Dialogue, politeness and the siren call of the coffee break

04-11-2009 11:15
There are aspects of the structure of a conference which can be dangerous. I was concerned about this before coming; not about whether we would be bored or interested, whether the presentations would seem relevant or not - you cannot, or course, please all the people all the time. Rather, there is something in the formal structure itself which, while allowing ‘conversation’ of a kind, also limits our ability to interact.

Politeness and convention require that we sit still and listen - even when we become disengaged, or when we disagree. When this happens we, like unstimulated school children, find ways to cope. We withdraw our minds in rebellion and self-defense. Now, we also have other mechanisms: laptops, mobile phones. And, of course, we can always walk out - though rarely do. Another option is to wait for the Question & Answer session - though this is so often foreshortened, and as often highjacked by ‘questions‘ with a specific agenda.

Something happens to people when they are regulated in this way. They begin to behave differently, lose individual will, lose faith in a process, absent themselves mentally. If you have ever spoken to a roomful of people and ‘lost’ them, you will know how frighteningly fast it happens.

Is a different format imaginable? Maybe a speaker should make a series of statements each of which is immediately up for discussion. Perhaps there should always be more than one speaker at a time, so that a conversation is ensured. Politeness should certainly take a back seat - every questioner individually thanking the speaker, for example, is the indulgence of individual courtesy at the expense of everyone else’s time.

Why do we need to think about this?

  1. Because it is simply too ironic to be holding an academic conference on a potentially massive, looming disaster without addressing that central irony at every moment.
  2. Because it makes us think of Copenhagen. That, too, is a formalised conference, and delegates are also people subject - however strongly they feel the weight of their responsibility - to creeping apathy and the call of the coffee break.
  3. Because we should be aware of the - often insidious - power of ‘the way things are done’. We are a submissive species. Maybe the tyranny of the status quo is the very problem that the world - searching for consensus on tackling climate change - is suffering.
by Cassie Werber

Category: Reflections


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