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
We 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).
- We could keep the speakers to time with a healthy dose of the clap.
- Before the Q&A we could have two minutes to turn to someone next to us, discuss what we heard, get help honing a question/affirmation that it was a valid one, and then have a show of hands from which the chair could choose an appropriate gender/age/race/etc balance
- There could be a clap clinic for questions that were more than 3/4/5 sentences, or 30 seconds or whatever.
- The questions could be ‘batched’ in three, with a two minute pause for panellist to hone their answers to those three questions. (During that two minutes, people could talk again among themselves, honing questions further, thinking about what they’d heard.) This would mean panellists’ answers were better prepared, rather than just top of head rambles.
- Panellists could be rewarded (with applause, chocolate, whatever) if they chose to NOT answer a specific question because they had nothing to add, since this would save bandwidth and time.
- Panellists could have a ‘ration’ of say, 3 long answers, 3 medium answers and 5 short answers, and be given a time limit (that clap clinic again)
- Questions that weren’t asked could be written down, circulated to the panellists and the answers be part of the post-event write-up.
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.”