or, How to act better in meetings
"Even with my mask I often spoke the tyranny of power. My first duty was to cultivate a revolutionary silence."
Being an activist these days means fighting for a thousand different things - indigenous rights, rainforests, corporate accountability, etc. Despite this diversity of campaigns, there seems to be some agreement on the kind of society we want to create. It’s a society that isn’t based on white supremacy, class exploitation, or patriarchy.
This essay is about how men act in meetings. Mostly it's about how we act badly, but it includes suggestions on how we can do better. Men in the movement reproduce patriarchy within the movement and benefit from it. By patriarchy I mean a system of values, behaviors, and relationships that keeps men in power. It relies on domination, claiming authority, and belligerence. By the movement I mean the anti-corporate globalization movement in the US I am a part of.
I think people organizing for affordable housing, against police brutality, for the rights of immigrants (for example) are also fighting the same system that's wringing the blood out of the bottom 99 percent of the world's population and the environment they live in. However, I don't know from my experience if the men who organize around those issues act the way the men in the movement do.
Just to be clear, those men are almost always white and from middle-class or wealthier backgrounds. In my experience, as someone who identifies as a man of color, men of color dominate meetings in basically the exact same way. But I find that men who do not speak English fluently tend not to do so as much. I wish I could think of more exceptions.
Who cares about meetings?
Good question. Most meetings of large-ish organizations (of more than 30 people or so) I’ve been to don’t amount to too much. The real work - doing research, getting people involved, organizing protests and actions, fundraising, media stuff - gets done by working groups or individuals. Meetings are just about a lot of talking, right?
Well, yes and no. At worst meetings force a lot of people to get together and generally discuss everything that's been done, everything that's going on, and everything that needs to be done. These meetings tend to wander a lot. Responsibility is not clearly delegated, decisions aren't made overtly, and the organization isn't more focused afterwards than before. At the same time, there’s heated arguments over seemingly trivial things, or hurtful criticism of individuals. But those arguments and criticisms don’t amount to too much in the end.
But a good meeting is a different animal altogether. With good self-facilitation and a good facilitator (or two, or three...), everyone contributes to the meeting, without anyone taking control over it. People make constructive criticism, and try to incorporate concerns raised into their proposals. And since everyone gets to contribute their ideas into the decision-making process, the decisions are not only the best possible ones - but also the ones people are most invested in. Since everyone feels ownership over the decisions, people are more likely to take on responsibility for projects.
If you're serious about using consensus, you have to care about meetings. That's the only place a group can democratically decide what to do and how to do it. The alternative is an informal group of the most influential and forceful members (who dominate discussion) making the big decisions.
It's not just how often you talk, but how and when
Consensus decision making is a model of the society we want to live in, and a tool we use to get there. Men often dominate consensus at the expense of everyone else. Think about the man who...
* Speaks for a long, loud, first and often
* Offers his opinion immediately whenever someone makes a proposal, asks a question, or if there's a lull in discussion
* Speaks with too much authority: "Actually, it's like this…"
* Can't amend a proposal or idea he disagrees with, but trashes it instead
* Makes faces every time someone says something he disagrees with
* Rephrases everything a woman says, as in, "I think what Mary was trying to say is..."
*Makes a proposal, then responds to each and every question and criticism of it - thus speaking as often as everyone else put together (Note: This man often ends up being the facilitator)
And don't get me started about the bad male facilitator who…:
* Always puts himself first on stack, because he can
* Somehow never sees the women with their hands up, and never encourages people who haven't spoken
It's rarely just one man who exhibits every problem trait. Instead it’s two or three competing to do all the above. But the result is the same: everyone who can't (or won't) compete on these terms - talking long, loud, first and often - gets drowned out.
This is a result of society’s programming. Almost no men can actually live up to our culture's fucked up standards of masculinity. And our society has standards for women that are equally ridiculous. In one way, we both suffer equally. That's why we all yearn and strive for a world where these standards - which serve to divide us and reduce us and prop up those in control - are destroyed.
In another way these standards serve those who come closest to living up to them. Sure, we all lose when a few men dominate a meeting. But it’s those men who get to make decisions, take credit for the work everyone does, and come out feeling more inspired and confident.
But I can't be sexist - I'm a hippie
Oh, but you can. The irony is that you can basically do all the things listed above, even if you don't fit the stereotype of the big strapping man. I've seen hippies, men who would be described as feminine, queer men, and others who in many ways go against the grain not go against the grain at all when it comes to dominating discussion. A hippie might speak slowly and use hippie slang, but still speak as the voice of authority, and cut off the woman who was speaking before him. A man who some might call feminine can still make a face like he smelled something when someone he doesn’t respect says something he disagrees with, thus telling her to shut up; he may also politely but consistently put himself on stack every time someone criticizes his proposal.
So shut the fuck up already
What’s to be done? I’ve come up with a little idea I like to call, "Shut the fuck up." It goes as follows: Every time someone...
* Says something you think is irrelevant,
* Asks a (seemingly) obvious question,
* Criticizes your proposal or makes a contradictory observation,
* Makes a proposal
* Asks a question, or
* Asks for more input because there’s a brief lull in the discussion. . .
Shut the fuck up. It’s a radical process, but I think you’ll like it.
Since my childhood, I was raised by my parents and by every teacher I ever had in school to demand as much attention as possible. In class I spoke more often than almost anyone else I knew. Surprisingly enough, some of my teachers were annoyed with me. But while they may have counseled me to raise my hand first, they never asked me to speak less or listen more. As a result I probably got twice as much attention from my teachers, measured in time spent with me, than most of the other kids I went to school with.
But a mere 15 years after I started learning to exhibit almost all the dominating male behavior I list above, something happened. I was in a class with a friend of mine. Let's call her Anne, because that’s her name. Anne and I were in the same study group, and the night before she had gone over the exact question the professor was now asking. However, Anne wasn’t answering, even though the rest of the class was silent.
I don't know what struck me to actually stop and think instead of answering the question myself, as I was wont to do. That incident got me thinking about who spoke most often in class, why, and what I could do. The answers to the first two questions I’ve basically given already. The third is a little trickier.
What else can we do?
Lucky for us, being a man gives us a lot of authority. I mean that in a good way, too. Much like people of color are always assumed to be selfish or paranoid when they speak out against racial profiling, women are often assumed to be bitchy when they call out patriarchal behavior.
What does that mean for us? First, we shut the fuck up. This was easy for me in school - I just made a rule that I never spoke more than twice in a 50 minute class. Surprise! Almost every time I would have spoken, someone else eventually said the exact same thing, or something smarter. It was frustrating when it was another obnoxious man doing the answering, but a lot of times it wasn’t one of the two guys in class who spoke most often.
The problem is that the classroom is designed to have one person in charge, and it ain't the student. While you could point out problem behavior in class, there’s not a lot of 'space' for it - it's not expected or encouraged, and would probably be dismissed by the professor.
The beauty of consensus is the facilitation. Not only can we facilitate ourselves - and we should - but we can facilitate each other. This is mainly the job of the person chosen to be the facilitator. But when the facilitator is ignoring problem behavior - or exhibiting it - it's easy for other people in the group to guerrilla facilitate.’
Sometimes it's as easy as pointing out the people who have their hands up, but are somehow missed by the facilitator, or by suggesting straw polls or go 'rounds or other tools that get everyone involved. But it's usually not that easy. The worse the pattern of behavior in the group, the more natural the fucked-upedness will seem. And you'll often be given the evil eye by the people you're calling out, if not a verbal backlash. And finally, it's obviously not the job of the people most trampled on by patriarchal behavior to always be calling it out. That's where we come in. We are, at least at first, given the most respect when we call out bad behavior.
The problem is doing the calling out in a constructive way. It's all too easy to call people out in a hurtful and authoritarian fashion - thus entertaining everyone with your unintended irony, but also acting the exact way you don’t want others to. When you call people out in a way that's hurtful instead of constructive, it still tends to keep the quietest people at a meeting from participating.
So call people out, but try not to be too personal about it. Unless it’s outrageous, wait until the person is finished, and then make your process point about how people should stick to stack, or consider not talking if they’ve just spoken, or whatever. And if it seems someone's pissed off at your calling them out (and white men make it real easy for you to tell if they're pissed off), make the effort to talk to him after the meeting is over. It usually doesn't take much to smooth ruffled feathers.
Unfortunately, it also doesn't take much for those same people to do the exact same thing the next meeting. So while part of the answer is self-facilitation and facilitating others, another part is also giving everyone the skills and confidence they need to assert their place in the meeting. This means having regular workshops, for new and experienced activists, on how consensus is supposed to work. It also means going through the formal process of consensus and explaining it during meetings. You can do it quickly, especially after the first few times. But when people assume that everyone is familiar with the process, those who are least confident (but still have good ideas) will be the first to drop out of discussions. Meanwhile, other people who think they know the process but don't tend to hold things up. I'll let you guess what I think the gender breakdown of those groups is.
Another key ingredient is talking to individuals outside of meetings. Talking honestly - "I know you care about the group, but in meetings it seems like you talk down to anyone who disagrees with you, and you cut people off a lot, and that makes it really hard for other people to participate" - is a big part of it. And as with any interaction, you have to keep an open mind to hear their perspective. Ideally, you could resolve things at this level and not have to bring things up before the group.
But it's still a good idea to come up with a structure to address the way people act badly in meetings, for people to regularly "check in" with how they feel the process is going. It also makes it easier for people who wouldn't normally criticize others to do so constructively. The structure could mean that once every two months the group has a "process" meeting, where the focus is on how people act in meetings, working groups, etc. It's often easier and 'safer' for people to call out problem behavior, and easier and 'safer' for the culprits to own up to it and ask for constructive criticism.
Finally, it means constantly thinking about how we, as men, tend to dominate and control the world around us. To me this is most apparent (at least in other people) in meetings. To me, that's also where it's easiest to address. This is a continuous process. We have to always read about this, talk about it, inquire into how others address it, come up with creative and successful solutions, and apply them. But no matter where we take it, I think this struggle always starts with shutting the fuck up.
As men, we’re encouraged to dominate conversation without even thinking about it. It’s too easy for us to do really good work - fighting genetic engineering, tearing down the prison industrial complex, freeing Mumia - and still act exactly like the frat boy next door. We have to confront each other and ourselves so that domination stops seeming natural, and so we can start doing something about it. So the next time you don't think about how you're talking, please think about how you’re talking.
And the bonus section…...
But I can't let a girl do this -I mean, I'm the only one who knows how
Shut the heck up! Sharing responsibility for projects is fundamental for ensuring that everyone in the group develops skills and confidence. I'll give credit where it's due: We men are pretty good at letting women bottomline work like child care, note taking, food prep... But we rarely have structures to let women take on our responsibilities.
In your meetings, are women taking on projects in proportion to their numbers? If you're not paying attention, you should be. Along with consensus, sharing work is one of the hallmarks of democratic organizing. In my experience the most prestigious, challenging, and rewarding work belongs to men. Often, it belongs to the same men who dominate the meetings where these tasks are ostensibly delegated.
One way men make work theirs (in the worst way) is by hoarding information around it. What work has been done? What's left to do? What are the priorities? The deadlines? If the work is done informally, not only is there no accountability for it getting done, but there are also no records and no regular updates. This makes it almost impossible to pass on responsibility for the project to someone else - unless you're setting them up for failure.
Another problem is contacts. Somehow it seems that long time organizers tend to all know each other. If there’s a problem they can just call each other up. This isn't just intimidating for people lower on the activist totem pole; it makes it that much harder for them to get the same work done. If we pretend our contacts are just friends, instead of people we rely on to get work done, the group at the top will stay there. And I think that group is almost all male.
Finally, there's language. Experts in the capitalist world tend to mystify their work. Whether it’s "move to demur," "updating the HTML," or "within the confines of this narrative," professionals have a vested interest in making their work sound as obscure and difficult as possible. Professionals in our society own the little part of the world they have "expertise" over. They make decisions that affect everyone, and get more control and authority as time goes on.
Sound familiar? All these factors - hoarding information, exclusive contacts, mystifying language - get even worse during a crisis. In the middle of an action it's easy to say, "There's no time to teach anyone new, men or women, how to work the radios." First, that's usually a group of men speaking. Second, that's why you have start before the action. If the problem is just a few big egos and a lot of people's complicity, then you can delegate immediately. If there's more at work, you have to set up a structure so folks outside the de facto leadership meaningfully take on projects. That structure can include documenting steps and information, helping new people develop working relationships with other organizers, using everyday language instead of bullshit acronyms, and so on. But without a process it's much more difficult to pass on that responsibility.
And who do you think you'll be passing it on to?
(freely inspired by Jo Freeman's "The Tyranny of Structurelessness.")
This essay came out of my frustration with the male domination in meetings in this movement and the absence of men's efforts to change it. It also came out of my need for self-reflection. This will ideally lead not just to all men acting exactly like I think they should, but also a lasting dialog on how we behave in meetings and what we can do about it. If you have any thoughts on what I've written, please contact me and tell me what you think firstname.lastname@example.org. This isn't a declaration of war; it's just a starting point.
Time for me to shut the fuck up.
Oakland, May 2001
(Thanks to everyone who helped with this piece)