Sunday, July 7, 2013

Roberts Rules and the Death of Civility



With little to do and plenty of time in which to do it, I serve as recoding secretary for several local groups. This shouldn't be interpreted as a big deal as I happen to have a always been a fairly proficient note taker and the concentration required prevents me from nodding off.  I also learned that if there's a board you wish to remain a member of, let them know you'll take this position; nobody will challenge you for it…and, if necessary, meetings will be planned around your schedule. 

But board meetings now differ significantly from those I was a member of years ago….and therein lies today's homily. If you have taken the time to watch any of the televised coverage of our representatives in session, you'll have noticed that each is given a specified period of time in which to make his point. The same holds true for hearings in which individuals are required to answer specific questions. 

If you've witnessed this, you may or may not have noticed several other features. First, members never address other members directly; rather, they will make the reference by saying. "My good friend from Alabama has stated…" or "the gentleman from Montana has overlooked…" The only direct contact between two individuals is when a member addresses the "Chair." 
"If it pleases the Chair, how much time do I have remaining?' "The gentleman from Kentucky has one minutes and 14 seconds remaining."

In formal floor debate, each side is given a pre-agreed time in which to make its case. Each leader may select as many or few advocates as he wishes, restricting each to a set time limit. Or he may choose to use all the time himself. There are many additional rules regarding "points of order," "yielding time back," "yielding for a question," etc. 

Obviously, this formality is essential so that members with other scheduled appointments may honor them. Similarly, the entire body has other business which must be addressed. But, more important, it gives the recording secretary ample time to transcribe every word spoken as precisely as possible. This is vital since this is what will be entered into the Congressional Record - and remain there forever. 

(Unfortunately, the scoundrels of both houses have made it possible for each member to edit and revise his utterances of that day so that any unfortunate slip of the tongue, or lurch into the truth, can be quickly expunged. Little wonder chroniclers have a difficult time accurately recounting the history of events that determine our future…or rewrite our past.)

So, many of these rules are written and adhered to for the convenience of the recorder and the sake of accuracy (little known fact: at the Constitutional Convention, except for Madison's private journal, minutes were specifically FORBIDDEN so that participants could speak their minds without fear of retribution).

When I joined my first board (a small credit union), these Roberts Rules prevailed but we addressed "Marty" rather than "the Chair" and Marty asked Jim (rather than the "gentleman from Circulation") how he felt about raising the dividend. The meetings ran well, all agenda items got covered, and we were generally through in the specified hour.

But the world has changed and many, even among the most carefully tutored, act as if board meetings, like The View, are open forums in which one might speak at any time on any subject without first appealing to anyone. Interruptions abound, one-on-one debates are common, courtesy is abandoned, and good will takes flight. All these pathologies can be grouped under a single heading: crosstalk. And it creates a nightmare situation for the recording secretary.

While much that occurs does so in anger or frustration, there's generally a cohort of cooler heads who group together and seek solutions. Unless the secretary is monitoring that group an important fact or an informal concession might be missed. Subsequently, the issue is reiterated (minus the contemporaneous input that shaped it) with some displeasure vented over the secretary's lack of attention.

But in my groups, we're not discussing events of monumental importance; nor do we make decisions that cannot be reconsidered and corrected with little effort in a minimum amount of time. And if things do get rowdy I can always pull out "the book" and ask that order be restored. 

Things are quite different on the national media stage, though, where major confrontations occur daily, many of them live or video recorded. Quite a few occur on those news channels with easily identified (though occasionally denied)  ideologies featuring well-known spokespeople agreeable to the prevailing ideology. However, since the audiences could be classified as a "home town crowd," and the moderators "home town umpires," there are few hard questions and little cross-examination. The result is a back-slapping "aren't we swell" sixty minutes of tripe.

On increasingly rare occasions, though, an enterprising program manager will bring together well prepared antagonists and let them go at it. Unfortunately, these mini-debates too often breakdown into serial interruptions by one or both parties - the situation is even worse if each side has more than one advocate. In the political area, each side has its credible and well mannered advocates; each also has a rich collection of well-versed, blood-thirsty cretins. 

Unfortunately, cretinism is at its zenith and audiences are more interested in heat than light. Their disinterest in constructive dialog is a result of never having been exposed to it (thank you, educators of America). Forty years of high school and college grads have been exposed to an ever diminishing amount of robust debate; instead they've been indoctrinated in ideologies determined by university headmasters who, chances are, were similarly indoctrinated.

Those multi-sided political confrontations you'll want to avoid will feature one or more of these noted personalities: one the right, take a pass on any confrontation that included Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Larry Kudlow, John McLaughlin, or Bill Kristol. On the left, ignore those with Jesse Jackson, James Carville, Barney Frank, Chuck Schumer, or Bill Maher. All share several aggravating traits: they cannot shut-up, they cannot listen, and they cannot accept the idea that, just perhaps, the other side might have some validity in their arguments.

Perhaps the most informative example of the type of debate I'm thinking of, and which were most enriching to me, were conducted on William F. Buckley, Jr.'s Firing Line. The one-on-one debates are very good. But the great debates were two-hour features with multiple well-versed advocates on each side and included opening statements, cross-examination, and closing statements. Sometime later, Buckley followed up the formal debates with two or more shows with many of the same participants, now unbound from the debate format and engaged in informal discussion.

Those were programs that presented the issues of the day in their most nuanced form. After watching, one should have come away knowing much more about the question at hand and realizing there was much more to it than the simplistic, formulaic answers that so frequently characterize today's debates. 

Finally, let's put an end to this never ceasing "why can't we just get along" whine that just never ends. As Madison emphasized in Federalist 10 (and elsewhere), the existence of "faction" was the key point in guaranteeing longevity for the ultimate document…every issue, but especially far reaching ones, were to be fought over fiercely and preferably from multiple angles. Only through multiply splintered parties (factions), could the Republic avoid a "tyranny of the majority."

Some fear we are approaching that moment…whether or not it's true would make for a great debate.

[Yes, I know. I use the masculine pronoun exclusively. Fifty-some years ago, Mrs. Ruth Rigsby told me it was perfectly alright; she was a great teacher, one of many, and never steered me wrong. And to quote that grand old fraud, Lillian Hellman: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion."]

[It is frequently asked why minutes are not recorded and transcribed later. That has been attempted but recorders can, and do, breakdown or run out of tape. Frequently, especially with large groups, it is difficult to distinguish one voice from another. Thirdly, in meetings with extensive crosstalk, it can be near impossible to extract the salient information from the unimportant noise. Finally, it's not common, but on occasion, in the heat of the moment, a participant may make an unseemly statement or indelicate observation that is best left in the conference room and out of the minutes.]