Peter Railton on why meetings are essential

The American Philosophical Association’s John Dewey lectures are autobiographical remarks by senior philosophers who draw lessons from their whole lives as scholars and people–much in the spirit of Dewey. University of Michigan Professor Peter Railton exemplifies the genre with his 2015 lecture, Innocent Abroad: Rupture, Liberation, and Solidarity, which is a wonderful reflection on a life of thought integrated with action.

What I want to quote is his defense of “meetings,” which is strikingly similar to the arguments I offer in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. Railton writes:

Oscar Wilde is still right—because the cost of building a society where the people have more say in how their lives are run is still many, many meetings. What is a meeting, after all, but people deliberating together with a capacity to act as a group that is more than just a sum of individual actions, and this sort of informed joint action is a precondition for significant social change. Come together, decide together, act together, and bear the consequences together. We must own our institutions or they will surely own us. As Aristotle told us, one becomes a citizen not by belonging to a polity or having a vote, but by shouldering the tasks of joint deliberation and civic governance. And there is no civic or faculty governance, no oversight of discrimination in hiring and promotion, no regulation of pollutants, no organization of faculty or students to initiate curricular reform, no mobilization by professional associations to protect their most vulnerable members or to promote greater diversity, no increased humaneness in the treatment of animals and human subjects, no chance to offset arbitrariness and bullying within offices and departments, no oversight of progress and revision of plans in response to changing circumstances, without actual people who care spending long hours in the work of planning, meeting, and making things happens. The alternative is for all these decisions to be made at the discretion of those on high—or not at all. …

Of course, I am using ‘committees’ and ‘meetings’ as stand-ins for countless forms of joint deliberation and action. It needn’t fill the streets with banners or occupy buildings—sustainable activism is the work of a lifetime, not just of youthful bravado. What most impresses me about the activism of today’s youth is that it persists, indeed, flourishes, in countless ways that are more integrated with the ways of working of the world. As I look around me from the vantage point of Philosophy, I see colleagues and students investing countless hours trying to enhance the inclusion of women and other under-represented groups, or to build collective bargaining for graduate student instructors and term lecturers, or to reach out beyond the university to promote equitable trade, or to support humane and ecological practices in agriculture, or to bring new resources to under-served communities. These efforts involve personal sacrifice, and often made by those within the academy whose positions are the least secure. Moreover, they are making these sacrifices without a movement at their backs, or a Zeitgeist to buoy them from below. So it behooves those of us who are more secure to revive our spirit of activism. To lend a hand, and to use whatever leverage we might have to provide badly-needed support.

I agree with every word above. I’d only add that opportunities to talk, listen, and work with fellow citizens have weakened. The proportions of Americans who said that they attended community meetings, worked with neighbors to address problems, and belonged to organizations fell between 1975 and 2005.

These trends were not accidental but reflected intentional moves to sideline citizens. For instance, jury trials were replaced with plea-bargaining. The proportion of Americans who served on public boards declined by about 75 percent during the second half of the twentieth century, due to consolidation of local governments and the replacement of lay bodies with professional managers. The decline of unions meant many fewer union meetings and collective bargaining sessions; it also meant that labor was no longer a force that could demand public discussion of issues.

It follows that democracy not only takes a lot of evenings. It also requires a fight for the right to use our evenings to govern ourselves–against people who would rather govern us.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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