Saturday, August 26, 2006

Informed Consensus : Dialogue

If everyone agrees beforehand, then there is no need for any decision-making process. Therefore we must start from the premise of differences of opinion.

The concept of dialogue simply means to sit down like adults and hash out our differences, most importantly by referring to guiding principles and values. This is to be compared with democratic activism, where positions are mostly discussed internally, with no reference to a greater epistemic context. Every political ideology is self-contained and offers few points of reference to the outside observer.

In an IC system, it would be very useful to establish clearly-defined values and principles (such as principles of law, for a court - ways by which a person can be exonerated, clearly-defined crimes and ways to establish evidence, etc). They direct the dialogue, and make it more about discussing the relevant facts than about people's personal beliefs.

People involved in a dialogue don't have to agree at the end of the day, or even to participate. People who don't think they have the time or expertise needed to deal with the issue can simply sign off on the consensus (although of course this would bring the question of why they are in the group to begin with). Dialogue should not bog down productive individuals and mire them into endless conferences - it has to serve productive ends.

It seems that the main criticism against consensus (and pretty much the only objection that is not rooted in anti-individualism) is : how do you deal with strong dissent, which threatens to put off a consensus forever ?

The fundamental answer here is - strong dissent is great, not something to be rejected. We have to respect differences, and that is a strong advantage of IC over democracy. However, there is a point at which we have to decide to agree to disagree and walk our own paths, or arbitrate our differences, just like in the market anarchy morality. We must not fall into the trap of believing that everyone must agree with each other. Individualism must remain a guiding value and principle.

I think the answer depends on the area in which the IC system operates. If you are building a consensus on social policy, then you simply do not include the person in your committee, or you do not include the contested proposition in your resulting consensus. Your consensus is weaker for not having this person or proposition in it, of course, which creates a disincentive against such exclusions.

If we are talking about a scenario where a decision must be arrived at in a short period of time, or a wikipedia type scenario (such as an edit war), principles must be put in place beforehand determining what happens in these cases - such as the action of an arbitrator based on certain principles (such as the "NPOV policy" - that more neutral edits are to be preferred), or even a democratic vote.

A further objection is raised that consensus, in the presence of dissent, will simply cultivate peer pressure. But let's assume the worst and imagine a scenario where the individuals in the majority succeed in intimidating the minority into compliance. What we have, then, is the functional equivalent of a democratic process. This means that at worst IC is as good as a democratic equivalent, which demonstrates the superiority of IC. Of course, mechanisms could be put into place to break up such situations also.

We should be careful not to fall into the opposite trap of saying that dialogue can solve anything. Dialogue is not a miracle solution. Like any other system, its effectiveness is limited by the people's desire to make it work. But when people desire to make it work, it is more effective than any other system.

Being based on communication instead of propaganda, IC systems can fall into a cycle of overanalysis. This is fine, but dialogue should not be a process by which unfocused talk bogs down an organization. On Wikipedia, for example, there can be pages and pages of debate about a minute point of detail (such as whether to use a certain image, or a certain expression) in some extreme cases, but most of the time even these very pointed discussions still come back to a principle or regulation already established as part of the system, not about personal preference or belief. This is what dialogue should be all about.

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