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Whenever someone advocates social change the first thing I want to know is: What is the future vision of the person or group advocating the change? What kind of a world are we trying to create? After all, the first question a group undertaking an activity should ask itself is: What are we trying to accomplish? Isn't that fundamental? And yet, I have not heard many social activists address this fundamental question. If one does not understand the future vision we are striving for, it is difficult to determine if a proposed action is likely to lead to that future vision or, for that matter, if that particular future vision is worth attaining.
[Recently I read an incredibly stupid essay by a normally intelligent writer, namely, Karl Popper . Popper was so interested in convincing his employers that he is against communism that he blundered into an argument that, simply stated, said, “Don’t consider the ends; concentrate only on the means.” First of all, I’d like to see the man who solved the demarcation problem (between science and pre-science) draw the line of demarcation between ends and means. More importantly, let me see him build a house starting with the means and no idea what sort of house he wishes to build.]
Also, I was very concerned about the elitist and competitive nature of the meetings of other so-called peace and justice groups. Normally, with these groups, who you are and what you have done is more important than what you know and your ability to think creatively. After all, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, what is said should be more important than who said it, which, of course, should not influence what you think about it. I have included an essay on this concern as Appendix A of Chapter 8 of On the Preservation of Species.
My experience with the Texas Populist Alliance (discussed in Appendix B of Chapter 8 of On the Preservation of Species) was incredibly negative. Dissent was repressed viciously and no one who spoke had anything going for him but status. The ideas put forward were ridiculous. The speakers had been chosen long before most of us were notified of the existence of the meeting. This simply replicates the evil that the group claims to be trying to correct. They were a miniature establishment with practically all the defects of the ruling establishment. Populist indeed!
I conceived of the idea of a forum where everyone would be treated equally. The Future Forum (technically named The Experiment in Free and Egalitarian Discourse on the Future of Human Society) was a small group of people (with a great deal of turnover and a few regulars) who met for nearly two hours about twice a month for almost a year to discuss future visions and social change. The meetings took place in the conference room at the Jungman Branch of the Houston Public Library.
This group, which was open to the public (the meetings were as well publicized as we could manage), encouraged free discourse. One could say anything! To ensure equal treatment of all participants, we selected a main speaker for each meeting randomly by drawing cards from a well-shuffled deck – except that one had to be present to be selected to speak at the next meeting. The main speaker gave a half-hour (more or less) presentation on a topic of his or her choice. The presentation was followed by group discussion. The participants could address the speaker for five minutes or less. Again the order of this participation was determined randomly. The speaker could respond for five minutes or less. This interchange could be repeated once before discussion moved to the next participant. Usually, all participants were heard from. Normally, after attending a few meetings, each participant got a chance to present his or her ideas at length.
The attendance was not good. For the meetings at which attendance was taken I count: 9, 8, 4, 5+, 5, 7, 7, 14, 7, 6, 11, 7, 5, 4, and 4. (I did not take attendance at my talk, which, oddly enough, drew the largest crowd – around twenty I would say, but it is not included in these statistics.) My list shows 35 people attended at least one meeting. Only two people attended every meeting and one of those was me. Three or four people were quite regular. Sometimes the smallest meetings were the best. In only one meeting, the first, did someone actually change her mind. The main speaker, chosen at random, spoke for the death penalty but ended up against it. Many people definitely had wandered into the wrong place and were surprised by the rather deep philosophical level and the rather radical political level. Libertarians were in evidence and even one staunch conservative, but the majority were solidly left or doctrinaire liberal, i.e., reactionary.
I wanted to talk about how an ideal society would be constructed. (As I shall confess in the next paragraph I wanted to tell my book.) Most people were interested in minor temporary problems like – should Houston have a rail system. That was discouraging to me. Even talk about reform in the prison was far from my hopes for the forum. I wanted to find out exactly what differences in points of view were preventing us from coming to a consensus on a social contract. I wanted to find the exact “lines of demarcation”. I wanted to know find precisely the questions that some of us answer yes and others answer no and from which all of our differences flow. I was very disappointed, as the reader can well imagine. We never got fundamental enough. At the same time I wanted to avoid dominating and steering the discussion and that brings me to the next point.
In the initial announcement of the Future Forum, I made abundantly clear what I did want to talk about, namely, whether we should have communism or capitalism or something else, whether we should have a planned economy or not, whether society should be decentralized or globalized, etc. What I should have done was make it abundantly clear what sort of subject was unacceptable, e.g., should Houston have zoning,? This is a local question that will be irrelevant in 50 or 100 years. But, who am I to say what is an acceptable subject for discourse? Clearly, I have to find people who, like me, want to discuss the fundamental questions.
When things didn’t go according to plan, I got discouraged. So, when I asked if anyone else would take over the clerical responsibilities of arranging the meetings and no one volunteered, I said, “Fine. This has been the last meeting.” Since the Future Forum, I have attended a few Utne Salons and a few meetings of the American Humanists. If you can believe it, these were worse. I wonder if group meetings are useful.
Nevertheless, the question arises: Should we try again? I am willing to put up with a few people who are out of order a great deal; I am willing to put up with a little small talk; but, I don’t think I would be interested in discussions of what the “great men” of the past thought or what we should do about the potholes on Main Street. The question of capital punishment is settled for me, so I don’t want to rehash it for the unenlightened. I think the fundamental goals and the egalitarian methodology I started out with are correct. I don’t think it is inconsistent with those goals or otherwise unfair to ask that participants subscribe to the same goals and share my interest in the long-range fundamental choices facing society.
Unfortunately, it might be more difficult to find a venue for the highly politically charged discussions I have in mind. The Houston Public Library is out of the question and my home is unsuitable. Perhaps something will come up.
September 11, 1990