Consent and Consensus: Interview with Clare Cochrane

Interview by Eleanor Greenhalgh, 15 Feb 2013

Clare Cochrane is a creative facilitator based in Oxford. Alongside her dialogue-based public art practice she is actively involved in feminist activism, including the Reclaim The Night movement against sexual violence, and in the Radical Routes network of radical housing co-operatives. I interviewed her about her recent participatory project Democracy Outside, and how democracy, consensus and consent connect in her practice.

Democracy Outside

EG: Clare, you are involved in campaigns based around consent, for example with Reclaim The Night in Oxford. I'm also interested in your dialogue-based art practice and your involvement in consensus decision-making, and if you see any connections between them. Do they link up, are there connections to be made?

CC: I'm really into process, and that's what brings the two things together.

EG: In what way is process interesting for you?

CC: It's about making space. I think that's really, really important. In all the things I do, what I'm trying to do is make space for dialogue. And there are different ways to make space. Sometimes you have to barrel in there, and push the space open. Sometimes making noise is a way to make space, so a Reclaim The Night march for example.

And Democracy Outside was making space. We literally made a space - a temporary performance space. And then rather than one person, the artist, being the performer, we invited other people to come in and perform actual, democratic dialogue.

And a feminist practice of seeking consent, in the context of an intimate dialogue, is about making space for that dialogue. So I think they are connected, but for me they are connected through practice.

EG: Why is making space so important to you?

CC: For consent and for consensus, when you've got a safe and held space, you can let go of outcomes. So in a really well-facilitated space where people are really working at a good consensus process, you might have a sort of ultimate aim. Just as in a sexual situation, your aim is pleasure. But exactly what happens, you can let go of, if you've got a safe space where you can all trust that you are hearing each other and being heard. If you've got enough space then you've got movement, you've got room for movement. And if you let go of outcomes and you can really be in a process (in either consensus or in a consent situation), then actually it is more beautiful. What you get at the end is the right outcome. Because you've trusted in the process; including letting go of a need for a particular desire, or a clinging-onto a particular outcome. And you can only do that if you've got a safe space. And you can only have a safe space if you've all helped to create it.

EG: Some of the criticisms of consensus - and also of the feminist insistence on consent, actually - say that if you worry too much about consent, then the outcome is actually an unsatisfactory compromise. That in order to get a beautiful outcome, you do have to sacrifice the process.

CC: I think that's a risk. But, if you sacrifice process, you have the other risk - that one person gets what they want, and the others have agreed or not agreed. And we think that's what consent is. As a feminist, I want to scotch that. That's a simplistic notion of consent, which is that one person says "yes" to the other one. That's better than nothing. But in the end all you've got is a signature, and that doesn't prevent coercion. Whereas actually being in process, and understanding consent as a process, actually means that coercion is far less likely. And yes, you risk that you won't get a totally fulfilling outcome for everyone. That's life, isn't it? There's less chance that anyone will be damaged, and I think that's better.

EG: I'm interested in this problem, that a "yes" can be coerced. What are your thoughts, with your Reclaim The Night hat on? The slogans I'm used to hearing on those marches are those quite black and white ones. I wonder how we can start to get beyond that, if that isn't enough?

CC: I don't worry too much about that, because I think you get simplistic slogans on marches and demonstrations. That's the nature of the medium. If you want nuanced development of subtle ideas and complex processes, you're going to have to hold workshops and discussions, and write things, and have dialogue to do that. So as long as we're doing that as well. And I think that feminists more widely do recognize that it's about subtlety. And consent workshops, a lot of them actually do support young people to open up their minds to the fact that we never live in the black and white zones at the edges. We live in the grey area in the middle, where it's all messy. And that "yes means yes and no means no" is a bottom-line.

EG: The aesthetics of Democracy Outside mimicked that black and white language of demonstrations. Can you explain a little how it worked?

CC: Yes, so the black and white aesthetic was deliberate. There's a big white banner with black text saying "Democracy Outside". And at each end there's somebody holding a placard. One that says "NO", in black on white, and one that says "YES". And then I invite the general public to join in. I ask a question that would be to do with some topical issue - for example, "should we lower the voting age to 16?". And I explain to people that it works like a spectrum line - people who think yes stand near the yes, if you think no, stand near the no. If you think kind of yes and kind of no/ sort of/ maybe, stand in the middle. And the idea was to ask questions where there's not just a yes or no answer.

When I did it in Oxford, interestingly, quite a lot of people would stand spread along the spectrum, so you would get a lot of "maybe"s. But everywhere else I did it, people were predominantly "yes" and "no", even though they were the same sorts of questions - often the exact same questions. When I did it with art students, there were a lot more people in the middle, rather than when I did it with political activists. That was quite interesting. In Brighton, the arty types and young people were very clearly "yes" and "no", but the political activists were more likely to be in the middle. I was surprised that overall, you didn't see a lot of people standing in the middle. The reason for the black and white was to play on that thing that we think everything is black & white, yes & no - and then in the performance to encourage people to oCC:upy the middle zone, and ask questions. But they didn't really. I think it's a cultural thing. We're taught to make judgements rather than see both sides of anything. If you're not for us you're against us; if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem... political movements on both sides have been saying these sorts of things for years.

It was playing with all of that to see whether, when you make a space, people will occupy the middle a bit. And people don't necessarily. And a lot of people didn't participate. And what I've always wondered is whether some of the people who didn't participate, but just stood back and watched, are people who would stand in the middle. But standing in the middle in public is not an easy thing to do in our culture. It's not easy in our culture to stand there and go, "I see both sides". I mean, both the left and right spit on liberals! We have all these phrases like "wishy-washy liberals". "Can't make your mind up" is a derogatory thing to say about someone. So yeah, thinking more and more about it, our culture is pretty negative about not taking sides, and not doing so quickly as well. We're supposed to make our mind up quick - "right, ok, which side are you on?". Taking time, doing things slowly, deliberatively - which is very close in sound to deliberately - deliberating, all of those things we're not really supposed to do, it's not good enough.

And maybe that's something exciting that feminism could be bringing as a process as well. Opening up space to deliberate.

Democracy Outside Brighton
EG: Ironically, because you had that very simple set-up: "Yes"/"No", that actually seems to allow for more nuanced discussion than if you had five different options and people just had to choose one. The fact that there was unmarked space in the middle.

CC: Yes, and also because of the megaphone being passed round. Whereas if you'd just given people five options and gone, "right, line up; ok, good, next question...". I introduced the megaphone not necessarily so that people could be heard, but so that people would be heard. It acted like a talking stick. It didn't matter whether passersbys could hear it, it was the fact that the participants would then be able to listen to each other - and be encouraged to listen to each other. And maybe having a pole that said "Maybe", you wouldn't get that much dialogue, because it then makes "maybe" a very narrow space - it's just in front of thet placard, there's no other maybe. But when you have six metres in between "Yes" and "No", that's six metres worth of space that's a much more subtley graded kind of spectrum. Whereas yes/no/maybe makes the "maybe" unsubtle.

EG: On a really low level, maybe even semantic level, what do you think it means to give consent?

CC: Just to agree to something. To do something, or to something being done by a group. How much you agree, how gladly you agree, whether you feel your agreement has been wrung out of you under pressure, or whether you've come to it in a way that worked for you, is about the quality - it's a quality thing, it's not about the meaning of the word.

EG: I ask because some people include enthusiasm in their definition of consent.

CC: I don't think I would. But it's really problematic, because if you're just taking about "yes is yes and no is no", then you're not talking about how the yes was reached. How a yes is achieved is a huge issue. Maybe we should actually redefine consent. But I think at the moment, what consent is broadly understood to mean in Britain today, is very simple, and doesn't include anything about quality. But perhaps it should.
We have to be talking about the quality of consent. We can't leave the "yes means yes and no means no" behind, we can't stop saying that. We have to have a bottom line, a minimum standard. But it would be great to raise that standard by improving the meaning of consent, and deepening it. The cultural change we want is a rich, deep thing. But you're not gonna get that if you don't also do the really unsubtle campaigning as well.

EG: In terms of developing that rich, deep change: could you say a little about your involvement in consensus decision-making, and what your interest is in it?

CC: I first came across it, though not being practiced formally, when I was involved in the womens' peace movement as a teenager in the 80s. I guess it had come partly from the Quakers. But also second wave feminists had taken up more deliberative practices, and developed feminist methodologies for debate and dialogue and so on.

When I came back to activism about eight years ago, I came across formal consensus process. And I practice it regularly, and I facilitate consensus decision-making in large, large groups within Radical Routes, and also I've trained people in small campaign groups to use consensus process.

I like it a lot because, when it's done well and everybody's really in it with their hearts and thinking with their hearts - not just with their head - and trusting in the process, they will let go of their explicitly desired goal. And trust that the group together will come up with an agreement that everyone can not just go along with, but really put their effort into achieving. "Wow, yes, everyone wants to do this, let's go out and do it!" - rather than just going out with the lowest common denominator.

EG: So what's the role of individual consent in that process?

CC: A risk with the consensus process is that someone will feel at some point that they'll just step aside from it, and go "ok, whatever, you guys just agree to something; I won't block it". And that undermines the quality of end agreement and the whole process. And ideally you'd seek to avoid that when you see it happening. The role of the facilitator is to bring that person in, to open up what it is that's making them stand aside. Is there a way we can go that will address that?

EG: This vision you describe is quite beautiful I think, where people give up an attachment to the end goal, and something is articulated together. Do you think that could also be a feminist model for sexual consent?

CC: I absolutely do. And in fact, I think it's probably a more achievable ideal when you're talking about sexual consent. Because with trying to make a decision about whether to accept a new person to a member to your group, or whether you're going to give money to a particular campaign... those are very specific decisions; there has to be a yes or a no at the end. But with sexual consent, there doesn't has to be a yes or no to a particular act. You can decide on a different course of action together. So yes, I think it's probably much more achieveable as an ideal. Because you can between you just go, "alright, different action then! We'll do something else."

EG: I ask because that seems to be in contrast to discourses of consent that I hear a lot. In those discourses, we bring pre-existing desires with us, and your job is to discern what the desires of your partner are, and to say yes or no.

CC: That is what consent is usually understood to mean. And I think the problem with that is, that discourse of consent is about one person having power, and the other one submitting. The first person has the power in terms of stating what they want, and the second person submitting in terms of agreeing, saying yes. Whereas if you've got a much more egalitarian sharing, and sometimes a back-and-forth shifting, but ultimately an overall shared, equal holding of power in a situation where there's fluidity about the outcome.

But it is very, very subtle. How do we get that across? What are we going to do, stand up at Reclaim The Night marches and start advocating for different conversations with your sexual partners? "Right everybody, just before the music we're just going to have a workshop here!" No, I don't know what we do. Those are very subtle workshops and discussions to have, aren't they?

Our culture still says that a man having an orgasm through penetrative sex is the end goal of a heterosexual encounter. And if you've had experiences that don't involve that even as a possible outcome, then you don't see that as a necessary end goal. And that's what allows a more equal balance of power. The outcome is negotiable, because you've let go of the end goal. But you have to both let go of your end goals. But our culture is still so stuck on this, "as long as he comes, it's fine". And that means that whatever your discourse of consent is, if you've still got that in the back of your head, your process can't be totally open. That's not a conversation I'm expecting any of us to have instantly with 17 year olds in a college workshop, but I hope that, in other spaces, as human beings we can have those conversations with ourselves at least.