The dream is an old one. The prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament looks forward to a time when “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” The dream is still very much alive. In our Christmas cards we wish each other peace.
But world peace seems to be just pie in the sky. Very many people despair of making significant change in our world. Our political system is coercive through and through. It takes the form of constant coercion of the weaker by the strong, the poor by the rich, of black by white, women by men, children by adults. This pervasive violence is often thought to be the effect of “human nature.” We cannot help ourselves. So you hear, only too often, that “you cannot change anything.”
Change is imposed by force on the unwilling. If advocates of gay marriage win victories in the courts, the court order is enforced by police. The opponents are coerced into acquiescence. If legislators vote for a law limiting union activities, the laws will be enforced by courts and police. Legislative decisions, decisions reached through voting always leave a minority of dissenters in a position of being forced to accept what they despise. When there are more than two parties in a debate, the winners may well be less than half of the participants. More than half of the voters are then forced to accept a distasteful decision.
What we call democracy is a competition between groups each of which is trying to impose its own interests and beliefs coercively. The victims of today’s coercion will seek to turn the tables and coerce todays dominant group tomorrow. As long as everyone is open to coercion, the peaceful society remains elusive.
But there exist peaceful ways for groups to make decisions and to better their conditions. By supporting those who practice these peaceful and non-coercive methods, you too can work for peace.
More than three hundred years ago, long before the development of our current electoral system, Quakers and other religious groups in England understood that very different ways for communities to make decisions would be needed in a truly peaceful society. They developed techniques of decision making known today as “consensus decision making.” Groups come together to discuss issues facing them. The goal is not primarily to make decisions but to re-enforce the unity of the group. That unity does not so much consist in agreement among members but in strengthening their ability to reach decisions after careful, cooperative reflection about difficult problems facing the group.
In these proceedings, the first step is for everyone to understand precisely what is under consideration. A facilitator chosen by the group will provide all the necessary information or ask others, better qualified, to do that. The entire assembly ask questions and works towards perfect clarity of what is being discussed, what are possible alternatives, what information exists about possible pitfalls and disadvantages of different possible proposals. Only when the group feels well-informed can the facilitator raise the question about proposals for action. Different members of the group may make proposals, they will explain them as fully and lucidly as possible. They will provide supporting evidence. Compare this to existing democratic practice where deception is the rule when politicians present their proposals.
It is important to notice however that the proponents of a particular proposal are not there to convince anybody. There is no room for competition for having the most glossy, attractive, emotionally seductive proposal. The goal of the discussion is not to win. The goal is for the group to make the best choices that are in everyone’s interest.
Different proposals will be discussed. If everyone agrees there is no problem. Some people may not be completely convinced but are willing to allow the group to follow what many desire with the understanding that everyone will carefully monitor future outcomes. At times some people may feel unable to join the majority because the proposal, they think, will do serious damage to the group. In that situation different groups have developed different techniques for dealing with fundamental disagreements. In some cases the whole project is shelved. In others the dissident minority is ignored. In other cases committees convene to work further on the serious disagreements and bring the proposal up at a future meeting.
The goal is never for one party to win. The goal is for the entire group to fortify its ability to make decisions particularly in very controversial and difficult situations.
During the upheavals of the 1960s secular groups discovered this alternative technique of decision making. The Occupy movement invented many interesting methods for peaceful, non-coercive group deliberation. It has been adopted by a wide range of groups such as cooperatives, enterprises owned and run by its workers. It is in widespread use in Japanese businesses; The Federal Bureau of Land Management encourages consensus decision making in negotiations among stakeholders. Many Courts in the US encourage parties to a civil lawsuit to try to resolve their conflict in a way acceptable to all the parties rather than having a judge imposing a solution coercively.
You can contribute to a peaceful society by supporting these efforts. If you need repairs made to your house, find out whether there are any local cooperatives or worker owned businesses that offer services you need. Buy your vegetables from a cooperative grower, if you can. If you have conflicts with your neighbors seek out mediation before you go before the judge.
Everyone can participate in making the world more peaceful. Don’t wait. Start today.