The great Boskone consensus
This article is reprinted from APA:NESFA 131, April 1981. The particular issues were settled long ago (or not, as the case may be) but the article does (dimly) illuminate the process of building consensus.
There seems to be a purported consensus on what should be done about Boskones. Whether there actually is a consensus or whether there merely is a consensus that there is a consensus is quite another matter. What I found really interesting, however, was the ‘Boskone’ meeting, even though I didn’t attend most of it. The thing that was interesting was the methodology used to produce a consensus, and the consequences of that methodology.
Fundamentally it is a methodology for producing consensus, in so far as possible, without seriously thinking about the problem. The whole process is, ah, rigged. For example, we started out by presenting a list of strawmen – take one from column A, one from column B, etc. Of these strawmen, perhaps two were immediately plausible, and the rest existed mostly to be dismissed. The net result is to move one way or the other a bit. Now some of you may protest that this is not right, that all possible options were given their day in court, that any alternative worth discussing could have and should have been presented. This is, of course, nonsense.
The ‘plausible’ alternatives represent alternatives that reflect existing thought and experience – a large body of it. They are the known universe and reflect familiar mind sets. To develop serious alternatives one must invest a fair amount of effort of the “What if”” kind of thinking. This business of one person going off and making a case for A and another making the case for B is not going to produce alternatives that will be taken seriously. It will also not be very likely to produce much in the line of new ideas.
Mind you, this is not necessarily such a bad thing. It depends on what your goals are. If you want to clarify what a group wants to do this kind of rigged consensus building is a good thing. The principal options presented are the ones that the group is actually considering are delineated; the trade offs are made clear. Apparent differences of opinion are clarified and are often revealed to be much less substantial than they seemed. Furthermore it can clarify differences that cannot be reconciled.
For example, one of the alternatives presented was that we should not hold a Boskone. This was not, in effect, one of the serious alternatives and was not taken very seriously. Yet, if one thinks about it, this is the fundamental question that one should consider before deciding what kind of Boskone should one hold – should one hold one at all? Now to answer that question in any meaningful way you have to really consider that alternative – suppose we didn’t hold Boskones; what would we do? Suppose that the time and effort that were spent on putting on conventions were spent on something else. What else could we do or what else might we want to do? The answer is that, in large part, we don’t know. We haven’t thought about it; we haven’t tried it. We haven’t tried on different ideas for size. We haven’t sat down and talked about different things we might do.
I will close this discussion with a modest suggestion. Let us have an essay contest on what NESFA should do instead of holding Boskones. We will need, of course, a committee to plan and administer the essay contest. We need some certificates or some plaques. We will need to make the appropriate revisions in the standing rules. We will need to budget the contest. Oh dear, it does get complicated, doesn’t it. However if these obstacles are overcome I am prepared. I already have an essay in the works, brilliantly arguing that NESFA should sponsor essay contests.
This page was last updated November 10, 2004.