The Problem With Politeness

Politeness, which should not be confused with respect, consideration, and common decency (all good things), has always been used as a tool of oppression--for instance, to discredit political dissenters and protesters, who are characterized as unseemly and gauche by those against whom the loud slogans and street blockades are directed. The same tactic is employed within collectives to silence dissenters. Collectivism requires openness and honesty. Politeness is anathema to building consensus.

The traditional Anglo-Saxon Protestant niceties, such as not saying anything if one doesn't have anything nice to say, never expressing negative criticism, and rushing to smooth over disagreements, are incompatible with working collectively. Conflict is absolutely essential to the process of hashing out concepts and plans. Ideas have to be throughly and honestly considered. Conversely, making nice when one doesn't mean it only breeds mistrust. A habit of straightforward, up-front truth-telling encourages the group to focus on the content of statements made rather than feeding the constant need to try to ferret out the subtext of people's remarks: "Did she say that just to make me look stupid?" and so forth.

An absence of conflict is almost always a sign that dissent, or even honest input, is being suppressed, usually by an atmosphere that disapproves of making waves.

A manipulative person will invoke social niceties when it's convenient, accusing anybody who raises questions of being disrespectful or disruptive as means to silence them.

Politeness gives bullies free rein, since the social compact says we should respond with quiet composure to someone who attempts to intimidate us by shouting us down. Anyone who responds in kind to verbal attacks is subjected to the group's censure for escalating rather than defusing the hostilities, yet the original attacker, if he or she is a habitual bully who has earned a position of power and deference in the collective through domineering behavior, will get off scot free. People may even come to his or her defense for being so put upon and vilify whoever dared to confront such a beloved and respected member. This behavior is more characteristic of a club led by a charismatic personality than an egalitarian collective, yet something very similar to this happens time and time again in groups that say they operate by consensus.

In consensus, it is essential for members to hear and consider the content of a grievance, even if it is delivered in a flash of anger. In a collective in which there is an atmosphere of intimidation, members who may have concerns will routinely keep their mouths shut. Issues may rise to the surface only when someone has been pushed to the limit and blurts out his reservations by yelling. When that happens, it’s very easy for the domineering person(s) to paint the complainer as “crazy” or “out to get me.“ In fact, a particularly sneaky control freak may intentionally bait the person whom she sees as a threat to her power just to get a heated reaction, which she can then sell to the group as a reason to expel the dissenter.

Collective members must also, on the other hand, determine whether anger is being deliberately used as a tool of intimidation. Speaking honestly will oftentimes raise someone's hackles. The group has to create a safe and open environment in which this is okay.

There is a misconception that because collectivism is based on honesty, equality, and shared ideals, group dynamics will be always loving and supportive. The opposite is true. Collectivism allows people to give voice to their dissent, which can sometimes happen in ways that are not pretty.

A collective that indulges in bland expressions of insincere affection or empathy and frowns on displays of grumpiness, anger, or dislike of another person or idea is not operating by consensus nor by the basic premise of mutual respect. Consensus requires that everyone be given room to vent, for better or worse. Otherwise, there's an authoritarian premise at work in the group.

People get angry. People get frustrated, fed up, confused, defeated, vindictive, resentful, spiteful, and so on. They must be allowed to be, to blow off steam, then maybe apologize later if that's appropriate. On the other hand, if someone deliberately uses histrionics as an authoritarian ploy to frighten potential dissenters, then that person should be called to task.

Collectivism requires respect, which means honest listening and consideration for another's differences and feelings, but not conventional politeness, which is just a veneer of agreeableness, often used deceitfully to conceal one's true opinions or motives.

Please send your comments and suggestions to:

"Is This What Consensus Looks Like?"

"Is This the Just Society We Want to Model?


[Why This Booklet?]
[Introduction to Consensus]
[The Particular Vulnera-
bility of Collectives
[Power Sharing]
[Red Flags to Guard Against]
[Ploys To Subvert Consensus]
[The Problem With Politeness]
[The Need For Kindness]
[Creating Pariahs]
[Respect for Differences]
[Personal vs. Group Issues]
[Micro-Managing Behaviors]
[Skepticism is Healthy]
[There's Hope]

[A Model for Justice?]
[The Dearth of Due Process]
[What About Free Speech?]

[Codifying the Collective Process]
[Relinquishing Control of Projects and People]
[Staying True to the Mission]
[What’s a Lone Person to Do?]







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