Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Quaker Business Method and Democracy

When people hear that Quakers don't vote, they often jump to the wrong conclusion – that we don't vote, ever. Like in elections and things. As Advices and Queries recommends, however, we are urged to be involved in local, national and international affairs – and the fundamental way of doing that, for the first two, is at the ballot box. In my experience, Quakers vote fairly reliably.

What we don't do is vote internally. Decisions are made through the Quaker Business Method, which very much involves no voting. Given that I'm writing for a primarily Quaker audience here, I'm not going to fully explain what our business method involves, just cover some key points as seems necessary. A business meeting is a Meeting for Worship, simply one held in order to make some decision, or receive a report, or various other purposes. People speak (ideally) as they are moved, and all ministry is heard and weighed by all present, until the clerk is able to discern the sense of the meeting and write a minute. That minute is offered to the Meeting, who have the opportunity to indicate acceptance or not, and suggest tweaks to wording.

Note that there's no voting there. If there's a disagreement as to whether the minute reflects the sense of the meeting, we don't have a show of hands – we place great trust in our clerks and elders to guide us through business even when it is difficult. That's what we mean when we say that Quakers don't vote.

But people still get a wrong idea from it. To most people, voting and democracy are essentially synonymous. If, and only if fair voting occurs is a decision taken democratically, to secular sensibilities. Indeed, perhaps the most famous bit of spiritually-led decision making in the world, the papal conclave, is said to be a prayerful activity where the cardinals make their decision based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit – but they still vote, the will of God being expressed in the ballots cast. Thus popes are elected, under the guidance of God, and most people would recognise an element of democracy in that decision.

Yet we do not vote. We hold that guidance from the Divine will be expressed in the unity of our Meetings for Worship for Business, not in votes cast, however prayerfully. We accept that this means that we will not always be able to make decisions as quickly as we might like. That sounds a lot like another form of democratic decision making recognised by many – though not as many as recognise voting. Are we then operating under a democratic consensus decision making structure? As many Quakers before me have said, no. We do not look for consensus. Unity is not found by everyone agreeing on a course of action, but rather accepting that a given decision reflects the sense of the meeting – and no, I'm not going to explain the “sense of the meeting”, because that's a topic for a whole separate piece of writing. Let's leave it at the suitably vague idea that the sense of the meeting is the meeting's collective understanding of what the divine is urging us towards – or, in more traditional terms, our understanding of the will of God.

So people speak, and then a designated individuals tries to write down what it all means in a clear, expressive and understandable (and ideally concise) form. How can that be democratic!? Is it not rather a consultative dictatorship? Well, no. The meeting can refuse to accept the minute, for starters – if there is significant dissent to the minute, the clerk will know they need to go back to the drawing board. But aren't we back at consensus, now? Still, no – but this is where trust comes into it. In a Meeting for Worship for Business, we not only have faith that we will be guided to the right decision, but we have trust in one another that we will follow the method faithfully. That means trusting that, should the minute not reflect the sense of the meeting, even those Friends who would support the content of the minute personally will object. Likewise, we trust that those who disagree with the content of the minute personally will acknowledge that it reflects the sense of the meeting.

So, are we democratic in our decision making? I say we are, in a deep and fundamental way, democratic, and more so than any system based on voting, yet without the problems that pure consensus decision-making faces. Anyone may speak in a business session, and we believe that, fundamentally, all present are actively participating, even if they never speak – though an exploration of why we believe that, and the different explanations different Friends would put forth, is also a topic for a whole extra piece of writing. In a large enough meeting, it may be that not everyone who indicates they are moved to speak will get to speak, but we have faith that the Spirit will ensure that what needs saying will be said before any decision is agreed. We trust in the Divine that all viewpoints needed will be heard, and everyone participates in forming the sense of the meeting. While we trust one or more individuals to discern that sense, we do not do so blindly or without oversight. It is fundamentally a decision made, with guidance from the Divine, by the people involved – fundamentally democratic.

Of course, there are weak points, things that can go wrong. We can have an unscrupulous clerk, a timid elder, or a Friend who does not properly test their ministry – or even one who attempts everything they can to obstruct a decision they personally disagree with. We have systems and practices to try to minimise that risk, but I think most, if not all experienced Friends will be able to recall a business session that was not entirely rightly ordered. Yet this is not unique to our system of decision-making compared to things that are conventionally accepted as democratic. Both voting and consensus are vulnerable to demagoguery, to a charismatic individual swaying people based on clever words and rhetoric, or promises of future actions they can't be held to. Our method specifically attempts to prevent that, though I recognise it does not always succeed. Votes can be swayed by knowing how other people have voted – a risk that we mitigate in public elections through the legally-enforced secret ballot, and rules against publishing exit polls until the polls have closed. And, of course, there are many ways in which a vote can be made less than free and fair. The most subtle yet pernicious risk of voting is the tyranny of the majority, where a majority vote can allow that majority to trample on the wishes, even the needs of a minority. Modern democracies generally have some sort of system to counterbalance that, though it's never of more than limited effect. Consensus decision-making may be seen as the ultimate standard in decision-making with universal consent, with one person able to obstruct a decision they don't like, but even where such pure consensus decision-making is used we find that social pressure and unofficial retribution can be levelled on such people, so they do not avail themselves of that opportunity.

Our business method is flawed, but it is also democratic – and no democratic system is without its own flaws.
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