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Yesterday The Nation hosted an online roundtable about an incident at Brown University in which New York police chief Ray Kelly, the public face of that city’s racist, unconstitutional stop and frisk program, was heckled so severely at the start of a scheduled speech that he and the college cancelled the event.
I can see where both sides of the Nation debate are coming from, up to a point. On the one hand, I’m mostly a big fan of the idea that the cure for bad speech is more speech, and heckling is clearly a tactic that will turn a not-insignificant number of people off. On the other hand, there’s no question that it makes a powerful impression — Jesse Myerson is right to reject the idea that setting rhetorical traps for someone like Kelly in the Q&A period is likely to garner more publicity for your cause.
But I think that it’s a mistake to frame this discussion purely as a matter of organizing strategy. Because here’s the thing: Ray Kelly was not harmed in any material way by the students’ action. He hasn’t lost his job, hasn’t lost a paycheck, hasn’t lost a public platform. He hasn’t lost anything. The students who heckled him, on the other hand, are in danger of losing a lot.
Just yesterday, Brown’s president announced that the university is considering taking disciplinary action against “individuals or organizations involved” in the disruption. At UC Irvine three years ago, students who heckled an Israeli official were arrested. Ten were ultimately convicted of misdemeanors, and the Irvine Muslim Student Union’s charter and funding were temporarily revoked.
Even where such protests don’t result in criminal charges or loss of group recognition, moreover, disciplinary action has a chilling effect on campus activism. It has become common practice in recent years for administrators to use such charges to constrain students’ future organizing — holding the most serious punishments in abeyance with the threat of reinstating them if a student violates any university policy in the future. Given the ambiguity of typical campus disciplinary rules and the arbitrariness with which they are so often applied, such a threat can effectively sideline prominent activists for the remainder of their time on campus.
And that, ultimately, is the real civil liberties issue here.
In the Nation roundtable the students’ critics raised the specter of the tactic coming back around to be used against the left. But as someone who speaks on on college campuses with some regularity, I can say without hesitation that the prospect of being heckled — even heckled off the stage — doesn’t scare me. It doesn’t make me angry. What does scare me, and what does make me angry, is the thought that administrators might have such students arrested, might shut their funding down, might make it impossible for them to keep organizing on campus in the future.
Student hecklers don’t have the power to silence me, not really. I can engage them, or I can wait them out, or I can meet with interested students informally, or I can reschedule my speech, or I can give my talk online, or I can post its text here on my blog. I can get my word out, and if someone tries to shout me down, I expect I’ll wind up getting more attention — both supportive and critical — than I would have otherwise. But the administration does have the power to silence them.
That’s why those of us who occupy positions of relative prominence and security have a responsibility to be careful about how we describe these incidents. Not to hold back, necessarily — if you believe that the students who heckled Ray Kelly should be brought up on campus charges, or even arrested, by all means make your case. But if you don’t believe that, if you’re criticizing their failure to measure up to your standards of productive tactics or polite behavior, you should say so, clearly.
Unfortunately, a lot of the language that’s been used by the critics of the Brown students in the last few days has been anything but temperate. On Twitter, Katha Pollitt accused the students of bullying Kelly, while Richard Yeselson described their tactics as authoritarian. At the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart called them totalitarians. This kind of overheated rhetoric can only serve to demonize the students, and to pave the way for the use of punitive measures against them.
At the close of her contribution to the Nation roundtable, Pollitt said that the “abstract right to free expression” is “the best protection going for the left.” But too often these days campus activists who engage in rowdy, rambunctious speech are denied that protection. It’s not Ray Kelly’s right to free speech that’s in danger, it’s theirs.
And the threat is anything but theoretical.
I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings where Robert’s Rules of Order were the rules of the day — in student government, in state and national student organizations, on various academic committees, and so on. By necessity, and because I’m a process dork, I paid a lot of attention to Robert’s in those environments, so when I was first asked to help chair the annual plenaries of the United States Student Association a while back I said yes.
It appears I’ve done a good enough job with the USSA gig to keep getting invited back — this summer’s conference was my sixth in a row, I think — and every year afterwards student government folks ask me for tips on chairing meetings. Those requests are now coming in often enough that it’s probably past time for me to set down some of my thoughts in a semi-organized way.
So here we go.
The first thing worth saying about Roberts’ Rules is that it’s a tool. It exists to serve as a mechanism for facilitating democratic decisionmaking in groups, particularly large ones. It’s not the only way to run a meeting, and in many instances it’s not the best way, but if used properly, it can be incredibly effective — and yes, even empowering.
To explain why, I want to go back and unpack one word from the previous paragraph: decisionmaking. Robert’s isn’t primarily a tool for managing discussion, and it’s not particularly useful in facilitating open-ended debate. That weakness is a necessary side-effect of one of the system’s great strengths, it turns out, because Robert’s is designed to allow consideration only of clearly stated questions, and to allow only one such question to be taken up at a time.
In its essence, Robert’s is a procedure for breaking up the work of a body into a Choose Your Own Adventure book. At each step in the meeting, the group can select Path A or Path B or Path C, each of which will present the group with a different set of choices at the next stage of the process. The framework is everything. Nothing can happen outside of it.
There are several obvious downsides to this setup. First, there’s the fact that there’s pretty much no room for noodling. You can’t hold a brainstorming session under Robert’s. You can’t really do a temperature check. It’s tricky, though not impossible, to process emotional issues.
The second big downside is that because the system is so intimidating, it often leads to situations in which a small minority who are comfortable with the process wind up dominating the proceedings, thwarting the majority’s will, and making everyone feel like crap.
Unfortunately, that’s the experience many of us have with Robert’s — of a few nerds jamming their agenda through while everyone else gets more and more bored, more alienated, and more disgusted with the whole situation. And that’s a real shame, because when it’s done right, a meeting held under Robert’s Rules can be a thing of beauty.
In its ideal form, Robert’s forces the group to be clear about what it’s trying to do, and to go through the process of doing it in a sensible, organized, streamlined way. Even better, the system has the flexibility to allow the group to alter its approach or its agenda on the fly while still maintaining focus. And crucially, it’s designed to do all this while respecting the will of the group’s majority, the interests of its various minority factions, and the fact that who falls into which camp can change at any time.
The heart of Robert’s Rules is the following cycle of action:
- A member of the group proposes that the group do something.
- The group considers the proposal.
- If anyone in the group wants to change the proposal, they say so, and the group considers that.
- When the group is done considering and changing the proposal, they vote on it.
- Someone proposes something else, and the cycle begins again.
- When the work of the group is done, the cycle, and the meeting, ends.
So if it’s so simple, why does it take an 816-page book to explain it, and months of study to figure out how to do it properly? Mostly because although Robert’s basic premises are straightforward, implementing those premises in a fair and reasonable way is complicated.
And that’s the weird paradox of Robert’s Rules: It’s confusing and alienating precisely because it tries so hard to be fair and inclusive.
Here’s an example: Imagine a simplified Robert’s Rules of order in which every question was settled by majority vote. That would be a breeze to understand and easy to implement, but it would also allow narrow majorities to beat up on everybody else. And you don’t want that. You don’t want that because it’s not fair and it’s not reasonable and it would bring out the worst in everybody. Some questions can properly be settled by a majority vote, but not all. Some actions should be able to be initiated by a single member, and others shouldn’t be allowed unless everyone agrees. (Some shouldn’t be allowed even if everyone agrees.) And it’s the task of Robert’s Rules to figure out which actions go in which category, and how to set things up so that the procedures for all the categories are sensible ones.
Here’s an example of the kind of question Robert’s is concerned with: Should you be able to cut off debate with a majority vote? While it seems reasonable on the surface, it’s probably a bad idea. If almost half of the body wants to keep talking, and there’s been time set aside for the discussion, that discussion should be allowed to continue. More debate is likely to lessen the chance of bad feelings later and to give everyone more opportunities to find common ground. On a closely divided question it could even change the outcome. Given all that, Robert’s says you need a two-thirds majority to end debate.
Another tricky question: Should you be able to reconsider a decision by a majority vote? On the one hand, it seems pretty clear that you should. If a majority wants to reverse itself, it should have that power. At the same time, though, if you set it up so that anyone could call for a re-vote at any time, everyone who ever lost a close decision would move to reconsider it the instant that one of their opponents went to the bathroom. Progress would grind to a halt, no issue would ever be seen as settled, and contentious meetings would become even more difficult and acrimonious. So Robert’s says that while you can reconsider with a simple majority vote, you can only make a motion to reconsider if you voted for the policy you’re trying to overturn.
There are hundreds of these distinctions to be made, and the bulk of Robert’s Rules is devoted to making and explaining them. My copy (Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th Edition — I haven’t bought the eleventh edition yet) lists forty-four different kinds of motions. Forty-four kinds of motions, each with its own subtleties. That’s because the Robert’s project, in a nutshell, is to imagine everything that a decisionmaking body might possibly want to do, and to figure out whether it should be able to do it, and if so, how. (This is also why the book gets longer with every edition — because people keep coming up with new stuff to do.)
And although the idea of using an 816-page book to run a meeting is more than a little ludicrous, I have to say that as a chair I’m incredibly grateful that Robert’s is so comprehensive. It’s hard to be fair when you’re improvising, and even harder to be seen as fair. Every issue that’s not resolved in Robert’s is an issue that’s left to the chair’s discretion, and every decision left to the chair’s discretion is a decision that’s taken out of the hands of the group. The proper role of the chair is facilitating meetings, not leading them, and just as Robert’s aims to break down everything the body might possibly want to do into a series of clear, sequential choices, it likewise aims to give chairs a flowchart to guide them through every step of every possible thing that could happen at a meeting.
Robert’s Rules, again, exist to provide a decisionmaking process that is robust, consistent, flexible, and fair. Robert’s isn’t the only system that aims to do that, of course, and it doesn’t claim to be — the very first chapter of my copy includes a discussion of the kinds of meetings it’s not suited for, and the book provides suggestions throughout for ways in which procedure can be simplified and streamlined where appropriate.
In certain kinds of meetings, however, when everyone in the group is familiar with the Robert’s structure and comfortable actively participating within it, it can be an incredibly effective, even liberatory, tool.
Where those conditions are absent, of course, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Because Robert’s is so complex it can be utterly bewildering, even for the experienced. As noted above, the very provisions that are intended to ensure fairness and respect for the rights of all parties can make it possible for a savvy, aggressive clique to manipulate a meeting to their own advantage. And when group members are confused or alienated by Robert’s they often check out, with the result that their voices and perspectives are silenced.
So how do we make sure that doesn’t happen? How do we make Robert’s a force for good? I’ve got a few suggestions for chairs, and a few suggestions for participants.
First, some advice for prospective chairs:
Remember that Robert’s exists to facilitate participation and empowerment, and that it’s up to you, more than anyone else, to ensure that result. Set a tone of inclusivity from the beginning. Familiarize the members of the body with the process before you begin, and go back and review after you get underway. Review more often than you think you need to, and explain more than seems necessary. Check in with the group when things get muddled, or when you get the sense that folks are shutting down. Put on the brakes when appropriate, and don’t let the more experienced steamroll the others. Encourage questions about process, even when a question isn’t any more coherent than “What the hell is going on?” Remember the power of a brief, well-timed recess to get a situation unstuck, and don’t hesitate to suggest one when it seems like it might be useful.
Above all? Slow down. Slow down. Slow down. Setting a deliberate, careful pace while everyone’s getting acclimated and reverting to caution when things get heated will save everyone huge amounts of time and aggravation in the long run.
Now some thoughts for participants:
Remember that Robert’s Rules are there to protect your rights, and those of the other members of the group. If you don’t understand what’s going on, or you don’t know how to intervene to do what you want to do, speak up. Ask for help, ask for clarification, ask for advice. Call for recesses when they’d be useful, and don’t freak out when things go completely off the rails. Often — not always, but usually — there’s a way to get a do-over. Ask about that too.
And here’s one final tip. Before you learn any other piece of Robert’s jargon, learn this phrase:
“I have a parliamentary inquiry.”
A parliamentary inquiry is a question about procedure, and it can be raised pretty much any time. (You can even interrupt another speaker with one, if the question needs immediate attention, though I wouldn’t recommend making a habit of it.)
Here’s how it works. You raise your hand, go to the microphone, or do whatever you do in your meetings to get the chair to recognize you. When you’re recognized, you say “I have a parliamentary inquiry.” The chair will invite you to state your inquiry, and then you ask your question. Any question about procedure can be asked as a parliamentary inquiry, and it can be asked in any form. You can ask what the body is voting on, or what’s being debated, or what the motion that was just made was, or how many votes are needed for passage. Anything. You can even ask the chair how to do something you don’t know how to do, and it is the chair’s obligation to tell you.
Now, bear in mind that you might not be able to do what you want to do immediately, and that some requests can’t be granted at all. Robert’s disallows certain actions, and limits others to specific circumstances. But with very few exceptions, if you don’t understand what’s going on or you don’t know how to use Robert’s to do something, you can use a parliamentary inquiry to figure out where things stand and what your options are.
Remember: The chair works for you, and it’s their job to help you do your job.
And you can tell ‘em I said so.
Note | I’m going to write a follow-up post giving more detailed advice about how to use particular motions and maneuvers to advance the project of using Robert’s effectively, and I’m also thinking about doing a Q&A post where I tackle issues raised by readers. If anyone has anything they’d like me to cover in either of those pieces, ask away in comments.
Earlier today I stumbled across a brewing kerfuffle in response to The CW’s decision to cut a female masturbation scene from one of its shows. As Tracy Clark-Flory wrote over at Salon,
“We’re thoroughly comfortable with women’s bodies being sexualized — but not so much with women being sexual. That is not to mention that we’re still unaccustomed to depictions of female desire that emphasize sexual longing as opposed to manipulation or a narcissistic want to be wanted.”
I’m completely on board with that characterization and its underlying critique, with one small exception: that “still” in the second sentence. Because it’s my sense that we’ve actually moved backwards in that regard.
A weird and slightly personally embarrassing case in point:
Television viewers of a certain age and inclination may vaguely remember “Remington Steele,” a not-particularly-significant private eye show that ran on NBC from 1982 to 1987. In it, Stephanie Zimbalist played a female detective who had invented a fictional male figurehead for her agency, and Pierce Brosnan played the mysterious con man who wound up assuming the figurehead’s identity. Hijinks ensued for four and a half seasons, Brosnan parlayed the role into a brief stint as Bond, and that was pretty much it.
I somehow wound up thinking about the show a few days ago. I remember it fuzzily but fondly, and as one does these days with everything that one remembers fuzzily but fondly, I googled it. Turns out it’s on Hulu, for free, so I fired it up.
The pilot episode is the origin story, and in the second we see Zimbalist and Brosnan as colleagues for the first time. In their first scene together in that ep, they argue over Steele’s role in the agency:
Zimbalist: We have a deal. I do the work, you take the bows.
Brosnan: We make such a winning combination. Let’s enjoy ourselves and allow our passion to erupt into something outrageously fulfilling.
So far, so formulaic, if we manage to get past the atrocious scripting of Brosnan’s upper-crust Brit patter. It’s Sam and Diane before Sam and Diane — the repressed all-business lady and the libidinous horndog dude who knows what she really wants. Blah blah blah yawn.
But wait! Look at her reply:
Zimbalist: You mean hop in the sack?
Brosnan: A little crude, but to the point.
Zimbalist: Love to.
Brosnan: Well then?
Zimbalist: I can’t.
Brosnan: Why not?
Zimbalist: It’s tough enough pulling off this little charade without that kind of complication.
Later in the same episode, Zimbalist’s female assistant catches her mooning over a photo of Brosnan, as one does.
Zimbalist: Who is he? What was he before he was Remington Steele?
Assistant: Who cares? He’s here, you’re here, go for it.
Zimbalist: Then what?
Assistant: Depends on what you’re looking for… Me, I’m all partied out. But if I were in the market for a heart-stopping, teeth-rattling, eye-rolling fling? Pow.
Zimbalist: I’m probably the only woman he’s ever met who didn’t tumble into bed with him.
Assistant: Not a bad way to break the ice.
Zimbalist: [grins] Yeah. But I can barely keep him in line now… I’ve worked too hard to risk everything just to get my teeth rattled.
Assistant: So where does that leave you?
Zimbalist, lewdly: Itchy.
Okay, not great literature. But Zimbalist’s Laura Holt is no Diane Chambers. She’s not repressing her interest in Steele, or pining for a romantic relationship with him. She’s got him pegged as a good fuck and not much more, and the only reason she’s not availing herself of him is that doing so would give him a professional upper hand she can’t afford to concede.
And this aired immediately after Knight Rider.
Remington Steele wasn’t a show about sex, and Laura Holt wasn’t a nympho sidekick. This was a run-of-the-mill network caper show, and Holt was the smart, level-headed female lead. She was competent, straightforward, and take-charge, and those characteristics were reflected in her sexual persona.
I don’t think you’d see that characterization in that kind of a tv show today.
Update | Apparently NBC has greenlit the pilot for a Remington Steele reboot/sequel. So I guess I may get to find out whether I’m right.
The Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Community and Student Center, a student and community space on the City College of New York campus, was shut down without notice yesterday. The college intends to appropriate the space for an expansion of its Career and Professional Development Institute.
The Morales/Shakur Center is housed on the third floor of the CCNY North Academic Center (NAC). It was created in 1989 as part of a negotiated agreement between students and administrators after an activist takeover of that building.
According to a report from The Meridian, the Lehman College student newspaper, the Morales/Shakur Center was cleared out by campus police yesterday morning. The entire NAC, including the CCNY campus library, was locked down during the eviction, and one alumnus who attempted to intervene was arrested as the officers removed the contents of the space.
In a videotaped interview yesterday afternoon, Center director and CCNY student Alyssia Osorio said she had been given no notice of the center’s closing, and only learned about it from fellow students after the fact.
Students were prevented from entering the library for five hours yesterday afternoon. The campus library is traditionally open 24 hours a day during midterm week.
A statement yesterday night from CCNY student activists declared that the Morales/Shakur Center
“has been an invaluable space for community groups to meet on campus, for students to connect with their political elders, and for movement histories to be retained and shared in Harlem. The Center has provided a space for students to organize around a number of issues recently, including the addition of gender identity into the school’s anti-discrimination policy, and the combating of rape culture at City College. The closure of this space is a serious assault on our right as students to organize and cultivate community.”
There will be a press conference and action in support of the Center at City College at 12:30 this afternoon.
The Morales/Shakur Center has come under attack in the past for both its de facto independence from CCNY and its name. Guillermo Morales was a leader of the Puerto Rican independence group FALN, and was linked to a number of FALN bombings in the 1970s. He was convicted of weapons charges in New York City after he was badly wounded in accidential explosion in 1978, but escaped from custody and now lives in Cuba. Assata Shakur is a former member of the Black Panther Party who herself escaped to Cuba after a murder conviction in 1977.
Both Morales and Shakur are CCNY alumni.
I’ve been thinking a fair amount this week about Monday’s revelation that the Cooper Union administration reneged on one of the core commitments to emerge from this summer’s admin building occupation — the promise to place an elected student on the college’s Board of Trustees.
As I said in my previous post, the Cooper trustees and administration have an obligation to honor their prior agreement. If they fail to do so, however, the students of Cooper Union have leverage they can bring to bear to make a democratic result more likely.
First, the full results of the consultative “election” that will produce the three final candidates for student trustee should be released. The Cooper community has a right to know which candidate was the students’ choice for trustee and by what margin, so that they can judge whether the trustees’ selection reflects the will of the student body. Since the student trustee balloting will be conducted by the Joint Student Council, the students’ representatives have the power to ensure that this information is made public.
Second, student candidates for trustee should consider pledging to withdraw from consideration after the balloting if they do not win the plurality support of the student body, and students attending the candidate forum should consider asking them whether they intend to do so. If all candidates publicly pledged prior to the election to withdraw if they did not receive the most votes in support of the student who did, the trustee selection committee could be left with only one name — the name of the students’ preferred candidate — from which to choose.
These interventions wouldn’t be foolproof, of course, and they would do nothing to remedy other defects in the current proposal, such as the planned exclusion of the student trustee from executive sessions and the ineligibility of junior-year students for the position. But they could make it far more likely that the first student trustee would be the candidate of the students’ choosing, while drawing welcome attention to the administration’s violation of the summer agreement.