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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

“Sense of the Meeting:” Quakers, Communications, Organizational Change, and the Blogosphere

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 9, 2007

Over at my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org, I recently posted an entry centered on a photo I took in 1994 of a group of young people standing in front of a Mennonite church in New York’s Harlem. The church had been founded by a group of Korean War era conscientious objectors and, so, the weblog entry jumped to my own response to the specter of military service in Vietnam and my Vietnam-War-Civil-Rights-Movement-era years of part-time study at a small Quaker school in the American south. During those years, I was often at loggerheads with what I saw as the caution and conservatism of local Quakers in the face of the issues and conflicts of the time. It was only years later that I realized that Quakers had also taught me lessons that illuminated my work and personal lives both.

Sense of the Streets

Growing up in Lower Manhattan I learned that discourse was argument, something to be won. One could win by being “smarter” or more humorous than others, by playing facts like trump cards, by talking louder or faster, or by being more insulting or better with one’s fists. Or, if one was in a more peaceful or democratic mood, one could settle debates or decide on courses of action by gangıng-up and enforcing “majority rule.”

Sense of the Meeting

In the company of Quakers I learned a different approach. Discourse was a way to higher truths and to commonalities that could unite people linked together by commitment or even by mere circumstance. Agreement was never beyond the reach of people dedicating to achieving it. In their worship and worldly gatherings, Quakers achieved unanimity of action by perceiving and subscribing to the “sense of the meeting.” Similar to the way Socrates sought truth through dialogue, Quakers felt that receptivity to silence and to open expression at meetings could lead to consensus acceptable to all present and well worth putting aside one’s individual reservations in the face of.

Consensus, Communications, and Organizational Change

Oddly, I first realized the value of the “sense of the meeting” in a commercial context. In the years in which I made my living writing for business and governmental clients, I came to understand that if I interviewed enough people within a fractious organization I could articulate what that organization was about and wanted to achieve in a manner that all parties could assent to and buy into. Later, when I consulted on proposals for major industrial and service-related projects I found I could pre-envision and articulate many projects in manners equally compelling to buyer and seller alike. When I worked in interim management and organizational change, I found it was possible to gain commitment and motivate people by openly articulating where organizations stood and were migrating to, why and how.

Sense of the Blogosphere

In a PBS broadcast some months ago (link unavailable) veteran journalists Bill Moyers and Bob Edwards discussed why the Knight-Ridder chain of newspaper had reported more penetratingly and accurately on the build-up to and consequences of Bush & Co.’s Iraq War. The main reason was that the star reporters at the “papers of record” such as the Washington Post and the New York Times were far too close to the White House to gain perspective or far too vain to avoid being seduced by the center of power. Knight-Ridder reporters, on the other hand, gathered their facts and opinions from middle-ranking bureaucrats and members of the military, people with a focus on realities rather than on “spin” and the selling of an ill-conceived war.

The work that the Knight-Ridder papers have done in recent years – or of the type of pioneering investigative reporting that the Washington Post allowed Woodward and Bernstein to do following the Watergate burglary – is a long-lead-time, costly task requiring weighty expense budgets and full-time research and fact-checking staff. In the early days of webloging, enthusiastic bloggers sometimes exclaimed that weblogs would soon replace newspapers – but most blogs are one-person affairs without the funding or staff or business models to sustain news gathering or investigative reporting. As a result, blogging has emerged more as a vehicle for opinion and comment. At first, the tone was intentionally brash and self-promoting, not unlike the Lower Manhattan model of discourse described above. As time goes on and the numbers of blogs grow into the tens of millions, the blogosphere brings with it the possibility of being a cyberspace-wide virtual equivalent of a Quaker meeting that in its silences and testimonies reveals patterns of commonalities and generates consensuses that can unite people into actions worthy of their beliefs and needs.

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One Response to ““Sense of the Meeting:” Quakers, Communications, Organizational Change, and the Blogosphere”

  1. Tom said

    I like what you’ve written. One observation in particular regarding the blogosphere as evolving into a vehicle similar to a Quaker meeting: there are fundamentally acknowledged principles, which serve as the foundation for consensus. That of God in every person and the somewhat mystical belief that each person can not only communicate with that creative source but within the context of the meeting itself the other members can actually participate in that personal discourse as well’ i.e., a group mystical experience. I have doubts that the facelessness or impersonal character of the web can achieve that kind of intimacy and trust. Even modern meetings find this sort of unity becoming increasingly difficult. The term community is used glibly these days; I believe size matters in the definition of community, which is why meetings were better able to achieve consensus in crucial matters. The larger the “community”, the more diverse it is generally speaking and the more difficult it is for social activities to build relationships, which are not limited to small groups within the larger group. Sometimes little fragmentary “cells” develop as these smaller groups bond within themselves and as a consequence may fall away from the belief that patience is necessary to come to solutions that seek to be equitable and just.

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