By Donella Meadows
–October 2, 1997–
In one of those strange juxtapositions of life, a sane little book arrived in my mail this week as if it were meant to be contrasted with the insane debate our senators were holding on campaign reform.
“The Technique of Consensus” the book is called, its author is Richard H. Graff, he published it himself. Graff puts forth a technique intended, he says, to help people find shared ideas and objectives, instead of dwelling on disagreement and conflict.
Try, says Graff, to frame discussions through nontrivial questions to which the expected response will be not defensive argument, but thoughtful silence. He gives some zinging examples:
Does anyone disagree that farming practices should be sustainable in the long term?
Is there anyone who thinks that company profit and shareholder value are more important than the long-term well-being of our species?
Can anyone point to someone who is less deserving than him- or herself?
Is it a good idea for us to divide ourselves into groups and factions that hate each other?
Sitting in silence, thinking through the implications of the questions and waiting for rebuttal (which may come, and which will be instructive if it does) is the important part of the exercise. Graff adds three stipulations to keep the exercise in bounds. First, any response must be accompanied by a reason. If you say, “I don’t agree” but refuse to say why, you can be ignored. Second, no quibbling. Editing the premise to clarify it is fine, but not muddying it up with unimportant distinctions or distractions. Third, speak only for yourself. No making up some other party who you imagine might disagree.
What grabbed my attention, given the Senate debate, was Graff’s examples in the realm of politics. He starts with: Does anyone think that politics should not be based upon ethical principles?
“Our audience has to remain silent,” says Graff, imagining the response to this question. “Everyone looks around to see who’s going to speak up. Even those who may be violating the principle do not disagree with it, and thus they are faced with the inescapable fact that they are behaving in a way that is at variance with their own beliefs.” Since the rule is to speak only for yourself, there can be no finger-pointing, no “but so-and-so is unethical.” No one stands accused except by him- or herself, so there can be no hypocritical scrapping of the sort that dominates Washington.
Graff continues with: Does anyone think it is a good idea for our elected representatives to be unduly influenced by special interests?
A question could arise about the meaning of “unduly,” he admits, so he suggests further questions to stake out the arena of undue influence. Such as: Does anyone think it is OK for substantial contributions to be given in support of a congressman’s election, in the understanding that that congressman will support legislation that unjustly favors one particular interest at the expense of the general welfare?
The subsequent resounding silence won’t put an end to undue influence, says Graff. But it will “put those who are exerting … such influence into an untenable position. It is clear to them that no one supports … such behavior — including themselves.”
So all week, as the senators have been reminding me of the parlous state of our democracy (only six percent of Americans gave campaign funds to any candidate in the last election; less than half the eligible voters voted), I’ve been thinking up Graff-inspired questions.
Is anyone happy with the fact that our politicians spend at least half their time (time for which we pay them through our taxes) raising funds for their next election?
Does anyone believe we get the best candidates, when no one can stand for office who is unable to raise millions of dollars?
Would anyone argue that the best decisions for the good of the country can be determined by the relative amounts of money people are willing to pay to push them?
Do we have the kind of free speech that furthers democratic debate and free political choice, when only those with lots of money can participate in that speech?
Does anyone think that campaign ads give voters important or accurate information about the ability of a candidate to govern?
Have any of you voted recently for a candidate you honestly thought was open-minded, untainted by any special interest, dedicated only to serving the long-term good of the whole people?
Does anyone believe that a system where only rich people (or those supported by rich people) can run for office, where all politicians are obligated to large money interests, and where millions of dollars are spent to misinform voters can rightfully be called a democracy?
Richard Graff says that when questions are phrased this way, he observes the following results. Everyone stops and thinks before speaking up. Everyone is enfranchised and empowered. Everyone is treated as a mature adult. The silence is civilized, peaceful and calming. A sense of community builds.
Also, I would hope, a sense of commitment to make our political system actually operate by the deep values we all share.
(You can obtain “The Technique of Consensus” from Richard Graff at 621 Airpark Road, Napa CA 94558-6272.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997