We were to meet with the Municipal Manager — like a city manager appointed by the council to be the executive administrator over an area including a number of villages — but he sent his young assistant instead. The absence doubtless worsened the general crabbiness, but if he’d imagined being fiercely grilled, had he come, he was probably right. The problems are numerous, and their history is long.
It was the usual complaints for Chiatura’s local villages: bad water, bad service for water and worse for natural gas, bad roads, more. Overall, quality of life keeps declining. People seem generally happy here, if you don’t bring up the conditions of facilities and infrastructure, which have progressively declined since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Older people remember the good old days. Younger ones see a better life in streaming video.
How do you have a meeting with a hundred people with such strong opinions, the only shared expectation being that you get to say what you want the way you want to say it?
The history, perhaps mixed with legend, of Robert’s Rules of Order, the bible of parliamentary procedure, explains that U.S. Army Major Henry Martyn Robert was called upon to preside over a church meeting that ultimately didn’t go well, at least in Major Robert’s mind — too much discord and chaos. He decided there had to be a better way, one that would at least be less rancorous, so he wrote one in a book. That was 1876. While I was still presiding at church meetings, Robert’s Rules was still our standard for meeting management, though the results were often less than inspiring.
The reason so many organizations in America and elsewhere in the developed world rely on Robert’s staid and orderly Rule’s is that everyone at the outset explicitly agrees to follow them. One person speaks at a time. The chair chooses who gets to speak at a given moment, and it’s the chair’s job to make sure all opinions are equally afforded expression. Those with minority opinions get a little extra attentiveness, because they are too easily intimidated into silence, even though they may bring a fresh idea that could lead to a solution. No one is allowed to speak ill of anyone else, and the conversation always stays on topic.
None of this happens as Robert’s prescribed in Shukruti’s community meeting. Shota, the leader of the community advocacy organization at which I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer, starts the meeting with information about the village conditions and then people begin standing to say their piece.
The first person airs concerns; the next says something different but not opposed to the first. Soon someone does disagree, prompting sighs and harrumphs. Someone else starts to get agitated, either about the people who disagree with her or about the fact that nothing ever gets solved, no matter who wins the arguments. A woman who commands special regard rises to insist that people listen respectfully, which works for a few minutes. A man in front with the biggest voice and physical size in the room gets everyone quiet enough so he, if nobody else, gets to finish thoughts that are mostly heard.
Robert’s Rules are meant to make things fair for everyone and move conversations deliberately to the best decision achievable at the moment. If that’s the purpose of meeting, and if the purpose is realized, having such rules is probably a good thing.
But is fairness to all wanting to speak, combined with correct decision making, what people really want or need in Shukruti at their meeting? The real decisions actually get made in municipality board and management meetings, or, as at least some of these people rather suspect, in meetings between corporate leaders with influence and government representatives seeking favors.
If citizens and neighbors realize, consciously or not, that their meeting and discoursing are unlikely to improve matters, maybe getting their thoughts and feelings out and acknowledged, if only by one another, brings some satisfaction. One disputed topic, with vociferous argument from both sides, dwells on whether elected officials are really doing their job, or are even to be trusted. The meeting gets all that in the open, rather than letting it simmer more anonymously in gossipy corners. Maybe nothing gets solved by the meeting, but people have to show who they are while they say what they believe. That’s something.
I’m impressed by the young people, young adults and children both, who are always at these community meetings and always quiet and attentive. They must agree with some of what they hear, but you can’t tell by looking at them. They must care about how things turn out, but they don’t presume to speak up. Shota loves to hear from them. It’s why he set up the Youth Council and teaches them about environmental concerns and community leadership. But here, though by no means lacking opinions or knowing how to express them — I’ve heard them speak with poised eloquence — here they’re quiet.
Though many of the older people will have departed this mortal plane within a few years, the young people with long futures at stake are quiet; nor are their ideas sought, not here and now. In a way, it’s fitting. The older kids are already in college or plan to be, and seldom do their plans involve lives and careers back home. There’s nothing here for them but the continuing deterioration here under inspection and discussion. In a way, the matters before the gathering are none of their business.
Which is the point. What Georgians and Americans share in common is the inclination to think in terms of the near term future affecting them — personally. Self regarding individualism, it turns out, has become the marker for not only this era of America but also for this era of world culture. The contemporary imagination concentrates on a world in which the future is what happens with us on its ground, in its center and at its apex. It’s nobody else’s job to think of you, so you have to. It’s what we’ve learned to do best, and increasingly, it’s all we do. We don’t think about our kids’ future, because we don’t imagine it, not with any determination that would affect how we’d change our own lives.
So this small village meeting may be more like America’s election season than we suppose. We don’t really expect things to change much, even while we’re angry about how things are, and we imagine both a past we recall as better and a future in which we ourselves happy, whatever that takes. We dare the candidate we support to make us happy, while we neglect to conjure what a wider, happier world might be like. In all our passionate deliberating, what we mainly lack is not a workable set of rules for debate as a greater facility to imagine a gracious, decent and beautiful life for everyone.
And our children sit politely, watching us.