6 July 2013: A Conversation on Feminist Consent, Collaboration and Consensus

What an absolute pleasure to sit around the table with such bright people. I was left with a lot of questions, which I think is always a good sign - it means you've hit fertile intellectual ground!
- discussion participant

This event was a chance for interested artists, activists and researchers to come together and deepen the conversations initiated by the Consentsus project. What is consent? What is consensus? And what connects sexual and democratic consent? We begun by rating and discussing a collection of quotes on consent, going on to discuss Consensus in Dutch politics, consent vs. dissent in activist movements, and the role of ambivalence in democratic and sexual consent. Highlights from the discussion below.

Definitions of Consent

I thought this one was nice: "demanding consent raises more questions than it resolves. In what does consent fundamentally consist?...". This felt like the beginning of the conversation. What does consent do? Why is it significant? How is it negotiated, and perhaps what is its duration? Is it something continually negotiated, or is it just something reached? Or is it something that's always contested?
We disagreed with this one: "consensus decision making is a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group..." It can also be really bureaucratic, like the decision-making matrix I designed in the workshop here last week [image above].
We disagreed on this slogan, "No means no". For me "No means no" is a necessary part of consent, because if people are able to say no, they will be able to really consent. "Yes means yes" is more complicated...

I like the etymological origin - "from 'con'- together, and 'sentir'- to feel" - because it's about a process. I can't see how it can be consent if it's not that definition. Obviously some people have put 'danger', but...
I put 'danger' there. The idea that you have to be aware of the feeling of others to consent is something I find dangerous. In the etymological definition, it's too strong an empathic situation. Sometimes, you have to not care what the other feels. So you can have your place in the negotiation; so you're not always under the water of the other's feelings.
Or maybe even, conversely, sometimes you need to understand that you will never understand how the other feels. And think beyond the limits of your own capacity to be empathetic.
It raises the question, what's the difference between consent and sympathy?

Consensus in National Politics

What is the difference in your experience in the States, to how we reach consensus in the Netherlands?
I think Americans are more confrontational and polemic. Whereas in the Netherlands, usually at the end of the meeting there's this need to summarize, and make things smooth again, and that is very different than what I'm used to.
You can see that it's a form of white priviledge. That consensus is really exclusive for people who are not in the same group. Dutch consensus politics is very much about excluding people. I also practice formal consensus, which is very different, but the way consensus works in the Dutch and also Belgian political system, is about exluding people of the wrong colour, wrong gender, wrong language.

Dissent and Ambivalence

I've been thinking about movements like Occupy, and the fact that they had varying political agendas. Oddly enough, if they can't reach a consensus on what is their overall agenda, consent becomes a weapon against groups. "Oh, you're the communist, you're for gay rights..." It can be interesting to maybe contrast 'dissent' and 'consent'.
I'm interested in how consent and dissent relate to each other. Often when we think of political dissent, we imagine a group of activists who agree with each other.
When I was doing something similar to Occupy in the late 1990s, we found the mainstream media and powers-that-be really want you to have One Statement. That had a tendency to force hierarchy and consensus in places where you really didn't want that. And we struggled in the People's Global Action movement with how to relate to that. We didn't have One Message, so the media and politicians said, "Ok, you're not serious". That's what happens if you agree to disagree. It may have played a role in the collapse of that movement. Why? Because it makes it difficult to mobilize outside of your own circle. Everyone says you're not serious, you don't have one message. I don't know how this could relate to sexual consent...
I think there is quite a clear link to sexual consent. Educators and activists often say we need to start with this black and white "yes is yes, no is no", as a starting-point. Culturally there is still a pressure to choose yes or no, and ambivalence isn't really allowed for. When you're ambivalent sexually, it's frowned upon or seen as frivolous in the same way that it is in a political context.
In one of the early Geuzen projects, we worked with the prostitutes' union in Amstersdam. In the discussion with the union rep we talked about the borders of 'no'. And I, being naive, said, "well if you're in a union, you just enumerate the labour, and we can put that in a brochure - this costs this, that costs that..." And she said, "yes, but the moment we enumerate it we are obliged to do it. And we need to always maintain the capacity to renegotiate the situation on the fly." It was really insightful for me, that ambiguity was crucial.

The Constraint of Democratic Systems

I felt very constrained by all the systems we tried out today. I'm keenly aware of the system making me operate in a specific way, and then I almost stop functioning. You've asked me, on a road with so many pathways, to turn right or left. And I'm like, 'ah, I can't turn!'.
I'm interested in the design of democratic systems. For example: having a formalized structure called the state, and voting, has nothing to do with really democracy in the sense of consciously making decisions together. It's a parody of that.
It's connected with the question of design and consent: the rules you have to follow. When they take place you don't realize where they are driving you, and at some point you realize nothing was negotiated, because you can't negotiate with bureacracy. I think it's an issue for the feminist movement.
Power is not just about what decisions are made, but also about the borders of what you're deciding. The classic example is the free market, which is of course not free all, because of those borders. Someone decides what ownership is, someone decides what price is, someone decides what value is. The same thing can happen in a consensus process: who's deciding what your borders are? One of the reasons I stopped facilitating meetings is that you're way too powerful if you're not careful.
There's a strong parallel in this interview, about sexual consent. If there's a heteronormative cultural script you have to follow, to what extent is the interaction really consensual? (And how do you avoid replacing that script with a feminist normativity, which legislates what counts as a legitimate 'yes'?)
Of course the difficulty with this heteronormative structure is that there are bits within it that are internalized, and are loved. Maybe it's about a consciousness of how you use those parameters, those norms? If you're conscious of them, then it gives you space to manipulate them.