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Consent is a key topic that has come up from some of the earliest discussions in Why This Way, and from before the group was founded. Central to Why This Way is the idea that we want to create an environment, and a society, that is fully consensual, or as consensual as possible, as the ideal.

Consent is reflected in our belief that, in a healthy state of society, people are not coerced or deceived into doing things that they would not choose to do of their own free will. One way of viewing this statement is that, in a healthy state, all actions are consensual.

The opposite of or absence of consent can be described as coercion, a situation in which one person or entity exercises their power over another person to cause them to do something that they may not want to do.

Consensual vs. coercive

Some situations, such as those involving physical force or the threat of violence, are obviously coercive. There is less of a clear consensus in society about when actions that involve more subtle forms of power, such as social influence, constitute coercion.

In Why This Way we have tended to interpret consent more broadly, and make as our goal, a culture in which interactions between people are agreed to be consensual even when considering broader and more indirect forms of power or coercion, although there are still gray areas even in our use of the term.

Consent in communication

It is relatively easy to understand the importance of consent in communication. Picture the following scenarios:

  • You receive junk mail in your mailbox.
  • You receive spam in your email inbox.
  • You receive a telemarketing phone call or a solicitation to donate money.
  • Someone talks on and on without giving you an opportunity to comment or to leave the conversation without interrupting them in a way that would be considered rude or abrasive by most social standards.

These are all examples of non-consensual communication: situations in which someone has chosen to communicate with you in a way that is unwanted and which you have not consented to.

In many cases, non-consensual communication is allowed to persist due to a vague sense of obligation that many people have in social settings; people often have a vague sense of obligation to listen, or at least pretend to listen, to someone speaking, as well as a vague sense of obligation to not interrupt a speaker.

Consensual communication in groups

People's time is valuable, and in larger groups of people, the collective time of the group is even more valuable, as it involves the contribution of increments of time by a large number of people. When people speak in a group, we believe that it is of key importance that speakers do not waste the group's time. Our ideal situation for group communication is one in which the speaker always has full consent of all others present. Consent to speak is not the same as a desire to listen, and it is possible to give consent to speak without actually listening. At times, people in groups may make brief remarks only relevant to a few people present, or someone present may zone out, or two people may engage in a quiet, private conversation to resolve a personal matter while not listening to the group.

Although many organizations that embrace or promote democratic process purport to value consent in interactions, both democratic processes and consensus decision making processes can involve non-consensual communication. A common example of how this plays out is when anyone is allowed to speak, for a specified amount of time, without interruption. One problem that can arise in this sort of situation is the tyranny of time, in which an organization becomes dominated by the people who have the most free time to invest in the organization.

The way we address consent in group communication is through our process of communication, which allows for anyone to interrupt any speaker at any time. This setup sounds much more chaotic than it actually is; the idea of the interruptions is to keep the communication fully consensual at all times. When our process is followed, it ensures that people only speak with the full consent of everyone present. The benefit of consensual communication creates an environment with much less conflict, and in which people listen more, get more from the discussion, and the group as a whole is better at reasoning through things.

Children and consent

The issue of consent becomes more complex when children are involved.

For example, in our society, children do not usually consent to their education, except in a few non-mainstream approaches such as unschooling. In Why This Way we recognize that it is reasonable and often necessary not to give very young children the full range of decisions and choices that are given to adults, but we also agree that in cases when children expressly voice an objection to something, like something that happens in school, it is important to give their objection consideration and make an effort to create a setup that is more consensual. There is considerable gray area between these two extremes, and we do not necessarily all agree on the best way to handle various situations.

One thing that we have generally agreed on in our discussions is that the cutoff of 18 in the United States used to define legal adulthood for most purposes, is arbitrary, and that we do not want to let this cutoff define or shape our value system. That is, we do not consider certain behaviors to be acceptable when someone is under 18 and unacceptable when they become 18, or vice versa; this can be seen as all or none thinking, which runs contrary to our beliefs.

The general feeling in our group has been that it is good to cultivate children's sense of self-motivation as early as possible, and obtain their consent for important decisions and choices, including education, to as great a degree as possible, so that in most ways they are being treated as an autonomous adult well before they reach the legal age of 18.