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Much to my chagrin, I’ve recently become involved in my college’s Academic Senate and, as a result, I now need to understand Robert’s Rules of Order. A friend of mine gave me Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, In Brief (RONR-IB) by Henry M. Robert III, et al. It’s a nice, relatively brief summary of the rules in a tone that is close enough to conversational that you can read it from front to back like a novel, if you like. Yet, despite all its claims to having what most people need for most meeting situations, RONR-IB mostly gave me just enough background to know that I needed the full version—all 704 pages of it.

Robert’s Rules are not about consensus. They were originally created by then U.S. Army Major Henry M. Robert, in 1876. According to RONR-IB’s introductory chapter, Robert wanted the book to be “brief and simple enough to serve as a guide in the hands of every meeting-goer.” Whether he succeeded at that time, I don’t know; I can tell you that the rules have been edited, added to, modified and generally made semi-impenetrable since then. As a result, those few who have command of the rules can make it very difficult for those that don’t to get their points across or to succeed in moving a group to their point of view. For people that know the rules and have experience using them, it is relatively easy to block someone procedurally from doing something, even when most of a group wants that thing.

Robert’s Rules are intrinsically hierarchical. Though they give lip service to the idea of protecting the minority on issues in debate, in fact they are mostly about enforcing the will of the majority and the already powerful: the chair of the meeting is essentially the arbiter of meeting justice; if you disagree with a chair’s decision, it possible to appeal the decision, but if the majority agrees with the chair, you will lose your appeal.

Qualities like these make the rules less than fully appealing and there are various alternatives that try to do better—Martha’s Rules, a Short Guide to Consensus Building, and Breaking Robert’s Rules, just to name a few. But the thing that bothered me the most as I read and got deeper into the rules is that I got them. I’m not saying I’m an expert or even that I’m ready to use the rules to my best advantage. I’m saying that the rules make sense to me and it’s very difficult for me to avoid thinking this has something to do with being white, middle to upper-middle class, and male. The rules come from a culture very close to the one in which I was raised and so, unsurprisingly, these stilted, artificial rules feel almost natural to me. More, the rules work for me and, therefore, against others not brought up in similar ways.

I have friends and colleagues who are not white men and who know and use the rules more effectively than I do. However, as far as I know that’s because they have been using them for a long time. And while, of course, there are some non-white men out there who understand the rules in the same sense that I am claiming for myself here, I don’t believe that lessens my point about culture and access to power.

As disturbed as I was—and to some degree still am—I don’t think this is all bad. Privilege and power are not necessarily intrinsically bad; it is rather the ignorance of and abuse of privilege and power that is a problem. Reading RONR-IB told me yet again about the depth of my structural advantages in a society that values my kind more than any other. Once more, it showed me the responsibility that comes with the privilege of the body and culture that make me who I am. It is the responsibility that I believe comes with all power: to use it well, in service to those that don’t have it.

I got my full-size Robert’s Rules of Order. I’m working on it.


1 Comment

  1. jd2718 says:

    Maybe it’s about class. But maybe it’s about math, as well. I do not have difficulty understanding the rules. Most people seem to. In my union’s large, citywide assembly, the union president bowdlerizes them regularly – on purpose, and more than regularly by accident. (It’s kind of amazing, given how Roberts’ Rules protect the rights of the majority efficiently that the majority would consider them a hindrance…)

    Anyway, for many people they are hard to follow, but in my case we have worse: many people have watched meetings run on badly misinterpreted or misunderstood Roberts’ for so long, that they know nothing else…


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