Meeting

Democratic Meetings in the World

Jason Preater

Democratic meetings should be a basic component of democratic societies. Why, then, is it so rare to find a democratic meeting that is run well? Whether it is at work, in associations, amongst neighbours or even amongst groups of friends, democratic decision-making is in a lamentable state. Let me give you an example.

I was recently at the meeting of one of the Comunidades de Vecinos (associations of all the people who live in one block of flats) in Avilés, in the north of Spain. These "communities" are far from what the name suggests. They  only exist because the blocks of flats that are such a common part of Spanish life have shared facilities, services and responsibilities. All the neighbours have their own lives to get on with, and although people say hello in the elevator or the stairwell, there is no particular social or emotional connection between them.

That should not matter. A democratic meeting exists to reconcile differences amongst people and to take decisions by majority vote in a community. Every year the presidency of the community rotates. In this particular building, which has nine floors, it goes from floor to floor so that, from the three apartments on each floor, one person has to stand forward to be treasurer and another to be president. These posts are not voted in; they are voluntarily taken.

It makes sense in the same way that Athenian democracy made sense: everyone is included; there is no talent or experience required; no one can "lead" for more than a year at a time; there is no remuneration involved so there is no temptation towards professionalisation or corruption.

Yet the meetings don't work. They don't work because the simplest of procedures that any child at Summerhill would be able to point out are not observed:

  • There is no one in the chair impartially accepting speakers.
  • People do not raise their hands to speak.
  • People do not follow the agenda.
  • People gather in small groups and talk when others are talking.
  • Decisions are taken without taking a vote.
  • People arrive late and leave without asking permission.
  • There is no recognised way of setting up committees.
         

At Summerhill the Chair can only speak if she or he temporarily steps out of role. This is essential to the functioning of the Meeting. The Chair controls the Meeting, gives it direction and purpose and separates, from the mass of information that people present, the essential: what is mere comment, what is a suggestion and what is a proposal.

In the residents' meeting I attended there was none of this discipline because there was no Chair. The people attending seemed to think that the only way they could be heard was to speak louder than the others. They said things that were irrelevant to the case being considered and there was a lamentable tendency for those with an axe to grind to steer each issue being dealt with back to their own egotistical concerns.

They did not have a proper understanding of the difference between making a comment and making a proposal.  This is not their fault: they just do not have the experience of working in this way.  Who is to blame them for thinking that the one who shouts loudest will carry the day?  It seems fairly evident that this is, in fact, the way that this particular meeting works!

Beware the Democratic Boss

I don't think this was an especially bad meeting because I have seen similar in other environments. I have been in work meetings, for example, where the explicit intention was to share teaching practices but  the director of the centre undermined her own intentions by interrupting, judging and summing up at the end. The sad thing is that this is what most people expect and they are not surprised by it. It is only when you have worked in a system where this kind of bossiness does not exist that you realise how insipid and counter-productive it is. It can lead to a Batesonian double-bind if the "boss" is one of those sloppy, stern adults who want to be liked and have everything go her own way.

Another example of a failing democratic meeting is the hung parliament that has resulted from the recent elections in Spain.  If people have such a poor level of basic education in democratic processes there is little hope for democracy on a larger scale.  We will have the same sad parade of demagogues, would-be tyrants and macho bosses that we have always had.  And we will deserve them.

One of the strongest arguments for democratic education, with all its concomitant extras, including equality, respect and freedom, is that it would just make life better if people knew how to arrive at decisions without conflict. Neill suggested that Summerhill could change the world. This is one of the ways in which we could begin to make that happen.

Democratic meetings should be a basic component of democratic societies. Why, then, is it so rare to find a democratic meeting that is run well? Whether it is at work, in associations, amongst neighbours or even amongst groups of friends, democratic decision-making is in a lamentable state. Let me give you an example.

       I was recently at the meeting of one of the Comunidades de Vecinos (associations of all the people who live in one block of flats) in Avilés, in the north of Spain. These "communities" are far from what the name suggests. They only exist because the blocks of flats that are such a common part of Spanish life have shared facilities, services and responsibilities. All the neighbours have their own lives to get on with, and although people say hello in the elevator or the stairwell, there is no particular social or emotional connection between them.

       That should not matter. A democratic meeting exists to reconcile differences amongst people and to take decisions by majority vote in a community. Every year the presidency of the community rotates. In this particular building, which has nine floors, it goes from floor to floor so that, from the three apartments on each floor, one person has to stand forward to be treasurer and another to be president. These posts are not voted in; they are voluntarily taken.

       It makes sense in the same way that Athenian democracy made sense: everyone is included; there is no talent or experience required; no one can "lead" for more than a year at a time; there is no remuneration involved so there is no temptation towards professionalisation or corruption.

       Yet the meetings don't work. They don't work because the simplest of procedures that any child at Summerhill would be able to point out are not observed:

                   There is no one in the chair impartially accepting speakers.

                   People do not raise their hands to speak.

                   People do not follow the agenda.

                   People gather in small groups and talk when others are talking.

                   Decisions are taken without taking a vote.

                   People arrive late and leave without asking permission.

                   There is no recognised way of setting up committees.

      At Summerhill the Chair can only speak if she or he temporarily steps out of role. This is essential to the functioning of the Meeting. The Chair controls the Meeting, gives it direction and purpose and separates, from the mass of information that people present, the essential: what is mere comment, what is a suggestion and what is a proposal.

       In the residents' meeting I attended there was none of this discipline because there was no Chair. The people attending seemed to think that the only way they could be heard was to speak louder than the others. They said things that were irrelevant to the case being considered and there was a lamentable tendency for those with an axe to grind to steer each issue being dealt with back to their own egotistical concerns.

       They did not have a proper understanding of the difference between making a comment and making a proposal.  This is not their fault: they just do not have the experience of working in this way.  Who is to blame them for thinking that the one who shouts loudest will carry the day?  It seems fairly evident that this is, in fact, the way that this particular meeting works!

Beware the Democratic Boss

I don't think this was an especially bad meeting because I have seen similar in other environments. I have been in work meetings, for example, where the explicit intention was to share teaching practices but  the director of the centre undermined her own intentions by interrupting, judging and summing up at the end. The sad thing is that this is what most people expect and they are not surprised by it. It is only when you have worked in a system where this kind of bossiness does not exist that you realise how insipid and counter-productive it is. It can lead to a Batesonian double-bind if the "boss" is one of those sloppy, stern adults who want to be liked and have everything go her own way.

       Another example of a failing democratic meeting is the hung parliament that has resulted from the recent elections in Spain.  If people have such a poor level of basic education in democratic processes there is little hope for democracy on a larger scale.  We will have the same sad parade of demagogues, would-be tyrants and macho bosses that we have always had.  And we will deserve them.

       One of the strongest arguments for democratic education, with all its concomitant extras, including equality, respect and freedom, is that it would just make life better if people knew how to arrive at decisions without conflict. Neill suggested that Summerhill could change the world. This is one of the ways in which we could begin to make that happen.

 

Add comment


Security code
Refresh