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First thoughts on the Seattle WTO demonstrations from a co-intelligence perspective



I heard people chanting "This is what
democracy looks like."
-- Randy Schutt

The logic of exclusionary control by one group,
country, corporation or religion has been proven
so inept by the repeated failures of such attempts
throughout history that one has to wonder about
humanity's capacity to learn from its mistakes.
-- David La Chapelle


The Seattle WTO demonstrations served, to a surprising extent, to (a) remedy a gross imbalance of power and (b) bring important issues into the personal and collective conversations of our culture. 

(a) Re:  social power -  From what I've heard from participants, something shifted in Seattle.  The previously presumed domination of elites was shaken.  It never occurred to most of us that the most powerful people in the world could actually be stopped from having a meeting.  That happened in Seattle.  Something tells me this won't be the last time.

Why is social power relevant to co-intelligence?  Social power imbalances make it exceedingly hard for a SOCIAL ORGANISM (a whole society as a living system that we are all part of) to perceive and feel appropriately, to think clearly and to respond wisely, as a sentient entity.  Or to put it in somewhat less esoteric terms:  powerholder deals behind closed doors, control of the media and elections, manipulative domination of people's attention with entertainment and imagery, etc., all hinder the potentially immense collective intelligence of the population from surfacing in widespread dialogues to direct our collective fate.  The WTO demonstrators managed to counter such a social power imbalance on all fronts -- a fact I find extremely refreshing and hopeful.

(b)  In addition, their efforts allowed some very real issues to enter the public dialogue, and many conversations are now happening that would not have happened otherwise.  All these WTO-related conversations we're now hearing are the hum of the collective mind reflecting on what is going on, searching for more fruitful ways to live.

Thousands of these conversations are needed.  One that I'd particularly like to help spark revolves around the question, "What social institutions can we imagine that would actually RESPOND WELL at potential breakthrough moments such as this?"  This is part of the co-intelligent political inquiry I've laid out on and elsewhere.  Interestingly enough, it was this very inquiry that I was engaged with in Port Townsend, WA, just across Puget Sound from Seattle, during the very week that the WTO demonstrations were underway.

I was attending a four-day facilitation workshop held by Jim Rough, creator of the "wisdom council" that I'm so fond of.  I suspect that if a wisdom council like Jim's were already in place as part of our national governing structure, we could all rest assured that a sane solution to the WTO controversy would be near at hand.  In fact, the whole controversy would likely have been handled years earlier, without requiring an uprising to get something done about it.  (This controversy has been around a while: I first wrote about it in 1991.) 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I know some of you are new to the wisdom council, so let me explain:  A wisdom council is a group of people selected at random from a larger population.  Through specially facilitated dialogue about what's up for them, they produce a consensus statement articulating the concerns and visions of the larger population from which they were selected.  That statement is then communicated to the larger population (including the government) for further dialogue and action.  The wisdom council process takes a few days, or a week or so, and then the council disbands -- just as a jury does after its work is done. 

It is important to remember that the "wisdom" that results is not produced by the participants individually.  While it's always nice when individuals are wise, wisdom council participants don't have to be -- at least no more than the rest of us are.  A wisdom council's collective wisdom is produced by their combined humanity and creativity, evoked in dialogue and woven into powerful coherence with the help of a facilitator. 

Jim is proposing establishing an official annual wisdom council* for the US -- one whose only power would lie in its ability to raise the quality of public dialogue throughout the country.  (For further information about wisdom councils, see my introductory material at or Jim's detailed material at .  For one vision of how this might fit into a larger political context, see .)

Although the wisdom council idea still has to be tested in the public domain, my experience in Jim's workshop leads me to believe that it would be powerful, indeed.  Never before have I seen so much creativity and such deft handling of conflict.  Jim and a couple of the particularly quick student facilitators deftly channeled each budding argument into a blossoming of useful information, greatly enhancing our ability to explore together.  There was a dynamic forward motion to the group process which miraculously enhanced thoughtful reflection rather than steamrolling over it.  Every voice was heard, and each one had a chance to say more of what it had to offer (without blocking other offerings) than in any other process I've experienced.  The group energy was very high, with great comradeship despite considerable diversity.  I will probably write more about this in the future, but for now I'm happy to say I truly believe that this process -- in the hands of a competent facilitator -- has the power to generate group wisdom and deep, creative consensus.  And I think THAT is a powerful resource to help us address our collective problems.

But let's return for a moment to the WTO demonstrations.

One of the most exciting pieces of news from my activist friends is that the actions of thousands of demonstrators in Seattle were guided NOT by a command structure, but by

a) a simple, agreed-upon purpose (to spread the word about the downside of the WTO, while impeding its meetings)
b) excellent strategic coordination, which involved flexible planning, constant communication between different centers of activity, lots of resource people (medical, legal, logistical, facilitators, etc.) available throughout and, most significantly,
c) consensus process practiced in hundreds of "affinity groups" (groups of people who knew each other, trained together and worked closely together on their little piece of the demonstration -- usually something that they came up with together, by themselves).

The people using (a)-(c) above were not the spray-painters and the window-breakers.  They were the creators of street theater, the people who sat down in disciplined rows to block the streets, the nonviolent protesters whose preparedness and courage in some cases turned back police advances without raising an arm against them.  With the above three elements, they were able to intelligently and collectively respond to rapidly-changing circumstances, usually with their humanity fully intact, even under tremendous stress.  They were fully alive in that juicy borderland between order and chaos.

As their stories come out, I hope that more people will try to understand the power of what they did -- not to better control future protests, or even to imitate them -- but rather to learn lessons in self-organization and democratic collective intelligence that might be applied elsewhere in our society.

And I hope that the protesters, in their turn, will look more closely at the society they are trying to change and realize how it simply isn't designed to respond to them, no matter how hard they protest.  They need to change the context they're operating in -- the "political commons" where we all interact when we deal with public issues.  If every group with social change proposals were to invest just 10% of their time and resources into co-creating (with every other group) a political environment which could really hear, intelligently reflect on and wisely act on their proposals, then suddenly EVERY issue would be easier to deal with, and produce better results. 

I think the wisdom council is a great place to start that process.  In understanding the potential of the wisdom council, these protesters have an advantage over most people in that they know the power of consensus in small groups.  Many of them also know that consensus process can work even in groups of thousands, if their shared purpose is simple and coherent enough.  But few familiar with consensus process have proposed how to apply that intimate process to a diverse "group" of 260,000,000 people like the United States.  The wisdom council does exactly that.  And, although I don't believe the wisdom council is either necessary or sufficient to create a co-intelligent wisdom culture, I can't imagine a social innovation that would move us faster in that direction.

There are signs, coming out of my Port Townsend workshop, that some folks may be ready to take on the wisdom council as a project -- creating videos that communicate its power, setting up pilot projects to experiment with wisdom councils in towns and cities, spreading the vision of what it could mean for our culture, training more facilitators to evoke creative wisdom in diverse groups, etc.  If you'd like to join this effort, or to support it, or to stay informed about its progress, do contact me <> and Jim Rough <> soon.  A good show of support could provide a strong initial boost for this effort.

I can't help envisioning the possibilities:  It would be so lovely if we could use this lever to move the world.


( *  Although the term "wisdom council" is very descriptive, some people think that it might turn off too many people.  We'll need to test this.  In the meantime, we can explore other names that are descriptive, accessible, attractive and free of any connotation of elitism.  Feel free to send your ideas...)

_ _ _ _ _ _ _


One further note:  There is much discussion about whether rioters and property destruction are "bad," "a distraction," "justified," "needed to bring attention to the issue" or "useful to make the orderly protesters look good."  There are good arguments for all of these perspectives.  I guess I mostly agree with David La Chapelle that dysfunctional system dynamics -- concentration of power, poor democratic feedback mechanisms, the unrestrained arrogance of elite policies -- make such violent outbursts inevitable.  Dominant extremes call their opposites into existence, as the system tries to balance itself.  I can watch this happen even in myself, when I get into arguments with people I otherwise love and respect.  All it takes is an extreme, absolute statement by one of us, and we're both off to the races!

What I'd most like to see done about these violent protesters is a drama about the WTO demonstrations that shows all the perspectives -- preferably one done by Stanford drama professor Anna Deavere Smith.  If any of you know her, please pass this on and have her get in touch with me.

I make this request out of my immense admiration for her one-woman shows about the LA riots and the Crown Heights riots (between African Americans and Jews).   For each show, she interviewed several dozen people who were involved -- leading figures, minor players, bystanders.  Then she chose particularly potent 4-10 minute excerpts from about 20 people and learned how to deliver those statements exactly as the originators had said them -- with the same inflections, the same body language (perhaps embellished just a bit, to make it a work of art).  Then, with only minor changes of dress, makeup and setting, she presented all twenty, one after the other, in her performances.  Each perspective was delivered within its own frame of reference, within which it made perfect sense.  Together, however, all those perspectives didn't add up to anything we could logically grasp.  What they did add up to was something very human -- something which was most understandable at a heart level.  The full, chaotic, complex event was brought right into the center of our lives as a compelling, infectious human drama, something we could relate to and learn from, instead of categorizing it safely out of our lives, a good distance from our hearts.

If that were done with the WTO demonstrations, millions of us would discover the full range of our humanity -- the best and the worst of who we can all be.  Because I heard stories of cops who went without meals for 17 hour shifts and who cried after beating up demonstrators and even gave them support -- just as I heard stories of cops who sprayed pepper spray directly in the eyes of protesters who were already in jail, or who seemed to actively enjoy pounding their fellow citizens.  Likewise I heard stories of demonstrators who threw stones at police and smashed corporate windows with glee -- just as I heard stories of demonstrators who befriended WTO delegates or suffered amazing abuse without giving in or fighting back, but holding their ground for what they believed.  And then there were the pictures -- for example, a photo of two demonstrators -- one thin, black-clad and bearded, the other a Midwestern mainstream fellow with a union hat -- pulling from opposite sides of an American Flag; or the little girl dressed in white with a white anti-police brutality sign, standing between two gigantic black-clad Darth-Vader-like policemen.  Who ARE all these people -- AS PEOPLE? 

There are stories here, narratives of tremendous drama and humanity.  They should be told in ways that we can learn and grow from, in ways that will help us discover each other and ourselves.  Let us not waste their power by telling them only in ways that justify our opposing viewpoints.

We are nearer to the full awakening of our humanity than ever before, even as we drift further away.

That means that this a time where our choices matter, a time when everything we do glows with the futures that are embedded in the immense possibilities of this moment.

So here are three creative responses to the WTO demonstrations --
   - learning some lessons about self-organization,
   - promoting wisdom councils and
   - doing multiple-viewpoint drama. 
I'm sure there are many more.  I like responses that make our lives more alive and our world a better place. 

("Psssst!  We've just encountered another opening into a positive future.  Pass it on...")




Now this is getting creative!

From: Ann Medlock <>

As another of those who Were There, I have come to believe that all the
words about Seattle not being prepared are wrong. The problem is Seattle had
the WRONG preparation. The police were trained for standard riot control
and this was not a riot. The right preparation would have been to send the
police through the standard civil disobedience training themselves so they
would have understood who they were dealing with and what actions to
expect. That would have stopped them from re-acting to nonviolence with