Consensus Building: A New System of Citizen Control

By: James White, PH.D.

The public opinion creators and mind control specialists have recently developed a new technique for manufacturing fraudulent public consensus. The process called Consensus Building is touted by the United States Presidents Council on Sustainable Development as a new collaborative decision process that leads to better decisions, more rapid change and more sensible use of human, nature and financial resources in achieving our goals.

This new collaborative decision process has been used by the United Nations, the Presidents Council on Sustainable Development and in local U.S. visionary councils and stakeholders’ councils. It was recently employed by the federal government to manufacture support for designating the Trent-Severn Waterway as a Heritage Waterway.

One of its chief proponents, Richard H. Graff, has written a 54-page booklet outlining its benefits. He claims, among other things, that it appears to be an absolutely foolproof method of achieving consensus on any subject. The process leads to consensus, meaning that no one disagrees rather than agreement, which requires everyone agree.

Basically, the process is one of getting people not to object to a predetermined position. The participants are not asked to agree with the question or statement introduced by the facilitator because that leads to discussion and polarization. Rather they are asked if they disagree with the question. This is called negative polling, which requires those who disagree to speak up. Most people will go along with statements of what are perceived to be generally positive societal values or actions. While there may not be total agreement, the silence is interpreted to indicate consensus. Those who object are characterized as troublemakers, deviants or worse.

In order to achieve consensus at public participation sessions, the group facilitator begins with a general question, which has been artfully constructed to refer to how the world or a local area ought to be rather than how it presently is or now exists. The question is designed to discourage response. A person who responds is forced to disagree with something, which is generally seen by the rest of the group to be good, such as improving the environment, or to support a negative action such as increasing pollution.

When the facilitator asks, Does anyone think we should not protect endangered species?, almost everyone will remain silent. The facilitator can honestly report that no one disagreed with the proposal. This is despite the fact that only a minority would have agreed with the statement if there had been a discussion of how endangered species will be protected, by whom, at what cost and with what implications for landowners, the natural resource industries and the economy.

This approach subverts the usual model of persuasion, which involves empirically verifiable statements being made to an audience or individual by a highly credible speaker or writer. Our society implicitly accepts the rigorous, logical process by which a position or thesis is tested against an antithesis, that is the opposite position. The end result is a synthesis, which is accepted as the most accurate or most acceptable position on an issue. This is how we traditionally reach agreement.

Consensus building seeks to avoid discussion, challenge or voting. Its objective is to allow the facilitator to say that a group of individuals who represent the public have reached consensus on an issue when, in fact, the issue was never discussed. Those who object are faced with proving a consensus does not exist. This is very difficult, especially if the group is discouraged from expressing their objections.

The facilitator is taught not to claim that any particular highly credible personality agrees with a position but to say that he or she does not disagree with the position. To prove someone disagrees with a position is very difficult unless they have done so publicly. The experienced facilitator can always modify the statement enough to be sure either opponents or supporters have not disagreed with the exact statement.

The ethics of this approach are demonstrated by the following quotes: In the case of consensus, you can quite properly name anybody you like as not disagreeing. No one can disagree without saying so explicitly, so you can name any well-known or highly respected person you like as not disagreeing and no one can dispute you and When you declare a consensus, you are saying that no one disagrees. No one. This is a strong claim but it doesn’t need proving. There is a burden of disproof, but you are not assuming it. So much for honesty.

The consensus process is becoming popular not only because it can be used to achieve perceived agreement on contentious issues, but also because the participants are completely unaccountable. Since no votes were taken and no one must take a public position, every participant can deny they supported the consensus created. This process is a bureaucrats dream come true: control without responsibility. The consensus process is touted as being a participatory, democratic, civil way to make policy decisions. Who cares if the results are not reproducible, accurate or honest? Not the proponents. Our next column will discuss how to best respond to this phoney method of gaining public support for dubious causes.

James White PH. D. is a Consulting Agrologist with offices in Brampton Ontario.

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