Category: committee meetings

Issues with committees revisited

By , 28 September 2007 8:45 pm

Two weeks ago I expounded on the way that writers and readers of fiction overlook the way that major events are often made not by epic acts of heroism but by seemingly boring committee meetings. There were some suggestions that I might consider this theme further and so here we are.

It is often said that committees acquire a life of their own, as if the very process of half a dozen human beings gathering together creates a new and monstrous psychological and spiritual organisation. At one level this is true, but we need to be a little more rigorous in our analysis. Why is this the case? Let me make some observations.

The first is that committees are able to allow evil to occur because they give the participants the illusion that they are no longer personally responsible for what happens. It strikes me that when we personally are asked to take a decision then, if we are people of principle, we carefully consider the outcomes in the light of our own morality and only then do we proceed. In some shape or form we know that we as individuals will be held accountable. And whether we fear God, man or the verdict of history we tread warily.

However as a committee member all is changed: we feel absolved from all this. We are now part of a collective organism and our responsibility ends the moment we sit down round the table. The result is that men and women who would willingly shed their own blood to help someone now feel an extraordinary freedom to condemn innocents to a life of suffering. We need reminding that while there may be strength in numbers there is no exception from judgment.

A second observation is that committees are oddly open to manipulation. I’m sure a number of my readers have been in some sort of committee meeting and suddenly found themselves surprised at the way the decision was going. The theory of committees is that because everybody has a say then a committee should come to the wisest decision. The reality is that often – perhaps because people assume that it can’t happen – committees can be gently and discreetly managed by those with agendas. It’s easy to assume that such people must inevitably be the chairman or chairperson; in practice it might easily be someone else, possibly someone who merely makes a few minimal comments but who with quiet steady suggestions pushes an otherwise unpalatable decision to its conclusion.

A third observation is that because in any group of human beings there will be some sort of clash of personalities then dynamics are set up in a committee which may easily affect what happens. Consider a fairly simple case. Young Charlotte, recently appointed to the committee against the wishes of one or two of the senior gentlemen, comes up with a jolly good proposal. The senior gentlemen consider it not simply on its merits but with other factors in view. Might agreeing to this proposal encourage this young lady to go further and possibly tread on their own territory? Might it perhaps be appropriate to teach her a cautionary lesson? It may even be that they vote against the proposal just because they don’t like her. The upshot is that a decent proposal might not be approved simply because it was, in that dreadful word, politic for it to be rejected. The results of the committee’s deliberations have produced nonsense. And lest I be accused here of inverted sexism, let me suggest that when the committee meets again Charlotte deliberately vetoes one of the elderly gentlemen’s proposals on the grounds that some degree of retribution is valid. Very soon the committee becomes a battleground of egos rather than a method of resolving problems. All too often what is at stake in committee meetings is not success or failure or truth or falsehood but one’s own personal prestige.

There was much that was wrong with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. One of the worst things was the portrayal of the Sanhedrin as exotic, woolly wild Jews alien to all that we are. It would have been far more telling (and far less anti-Semitic) to have portrayed them (as the gospels hint they were) as men who when they came together in committee, let the strange dynamics of collective decision meeting push them into the most terrible of deeds.

A subtle peril of fiction

By , 14 September 2007 7:21 pm

I was at a church elders meeting last night, when I was struck by a totally irrelevant thought: how rarely fiction represents committee meetings. The chief reason of course is not hard to find: they are really pretty boring. (Another reason, incidentally, is that meetings where more than three people are present are very hard to portray; you end up saying, X said this, Y said that, Z commented, and so on.) Fiction, especially the sort that I write, and I suspect most of my readers read, is about action and events. If committee meetings do occur in such works, then we are generally taken straight to some climactic moment of decision: all else is dispatched in a few sentences.

Now thinking about this further, I think this is very misleading in an artistic sense. You see it is in such quiet committee meetings where great decisions are made. The fate of individuals, organisations, and even nations, is decided in slow rounds of often undramatic argument and discussion. It is in these rather low-key exchanges of views that destinies are forged for good or ill. Fiction, because it tends to concentrate on dramatic, emotionally charged events or confrontations, misleads us. The apparently still waters of a big river in fact move far faster than the turbulent bubbling of an alpine stream. In the same way momentous events often happen quietly.

From the Christian point of view there is something very significant here. We prepare ourselves to do the right thing at a great moment of crisis. Here, we say to ourselves, we will not fail! Yet actually what happens is that the pivotal battle is conducted somewhere else, often in a far less dramatic matter. And here, unexpectant and ill-prepared, we fail. We need to be prepared for moments of crisis in life, but we also need to beware of being ambushed by some subtle danger on what we expect to be a quiet stretch. I suspect many souls have been damned in those quiet committee meetings when the chairman has said, with no great fanfare, ‘So then. I take it we are all agreed?’ And unable to resist, a man or woman agrees to something terribly wrong.

Having just written this I have remembered what C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape say: “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Exactly so.

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