Today’s guest post is by Peter Foti. Peter is Hungarian but lives in Austria where he has spent many years supporting democratic education projects. The subject of Peter’s post is Robert’s Rules, which he mentioned in a comment on Facebook responding to the article here about the Meeting at Summerhill. You can read more about Robert’s Rules on the webpage or by reading the book by Ted Weisgal. This post is the text of a letter that Peter sent to Ted Weisgal, who is a personal friend: Robert’s Rules for Kids.
To live without punishments, fear, and violence.
On Christmas Day I read an interesting book about political philosophy by David Miller. This book has lead me again to the problem of authority, which I have been thinking about a lot recently. I mention this because in our correspondence I found that you wrote that Roberta accuses Robert’s Rules of being autocratic.
In the book Roberta’s Rules Alice Cochrane suggests that Robert’s Rules are too formal and rigid. Many people agree. Is it true, or is it false?
I think the answer is not easy. Robert does not explicitly address the issue. Robert’s Rules tries to give every participant the possibility to take part in self-government. This is genuine and good. The original rules are based on UK and US parliamentary processes refined over hundreds of years. They may be complicated but Robert himself stresses that you can make them simpler. They are similar to the way the Summerhill Meeting is governed. Many Sudbury schools use them.
The question is, how we imagine good government on a large scale, not in the case of a club, but in the case of a state.
Miller thinks a state must rely on punishments. Most people will follow the rules, and the ones who do not should be mildly or severely punished. The state has so many benefits, that we have to put up with its perspective, and support it by not only obediently following the rules (laws) but also supporting the police and courts when they punish our fellow citizens: those who are not ready to follow the rules, and violate them, not only in words, but in actions.
Miller refers to Hobbes, who thought the state is necessary because human nature is bad. To counterbalance this we need a state, and this state makes sure that we cooperate instead of being selfish.
He discusses alternative forms, and mentions anarchism as an alternative. I think in my mind I can imagine another alternative; what I would call the second type of good government. I think the good government David Miller describes, based on punishments with a leadership dependent on the state and force, can be good, but there exists another type of good government.
The crucial question is human nature
The crucial question is “human nature”. You can easily be dogmatic, and say human nature is not bad, as Hobbes thought, but good. That would be easy and would lead to a laisser faire praxis in education. The better alternative is to say that human nature is flexible. We humans are able to do good and also bad things. We can be cooperative, or we can be selfish. It depends on the circumstances.
If we admit this state of affairs, then we can start to think, how could we have institutions, which would support people to be good and cooperative. In some ways Hobbes did the same. He found that even though human nature was bad, the state can force us to be good.
I think if we start to think that human nature is malleable, able to be good and also bad, depending on our behaviour and institutions, we can arrive at the point where we realise that, if our institutions are based on the threat of force (even it is hidden), then we can see that these institutions perpetuate violence.
Many educators, including Homer Lane, A.S. Neill and W.B. Curry, thought that we have to build our institutions not on fear, and punishments and violence, but without them. That is why they established a different type of schools or, in the case of Homer Lane, delinquent colonies.
Without breaking the need for fear, punishment and violence on the basic level, we cannot have institutions on a larger scale that will function without these means.
Integrating Robert’s Rules
In this line I can intergrate Robert’s Rule as well. His idea was that through democratic discussions we can eliminate fear, punishments and violence in the life of clubs, classes, schools, and other voluntary organisations.
This is something we have to add, when we protest against Roberta’s accusation that Robert’s Rules are autocratic.
I don’t want to eliminate leadership, but I want to eliminate leadership based on fear, punishments and violence. In a way the chair in a meeting is a leader. But his attributes are limited and he will not use fear, punishments or violence in leading the meeting. That makes a big differences.
As we grow up we get used to fear, punishment and violence as parts of our daily life, and we come to think it is not a crime to use them. Only very slowly can we advance to the point where they are not useful in the long run.
Maybe we cannot change grown-ups to thinking it is possible to organise ourselves without these means, but we have to try to persuade them, and in the case of children we have to try to build up institutions that exclude these means too. Of course, on a personal level we have to exclude these things too.
Children need time to became used to a better world in these institutions. Without demonstrating, that we are ready to discuss any problem, and exclude fear, punishment and violence from the daily life of the school, we cannot persuade them to talk about their ideas freely. They need time to realise that these means are useless in the long run. That is the way to give them more and more rights to form their social life in the club, in the school and so on.
These periods can last longer, and we have to be prepared and invent ways to introduce self-government, which avoid fear, punishment and violence.
That is why I disagree, that states today are neutral institutions. They are not, because they accept the use of force, fear. They say, that with force and fear they combat violence, but it is often not true. The real struggle to eliminate violence from our life means to restrain from using punishments, inducing fear, and inflicting violence. Otherwise we generate only more violence, and we keep peace only on the surface of daily life.
To build a world without fears, punishment and violence needs a long time. But without knowing our aims, we cannot coordinate our actions. To achieve our aims we need better institutions. Institutions where people use Robert’s Rules are on the right track. Of course, Robert’s Rules alone are not enough. The real proof of the pudding is, how Robert’s Rules are used, and how the spirit in the instution is.
Here is a select bibliography for those who would like to explore this further:
David Miller: Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction Taschenbuch – 26. Juni 2003 / Oxford University Press
Robert McConnell Productions: Webster’s New World Robert’s Rules of Order Simplified and Applied, Third Edition Kindle Edition
Richard Tuck: Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Alice Cochrane Roberta’s Rules of Order: The Nonprofit’s Guide to Great Meetings and Great Results without the Gavel
Taschenbuch – 25. February 2004 / Jossey-Bass Inc.,U.S.