Consensus Killed the Cat
by Bettina Grassmann

I believe consensus killed a cooperatively owned cat. What led to this sad tragedy was a problem common to most consensus-run coops: consensus almost never happens.

I currently volunteer at a coop where decisions are supposedly made by unanimous vote at meetings that rarely happen. The last meeting was canceled because we couldn't come to a consensus on where to meet. Now we are organizing another meeting, and to ensure that it will actually happen this time, I suggested we vote on where to meet and I'll count up the votes in two weeks and announce the winner.

One guy was outraged that I'd dare to call a vote in a consensus-run coop. But most of the other volunteers thought I was being too democratic. One guy told me I should have just decided (for all of us) where we're going to meet, announced it, and that's that, "because there has never been consensus at this coop. Ever."

"Consensus doesn't work," he concluded. He and I are in consensus about that.

In the real world, five or more people rarely find anything to agree about, excepting immutable facts like the existence of gravity and that there are no ducks on the moon.

What usually happens is this: those with divergent opinions agree to go with what the rest of the group decides. This is not actually consensus, but a wimpier form of "majority rules."

Or worse: those with divergent opinions cling to their divergent opinions and block the consensus. This often leads to hair-tearingly annoying situations where Decision X is never made because Blocker Y won't have it, essentially giving Blocker Y the power of veto. Granted, in some instances, one might have a good reason to block consensus. I have never witnessed any such instances. Usually, Blocker Y makes a sport of blocking consensus and does so again and again. At a coop house where I used to live, a guy very similar to our Blocker Y forbade the rest of us to have a party on the full moon, although he wasn't even planning to attend the party. Like Blocker Y, this guy didn't have any obvious reason for blocking besides the exercise of power, which is the very thing that the consensus process is designed to avert.

What often happens in these ideological coops is not consensus or democracy, but blocker tyranny. It's worse than dictatorship. Dictators, at least, get stuff done. Consensus blockers get nothing done because no one else agrees with them. And no one else gets anything done either, so long as the blockhead consistently vetoes everything.

Even without a blocker, opinions are often so varied and mutually exclusive that the best we can do is cheerfully "agree to disagree." This is fine if we're debating the existence of ducks on the moon, but it's not ideal when the decision at stake is how to stop ducks from eating all our food, so we don't all starve to death.

At that coop house where I used to live, we spent the better part of three meetings trying to reach a consensus on what to name our cat. A couple years after I moved out, my ex-roommate emailed to say that Jackson-Chiatsu-Buddha-Enzo-Kitty was hit by a car. Though she didn't say it was a suicide, I believe Jackson-Chiatsu-Buddha-Enzo-Kitty deliberately ran in front of the car—to end a distressing life of identity crises and disagreeable meetings.

Bettina Grassmann is a Saskatoon-born writer, violinist and teacher. She began writing at age five with a poem about her stuffed pony. Her later poems appear in several publications, including Prentice Hall anthologies Heroic Adventures and Poetic Visions. Her play Children of Neon Lights premièred at North Park Theatre, Chicago and its key monologue was published in Short Spells, a Playwrights Canada anthology. She worked as a tree-planter for one summer and in the following summer wrote the novel Green Side Up: Confessions of a Rookie Tree-planter. Her nonfiction work addresses subjects like global warming, SUVs and the annoyance of doing laundry.