I tried to be proactive with my job as Seneschal recently: we’re soon going to be moving from our normal fight practice and meeting schedule of alternating weeks between a school gym and a campus classroom, into our “summer schedule” of weekly fight practices in a local park (weather permitting.) In past summers we’ve bounced around from park to park over the three months or so that we do this each year, trying for maximum public exposure in the hopes of getting people interested in the SCA. For the past two summers we’ve tried that model and some of our members approached me and expressed that they don’t want a third summer of bouncing around; they want to try staying in one park all summer and see if that works out better.
Well, we’ve tried one, so why not the other? The “proactive” thing I did was put the question to the group via the Canton’s discussion page on Facebook, and it’s definitely triggered some discussion. (As I joked to a friend, I was being “SCA-proactive” by trying to have the argument before the decision, and not afterwards.) Much of the discussion has been via the Facebook group, but quite a bit has been directed to me through various private messages and conversations… enough that I’ve been deluged with opinions to an almost overwhelming degree. (Because so much has been going on via non-public messages, most of the Canton’s membership has been spared that overwhelmed feeling.)
Outdoor practices in a park are useful for getting some exposure to the wider community, no doubt about it. One side of the argument is very much in favour of getting maximum exposure across the city by hitting as many parks as possible for the sake of recruitment. The other is very much in favour of the single-park approach for the sake of consistency and ease of access. A smaller number of voices are trying to find a compromise between the two options; for example, shifting parks once a month has been suggested. Picking a single park with high visibility seems to be favoured by a majority… but that leads into a disagreement on which park.
What I’ve been hearing is that different people have different priorities: Should the primary purpose of the summer practices be recruitment? Should we try and make it easier for out-of-towners to come play? What should we be looking for in a park? Will dogs be allowed? Will there be change rooms? Transit access? Highway access? Potentially pissed-off neighbours? Unattended vehicles? Parking? Distance from where we park to where we fight? And so on, and so on… with the added complication that I get to worry whether some people might feel slighted or dismissed if I make a different decision than the one they’ve advocated.
The really fun part of my job (sarcasm alert) is the fact that nobody’s actually wrong. There are very good reasons to do either the single-park or the multiple-park plan, or any of the compromise plans. There’s opinions and concerns and people telling me “don’t forget that some of us are going to need X.” And, me being me, I try to see the benefits and drawbacks of each and every single opinion presented to me… and I try and place value and weight on those opinions no matter where they come from or how they’re expressed.
Can everybody see why I’m feeling overwhelmed?
Call it a practical test of my role as facilitator. I say “facilitator” instead of “leader”, since as Canton Seneschal I actually have zero authority in the giving-people-orders sense. If I tell folks “frog” there’s absolutely no reason why they need to do anything about it… and I’m left as the guy standing around hoping for jumping and looking like an idiot. My approach is to say “Hey, we might need some frogs in the near future, how would people feel about the possibility of jumping?” and being ready to ask if people might have a plan B (i.e crayfish or whatever) if there turns out to be a lack of enthusiasm for the proposed Plan A (that was the frogs… look, it’s not a perfect metaphor, okay?)
I’ve put some thought into it, and come to the conclusion that my tendency to persuade rather than order is the legacy of nearly a decade of anti-oppression and consensus training as an activist in an anarchist community. A sincere anarchist will not assume they have any right to issue orders or make demands of another person and will therefore default to convincing others to adopt a proposed course of action. The other side of that coin is the almost instinctive rejection of authority: give an anarchist an order and they will refuse to obey it on general principles. They will look at the order, try and understand the context, and then either make a decision whether or not to follow it or at least request clarification as to why this order was thought necessary. For an anarchist (a real anarchist, someone who has consciously chosen to reject authoritarian structures rather than just some wanker who thinks it’s cool to be anti-authority) the goal is always consensus rather than obedience.
This tends to slow down the decision-making process somewhat; it also means that when a consensus is reached all participants are on the same page and deeply committed.
The consensus model, however, is not always applicable in all real-life situations… especially when not everybody involved in a given situation is working towards reaching a consensus. Among a group of committed anarchists the almost organic development of Agreement through consensus is an amazing and revelatory experience… but expecting revolutionary solidarity out of a group of highly iconoclastic medieval hobbyists who are primarily interested in making sure their hobby happens might not be realistic on my part.
I’ve been so overwhelmed and stressed out about so many things lately that I’ve been shifting a lot of stuff to autopilot… it’s just that my autopilot just happens to have a different set of defaults than most. If I was still the man I was at nineteen I’d be barking orders and being rude and unilaterally making decisions come hell or high water; the man I became by twenty-nine wants to make sure that everyone is heard from, that everyone is on the same page… and is prepared to sidetrack everything just to make sure everyone gets a say.
The truth is there are decisions which need to be made, and it’s on me to see that they get made. The Wife™ gets frustrated when she me spend a considerable amount of time and effort (and she’s really the only person who sees how much effort I spend) in trying to build consensus when it isn’t really possible or (and this argument can also be made) when it isn’t really necessary. For the most part our membership seems to trust me to make suitable decisions — or at least not the disastrously unsuitable ones — and will largely go along with what’s decided because that’s the way stuff gets done.
With something this big, though, I’m going to try and get a sense of what the majority wants before I make a decision. The trick, me being me, is to use that process as way of building a foundation and not as a way of ducking the responsibility.