The ideology of Silencing: A comment on “public comment”

Steve Martinot
Wednesday January 31, 2018 - 11:02:00 AM

Form, as in the way things are put together, like format, formal procedure, formal arrangement of seating, etc. has meaning. The form of things signifies, while hiding behind the fact that it isn’t language. 

The banging gavel  

There are moments, in Berkeley City Council, while council is deliberating on a controversial issue, that the sounds of a certain dissatisfaction, or even the harsh voices of disgruntlement, take wing from far corners of the audience. At such times, the Mayor has been known to respond by banging his gavel, adding in a trenchant tone, “we’ve had public comment.” It is an interesting, if not bizarre thing to say, more as a caption to his gavelling. While it pretends to be declarative in form, it enacts a euphemistic command to be silent. “Public comment is over.” Bang! 

The kicker is that it is not true. 

It is not true that “we have had public comment,” nor that “public comment is over.” Public comment cannot be over, because it has not yet even begun. We may have gone through the rituals of lining up, and taking turns at the podium for each agenda item for which there is public interest. But still, we have not had “public comment.” 

Public comment is a format for people to give input and opinion to council about policies that it has before it. Its rationale is to supplement representation. Its importance lies in the access it makes available to those who will be affected by the policy to be made. What those effects might be should at least be considered by the policy-makers. And who could explain better than those to be affected? And who could then better turn the decision to better effect? But to give such explanation would require completeness of expression, as well as being granted respect. "Input" must imply the ability to speak freely from one’s own thoughts and interests on an issue. 

In its present format, however, nothing could be further from the case. Everyone knows the drill. You line up for an agenda item, and get two minutes to speak -- unless there are more than ten on line, in which case, each one gets only one minute. (There is a game that is played with "minutes," but the game is played against time, not against the council.) In other words, the more important the issue is to the people, the less time they will have to speak about it. It is a paradox that will disgruntle even the most hardened. Yet somehow, its inverse proportionality is acceptible to council. That can only mean that they are not interested in the ideas of the people, but only in the ritual. Without that interest, the ritual becomes empty. There is no public comment. The seriousness of issues gets thrown under the bus of the ticking clock. 

This unavailability of time has far-reaching consequences. Without sufficient time, each speaker must leave things out, abbreviate ideas, generalize where specificity is required. One makes statements without value, and leaves the value of argument and concept abandoned. One ends up speaking a language that is not one’s own, and is therefore alien to one’s political needs. That which determines one’s language also determines one’s thoughts. We’re talking about thought control here. 

On the other hand, when has a mayor ever asked the council, are there any thoughts among the councilmembers about what has been said by the speakers? Were there any ideas or facts or concepts presented by the speakers that we should include in our thinking, that we have not? Such a question would be loaded, of course, since it could only refer to statements made under time-duress, ideas that would have already been truncated, generalized, squelched, drained of value by the guillotine of time. 


Equity? Equity? Who's got the equity?  

As a machine, the “public comment” ritual recognizes the right to speak words. But only as a machine. One does not have the right to speak. One has only the right to conform to the machine of ritual. 

Are we fools to accept this? It is worse than that. We censor ourselves in the name of free speech. Each one who steps to the podium and speaks is affirming that, “after this, I no longer have the right to speak. I am about to lose my right to speak at my own hand, by accepting the "minute" granted.” In that sense, “our rights have been abrogated” under the pretense of granting us our rights. 

Hence, the crowning irony. Condemned to silence by procedure, we condemn ourselves to silence by accepting and acceeding to silencing procedures. 

Council will argue that it is a question of equity. Everyone should have the same opportunity to speak, and thus the same time alotted to all who wish to speak. Hence, one minute. But that is gross misdirection. It merely admits that all will be curtailed and truncated equally. It is fairness that only relates to exclusion. The real lack of fairness or equity lies not potentially between speakers but between the public who comment and the council itself. To accept time as control is to acceed to the idea that procedure takes precedence over content. This may excuse those who wish to dispense with comments (council), but it is suppression of thought to those who come with something important to say. 

What is at stake is not only thought control, but the right to participate. Electing councilmembers is only procedure. There is still a responsibility to engage in policy-making. It involves responding to and engaging the policy-makers in dialogue. But public comment occurs only in monologue. The policy-makers look down, and remind the people, “you elected us. This is now our job, not yours. You just have to live with what we do to you in your name.” To that extent, electing councilmembers is an abrogation of responsibility. 


The cultural difference between council and people  

But this difference between monologue and dialogue defines a cultural difference that goes beyond merely shoehorning ideas into cramped spaces. We see the root of this difference precisely in its ritualism. After the ritual is over, the council can say to itself that it has "had" public comment. They have sat through the formality, fulfilling a requirement. But "we," the public, have not "had" public comment because our ability to comment has been curtailed in the name of a false fairness. 

The cultural import of this difference between monologue and dialogue is shattering. Insofar as public comment is restricted to monologue, the speakers find themselves speaking to others who will not respond, nor even recognize the significance of the comments. A purely pro forma moment, each opinion expressed gets tallied by the clerk – for or against – that is, turned into a number. 

In monologue, one does not confront another’s consciousness, because there is no response. One simply gazes across a space at people who do not respond, and thus do not deign to grant one one’s existence as a speaker. In dialogue, one gives the other existence by responding to what they say, and they do so in return in their response. 

In dialogue, there is mutual recognition that the other has heard the speaker, and responds in light of having heard. Such recognition can occur in disagreement as well as in agreement. It can occur through addition to the other’s thought, or to subtraction. In either case, something is built that differs from the involvement of each in the dialogue. (I know this will be complicated for those who prioritize procedure.) By ignoring the other, or speaking for them, or arrogantly commanding them, one breaks free of this responsibility to responsiveness. 

The lack of equity between monologue and dialogue is the lack of equity that corrupts representation. Policy-making and political decision depend on dialogue if they are not to be autocratic, that is, dictatorial. When policy-making discussion is insulated by exclusionary rules, it falls prey to that effect. 

In present procedures, those who make the decisions do not have to listen or engage with us when we speak about what living with those decisions will mean. There is an elitism that rescues them from that consideration. It is an elitism that depends on public comment being empty ritual. 

But it goes further than that. Excluding the public from dialogue does more than render policy-making hermetic, and therefore not representative. To represent means to be in some responsible (and responsive) relation to the represented, which is abrogated once the represented are silenced. As soon as that insularity is established, the entire character of "constituency" changes. When running for election, a candidate sees his/her district people as a constituency. Once elected, and ensconced in a hermeticism, it is the council itself that becomes each councilmember’s constituency – that and the staff who coach them. Representation becomes ingrown, rhetorical, talking to itself. 

The cultural disparity that emerges between public and council is generated by the structure of representation itself. Electing a new council will not change that. As long as we allow council to insulate itself behind this cultural difference from ourselves, we condemn them to the corruption that we find so familiar in them. 

What is really produced, across this cultural disparity, is a political class difference. It divides the world between those granted access to dialogue in policy-making, and those from whom it will be withheld. This is far worse than a question of elitism. Rather than provide people with a voice in affairs, this is a structure that accomplishes the opposite. It squelches the voice in the very name of giving it space. 

People come to council out of a real "interest" in the effect of the policy in question, because they will have to live with its effects. It is important for those making policy to know how the effect of that policy is seen before making it. Yet this is precisely what is ignored. In the years council has been trying to deal with the homeless, for instance, it is precisely the abilities and experiences of the homeless themselves to survive and imagine a more humane fate that have been excluded from the machinations about which councilmembers have congratulated themselves. For people to express their real interest, real dialogue is necessary. The hermeticism of the system prevents that. 


The dilemma of heckling  

So let us ask, what is the meaning of the heckling, against which the Mayor will pound his gavel? 

It is nothing more than popular recognition of what the Mayor is trying to countermand, namely, that there has been no “public comment.” That is to say, that those trying to participate in the political process are being disenfranchised. It is the audience putting council on notice that they have not had the chance to speak, that a line-up and a minute did not equal public comment. When, in response, the Mayor says, “you had your chance and that’s all you are going to get,” he is scorning them. And it is to that scorn that the hecklers respond. 

To end this political class difference, a dialogic relation must be established. That would, first of all, mean expanding speaker time for controversial issues. 

Second, it would mean ending the inequity that the council considers equitible. To do so would entail a new period of dialogue between the people and the council. Rather than policy shoved down the people’s throats, as has happened with the series of police militarization ordinances passed during 2017, policy-making would need to become a democratic procedure. 

It is not beyond possibility to open council meetings to dialogue after the rituals have been fulfilled. First, there are speakers. Second, council deliberates, thereby revealing to the public what they think. But then, in light of that knowledge, a new dialogue could take place. Individuals from the floor could step forward and engage specific councilmembers in discussion. Knowing what the councilmembers think, one could argue, reintroduce ideas that had been neglected, or attempt to broaden the councilmember’s perspective. Rather than disrupt from the back of the room, we would have an orderly process of trying to change a councilmember’s mind, and thus the council’s thinking on policy, person to person, in public, on the record. 

Think of the benefit. It would neutralize the elitism, break down the structural insularity in policy-making, and replace a political class distinction with real participation. It would be salutary for councilmembers as well, to relate to real constituents in open session like that. And perhaps it would be a mechanism that recognizes which issues need to go to the people, and which can be left to the wiles of a few representatives.