“So we bleat on….”, or Q &A/P&A; the pathological meetings of academics, activists etc

This article outlines the very familiar pathological pattern of meetings at which dialogue is lauded and then slaughtered, the usual attempts to fix the pathologies, and then describes why they usually fail. It closes out with what COULD be done, and why it won’t be (it’s a conspiracy!!)

The pathological meeting

preening macawsWe have all been there –  at meetings (of activists or academics)  at which ‘the most important thing is your questions.’  (e.g. public events or seminars/panel discussions).

The set-piece speeches over-run, with most/all of the speakers exceeding their agreed limits, and so

  • disrespecting their own promises and discrediting themselves,
  • disrespecting the chair (who is either lower status to the speakers and can’t stop them, or equal status and won’t upset their mates)
  • disrespecting the audience.

So instead of, say, 45 minutes for questions and that oh-so-important discussion, suddenly there are only 25.

But wait, then it somehow gets even worse.  Because the so-called “Question and Answer” session runs like this; the chair just asks for a show of hands.  Hands belonging to the ‘usual suspects’ go up.  Mostly (usually) male.  Mostly people with long and glorious records in academia (lots of citations in journals) or activism (lots of citations by police).  These usual suspects then do P&A – Preening (talking about themselves and their pet ideas/ideologies/tactics/causes/concepts) & Attacking (“if you read my paper in…/”But Marx said in 1862 that…”).

Their ‘questions’ (at best thinly-veiled speeches) ramble on, and then the speakers ramble back.  The energy drains from the room.  The clock ticks down. People leave (if it’s polite to do so – happens more at activist meetings than academic ones, in my experience).  Women who realise that their questions are as good as the men’s don’t have the time to get their questions into the room.

The event organisers are happy (people turned up!), the speakers are happy (they got fed!) and a minority of the audience are happy (they got to preen/attack!).  Lots of other people aren’t so happy, but have no way of voicing their frustration.   Over time, they stop coming, either physically or mentally…

The failed attempts to ‘limit’ this

  • The chair pushes notes with ‘5 minutes’ across the table to the speaker, who may or may not acknowledge (old white tenured male versus young female grad student; no contest)
  • The chair asks people to limit their speec… sorry, questions, to two sentences
  • The chair explicitly calls for women to stick up their hands and ask questions
  • Questions are written down and sent up to the front for vetting .

This usually fails because;

The speaker (by definition high status) thinks they are the most important person in the room, the P&A folks thinks their contribution is the most important and women who were thinking of asking a question are now being patronised, tokenised and ghetto-ised, which tends to intimidate and demotivate.  The vetting tends to get done along Party Lines, and isn’t this supposed to be an open forum anyhow?

What could actually happen (any 2 of these innovations would be transformative. Doing them all in one session would probably blow people’s minds).

Why none of these innovations will happen

Humans don’t do change; ‘We’ve been doing it this way for years, it works’

Event organisers like being able to get elite speakers along, it makes them look important. They are providing the captive audience/ego-fodder for the elite speaker.

Panellists like treating the audience like ego-fodder.  It’s one of the tacit rewards of being high-status.

Some of the audience LIKE being ego-fodder, sleeping with their eyes open and entering into a tacit agreement of passivity with the organisers.

[None of this needs to be conscious to be perpetrated and perpetuated.]

These innovations would undercut the power of our lords and masters. They would resist, and not like the entrepreneurs who were trying to take away their privileges.  They wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate it, but they’d know it nonetheless…  Career-limiting move for the innovator, therefore, and for little or no gain.  Thus do sub-optimal social ‘strategies’ and rituals continue…

“So we bleat on, boasts against the current, boring stiff ceaselessly into the future.

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7 thoughts on ““So we bleat on….”, or Q &A/P&A; the pathological meetings of academics, activists etc”

  1. I guess Q&A forums can never provide a well-considered and coherent argument on complex issues. Naomi Klein’s appearances on radio and television in Australia will necessarily leave her thesis largely untouched.

    That’s what books and well resourced television documentaries are for.

    Have you read her book, “This Changes Everything”?

  2. Hi John,
    yep, Q and As can’t do that, and should also not be used as an opportunity for speakers simply to add chunks of thinking that they either forgot or did not have time to put in their original speech. One of my suggestions alludes to the fact that if you give people a chance to think for a couple of minutes, they might come up with a short answer, a good answer or realise that they have no answer to give.
    The last Naomi Klein book I finished was “No Logo”. I am a little sick of the hagiography and the uncritical celebration of social movements (or the ritualistic attacks on ‘Big Green’, setting up grassroots as inherently noble). And so I asked a bunch of people I trust who WERE reading it if she used the same critical skills that she turns on Big Green on Grassroots Green. They said no, so I didn’t bother. One of the friends I asked wrote a very good (imho) book review – http://wheresmyjetpack.me/2015/01/12/book-review-this-changes-everything-by-naomi-klein/
    All best wishes!!!

    Marc

  3. Thanks for that link, Marc. Having just finished the book, I can largely support your friend’s review. I too have become convinced that the barriers to action on climate change are similar to those which have driven the capitalist exploitation and destruction of the Earth and the enslavement of its peoples for the past 400 years. It is evident that as Klein argues, it is impossible for democratic governments to function as the people intended while they are polluted and perverted by money. I was intrigued to learn recently that the Ancient Greeks struggled to deal with the distorting influence of money on their fledgling democracy.

    As ‘Falsum’ says:
    “Klein abandons the critical approach she applies to the prevailing right- wing order, giving the left-wing largely sympathetic treatment where the climate is concerned.”

    I have been struggling to put together a coherent ‘manifesto of ecological, ethical and economic sustainability’ for some time, and imagined as I began this weighty 500+ page tome, that this might indeed be the book that ‘changes everything’. I found my self impatiently flipping pages to get beyond the endless documentation of local environmental ‘lock-the-gates’ style anti-mining movements which always worry me when they put the likes of Drew Hutton into the same frame as Alan Jones. In the end I have to agree that we are left, not with a credible pathway towards the future we all want, and our grandchildren must have, just a vague pointer in the general direction, which might recede into comfortable indifference once the NIMBY problem is solved.

    Do you have any more practical plans for ‘global revolution’?
    Thanks again,
    John

  4. Hi John,
    really glad you liked my friend’s review – I will let him know!

    In terms of practical plans, well, I am studying in the field of what is known as ‘Sustainability Transitions’. I was just at a conference in Brighton, and I have to say there were some very very bright people there, but they were struggling to see how we can make the changes (huge in scale) in the time (very VERY limited) that we have left. You can in *theory* make the numbers add up to emissions reductions that keep us under two degrees but
    a) people have twigged to the point that two degrees is by no means safe
    b) to make the numbers work, you need large scale roll out of nuclear and CCS by… 2020, basically.

    So we need to repeal some of the laws of physics, and we need a time machine to take us back to the 1980s so we can have a better bash at turning the public concern of 1988-1990 into a proper framework convention with targets and timetables. And who stopped that from happening the first time round? The USA, under the influence of its fossil fuel lobby.

    In terms of policy change/behaviour change – what has intermittently worked in the past is relentless pressure from social movements that grow,learn, organise and win. But to do that you need constant influxes of new blood, and help from people who are too busy raising kids/working two jobs/are mildly agoraphobic etc etc. Unfortunately, the ‘model’ of social movement organisation we use is stuck in the 1960s, with ‘feeder’ meetings that then lead to a big demonstration with placards and marches etc. Social Movements 1.0, basically is what we still run, with a little clickitivism to make ourselves feel all 21st century.

    For me, it comes down in part to the structure of meetings, but also what can happen BETWEEN meetings. Here’s a blog post that may be of interest
    https://dwighttowers.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/the-case-for-loose-coordination-by-a-non-secret-secretariat/

    I am aware that
    a) when threatened, elites tend to discard democracy (Chile 1973, Guatemala 1954, recent events in Honduras, Haiti etc etc)
    b) my view is achingly white, Western, middle-class, and that there are many places doing far more interesting things than theorising about them (I know little of what is happening with the Kurds, but the version I hear is that there are really really interesting things happening around gender)

    1. I agree with Bill McKibben, that it is too late to avert global warning :https://euobserver.com/environment/130088. As for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), it is still ‘pie-in-the-sky’ nosense just like Fussion. And nuclear, is not an option either, as it is too expensive, uneconomical, still relies on an imported finite resource and will not be ready: http://www.burnham-on-sea.com/news/2015/hinkley-point-c-delays-04-09-15.php. And its’ real carbon footprint from ‘cradle-to-grave’ has never been properly accounted for. The fact, it relies heavily on water for cooling, whether sea water or fresh water, is another negative environmental impact, never taken into account: http://www.energyjustice.net/content/energys-water-footprint. And at the end of the day, nuclear is about producing electricity, whilst our carbon emissions do not just come from the production of electricity.
      One of the major contributers to carbon capture is our tree cover, which is decreasing rapidly. And not just for GM (genetically modified) Soy for animal feed. I have been to Borneo and seen the devestation wrought by Palm Oil plantations. Antd there are plenty of other factors causing deforestation, like building new roads, airports or the HS2 rail.
      What is needed is a move away from consumerism which is being pushed by the multi-nationals. And our politicians either do not have the will or are part of the sickness, to do anything about it.
      At the climate change talks, it is the multi-nationals who are allowed to shape the outcome of the talks.

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