Toward a New Consensus: Voting Thumbs Side

Toward a New Consensus: Voting Thumbs Side    —by Jinny Batterson

Most Americans these days are subjected to increasingly agitated media and political environments—uneasiness about the state of our personal finances and national budgets, evidence of ethnic and racial profiling, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, terrorism fears, an American presidential contest replete with name-calling and innuendo. A cheery attitude seems somewhat out of place. Still, I keep looking for glimmers of an emerging new consensus, both locally and beyond my geographical area. 

During the late 1970’s, I was exposed to the human potential movement. In intensive workshops, I completed solo, two-person, and group exercises to better understand what motivated me, and what might motivate all of us attendees to interact more humanely and productively with each other. One impression that has stuck with me is that individuals and groups typically exhibit agitated behavior just before transitioning to a different level of organization.

A decade later, I attended an experiential simulation of a five phase change model based on the work of family therapist Virginia Satir: 1) original, decaying status quo; 2) introduction of a “foreign element” that generates resistance; 3) chaos, resulting in a transformative understanding; 4) practice and integration of new learnings, leading to—5) a different status quo. None of us participants wanted to go through the chaos phase. Yet, as the simulation progressed, we each came to recognize that passing through chaos was the only way to transform a system that no longer worked for us, to move toward a newer, generally more inclusive state.       

About the same time, I started attending an annual week-long “un-conference” with other small-scale consultants at “consultants’ camp.”  A decade into the camp experience, an initial phase of “top down” camp leadership ended, and our group went through chaos to evolve an alternate model. Part of the revised model consisted of a single annual morning session to tend to the nurture and future of the camp community through consensus decision making.

One of the most important features in the consensus model we adopted is an open system of thumbs up/thumbs side/thumbs down voting to validate any proposal. Approval requires a strong consensus from all community members—a single “thumbs down” vote defeats a motion. However, because it is highly unlikely that any proposition will be equally pleasing to the whole community, we include a “thumbs side” option. Voting thumbs side is much more participatory than abstaining. While a “thumbs up” indicates enthusiastic support of a proposal, a “thumbs side” shows that the proposal being voted on is not the voter’s first choice, maybe even not his/her fifth or sixth.  However, by voting “thumbs side,”  the voter shows a willingness to abide by the choice of others voting either thumbs up or also thumbs side. A thumbs side voter agrees to support the proposal, if enacted, and to avoid actions that might undermine its implementation. No gossiping, no backbiting, no second-guessing, no requests for reconsideration until the succeeding year’s camp session. This kind of consensus decision-making requires much time, effort, and goodwill among participants, but it seems to generate better long-term decisions and stronger group cohesion. 

The model for our smallish camp (typically 25-35 members) likely does not scale up to broader political discourse. However, other efforts are underway in lots of places to re-establish civil discourse and downplay strictly “either/or” choices. For example, an Institute for Emerging Issues headquartered near where I live in central North Carolina has focussed for the past year on the future of work, trying to come up with long-term strategies to enable North Carolinians to earn living wages in the face of continuing automation and globalization. Localities throughout the world can now organize TEDx conferences to bring together people and “ideas worth spreading,” using a template developed by the evolving non-profit, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design).  So I remain hopeful, I keep the television mainly off, and I practice strengthening my “thumb side” muscles.         

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