the capacity to include
85-90% of the population in a single cooperative movement --
especially a collectively intelligent one that can learn and
change through experience -- may be a worthy undertaking.

Finally, I'd like to say that efforts to "dialogue with the
Right" are a very, very small part of my work.  Most of my
work deals with dialogue and deliberation among randomly
selected citizens -- an approach which sidesteps the issue of
political categorization, allowing people to just show up as
the full human beings that they are.  Anyone wanting to read
the relevant chapters 12-14 of my book about that, can do so
freely online at <>.

I hope some of this is useful to some TOES list folks.


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Richard Moore (rkm)
Wexford, Ireland

"Apocalypse Now and the Brave New World"

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