Voltairine de Cleyre, “Discussion at Meetings” (1911)

I HAVE read, in the last issue of Mother Earth, Bolton Hall’s opinion on the mixed blessing of discussion after meetings with interest, and—disagreement; mixed also.

I agree that a meeting of fifty with a good discussion is better than one of two hundred and fifty with none; but with a bad discussion—nine times in ten it is a bad discussion—meeting of two hundred and fifty and silence is preferable.

For I do not agree that “almost anything is better than silence”; sometimes silence is better than almost anything; particularly the silence of a “buffoon.” Nor do I consider newspaper notice such a desirable thing as to be thankful for it at the cost of misrepresentation. If a meeting of fifty people enlightened by a discussion is better than one of two hundred and fifty without it, it is also better than two hundred thousand giving a cursory glance at a misrepresentation.

Also I would like to know what evidence Bolton Hall has that the best part of the audience sizes up the discussion well. It may be true, quite likely it is, but how does he know ?

So far as I see, the real substitute for the after-benediction gathering is not the public discussion, but what we in Philadelphia used to dub “the adjourned meeting.” That is the time when the timid and the reticent forget their timidity, and say their say. And it is really always far more interesting than the chairmanized discussion. For all that, I still think the evil of shutting off discussion is probably greater than the evil of “hot air.”

One comrade has suggested that the lecture committee, expressing itself through the Chairman, reserve the right to have discussion or not; that a good lecture be left for “the gathering around the stove”; but an inadequate lecture, or a poor one, be completed or rectified through a select discussion, such speakers being called upon by the Chairman as he knows are able to make good the deficiency.

The trouble is, this gives too much discretion to the Chairman (though as every one knows who has had experience in meetings such discretion is always exercised, more or less, if the Chairman is acquainted with his business. And as a member of the audience I have sometimes been grateful to him for his temporary blindness, or other symptoms of “benevolent despotism”). However, as Gail Hamilton once wrote: “I want my husband to be submissive without looking so”; I want the Chairman to be a despot without openly proclaiming himself such,—which is a very frank avowal for an Anarchist! I should be afraid to make it did I not know that “around the stove” pretty much everybody makes it. But as we all cling to our favorite phantoms, none of us wants the Chairman invested with Dictatorial Powers, notwithstanding our appreciation of the eccentricities of his eyesight; so I fear my comrade’s proposition is not acceptable.

I should be glad to hear from others, not only as to the original question, but as to the incidental point of Mr. Hall, that newspaper report is always desirable, even though it be misrepresentation.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Discussion at Meetings,” Mother Earth 6 no. 1 (March 1911): 23-24.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.