[EM] Noise (Was: Credentials?)

Abd ul-Rahman Lomax abd at lomaxdesign.com
Sat Jan 20 09:09:45 PST 2007

At 06:23 PM 1/19/2007, Ken Kuhlman wrote:
>>That's not the only possible solution. Indeed, the solution has been
>>known as in widespread use for a long, long time. It's called
>>Robert's Rules of Order, and the chair is the equivalent of a
>>moderator; the members of the "meeting" have absolute authority over
>>the chair at all times, the chair merely acts as the servant of the
>>majority, with the proper respect accorded to minority opinion that
>>is enshrined in Robert's Rules.
>Sure, we could turn the czar into a bureaucrat & neuter them until
>they're powerless outside  of a narrowly defined set of rules we
>create for them.

Mr. Kuhlman does not understand the function of a chair of an 
assembly that has not established special rules. Even under Robert's 
Rules, the authority of the chair is absolute *except* that anyone 
can at any time appeal. In a relatively informal assembly -- such as 
the EM list if it does not make drastic changes -- the 
moderator-chair can act first, according to his or her own 
interpretation of the rules. This is not "powerless." It is, in fact, 
almost absolute power, but limited only in retrospect.

There is no rule, under Robert's Rules and the rules of most 
assemblies, so strong that it will prevent the assembly from 
overruling the chair. What this means is that the ultimate arbiter of 
the rules is the assembly itself, and an appeal on the rules is 
decided by majority vote. Thus the so-called "nuclear option" in the 
U.S. Senate. The chair (the Vice-President of the United States) 
would make a ruling that the normal cloture rule did not apply to the 
appointment of Supreme Court justices. This would be a blatant 
violation of precedent and rules, but the chair has the power to do 
this. If the chair is willing to take on the resulting opprobrium. 
Then, presumably, a member offended by the ruling would appeal. The 
majority has the absolute authority to interpret the rules. Period, 
end of question. If the majority in the Senate voted to confirm the 
ruling of the chair, the rules would not be changed, but a precedent 
would have been established. It is entirely unclear that a majority 
of Senators, even though the Republicans had a majority, would have 
voted to confirm the blatant violation of the cloture rule by the chair.

A chair under Robert's rules is a bit like a dictator who is 
continually subject to the authority of those over whom he or she 
rules. The authority of the chair only applies to the meeting, or 
related process. The chair's authority over the members is only 
limited to meeting process, the chair cannot reach out and punish 
members, beyond ordering the sergeant-at-arms to remove them from the 
meeting. A moderator of a mailing list can (1) delete offensive posts 
from the archive), and (2) moderate or ban members.

The chair may also propose to take such action, and allow discussion. 
Or not. The chair decides whether or not discussion of the matter on 
the list itself is appropriate or not.

All this is really common law, taken from standard democratic meeting 
process, applied to mailing lists. The moderator is *already* the 
chair of this "meeting." The moderator has *chosen* not to intervene. 
If we don't like it, we can request that the chair act differently. 
If we don't like the response of the chair to that, we, in fact, can 
remove the chair. How would we do this?

We would take the meeting elsewhere. The "assembly" is the body of 
participants, not the list. If those who wish to meeting under 
conditions different from those which exist here were to simply begin 
doing this, they are totally free to do so. How could they, 
practically, speaking, do this?

Well, first of all, we all have, if we keep the mail, the email 
addresses of everyone who has posted to this list, for as far back as 
our archives go. If one of us decides to start another list, that 
person, and/or anyone supporting the action, could notify all the 
other participating members, even if the moderator attempted to 
suppress the information.

But it would surely be odd for the moderator of this list to attempt 
to do this, it would be utterly in contradiction to the laissez-faire 
policy which has been followed.

Now, what does this mean in practice, with reference to the comment 
from Mr. Kuhlman? It means that (1) what I proposed for a chair 
already exists, in the powers of the moderator, (2) any informal 
assembly, by appointing a chair, can, without establishing a set of 
rules, which can be a major task in itself, begin to regulate its 
meeting, even to the extent of dealing with problems which may arise 
which could not be anticipated in the rules, do it. What this means 
is that the chair is entrusted with the power to, ad hoc, rule and 
act on behalf of the members of the meeting.

Many informal organizations would prefer to deal with situations as 
they arise, without a chair, or simply assume that nothing can be 
done. The problem is that, without a chair or similar function, the 
situation that arises can prevent the group from effectively dealing 
with the problem. On this list, a chair would do nothing most of the 
time. A chair, if the chair considered that a writer was abusing the 
list, act to protect the list. This need not be done in an arbitrary 
and dictatorial way; rather, it is done *temporarily* as the chair 
sees fit. The alleged abuser, or anyone else, may appeal. If the 
chair attempts to prevent the appeal from being heard, the alleged 
abuser can easily bypass the chair.

*We already have a chair.* It is the list owner, who has the absolute 
power to regulate the list. If he is paying attention (I think he 
is), he is responsible for what continues to appear here. He has the 
absolute right to allow *anything* to appear. Because this list is 
routinely unmoderated, he has no legal responsibility for what is 
written, until and unless someone formally protests to him. If, for 
example, anyone consider that he was being libelled by a writer here, 
the offended party would have no legal recourse against the owner, 
*unless* the offended party objects and legally demands that the 
material be removed from the on-line archive (where it would remain 
forever accessible to internet searches). At that point the owner 
would become responsible for failure to respond. Yes, it could be 
dangerous to own an unmoderated list and pay no attention to it or to 
complaints. But we are not there, Mr. Smith is highly unlikely, I 
think, to take any such legal action.

I'm just pointing out that we *do* have a chair, but one whose 
decision has been to allow pretty much anything to appear here. I'd 
say that most of the time, it works. Indeed, an elected chair would 
probably do *almost* the same thing. Whether or not the chair would 
have intervened in the recent incident (which is somewhat ongoing, 
though at reduced volume, so to speak), would be a matter at the 
discretion of the chair.

And if the chair did not act, anyone *else* could object. Meetings 
have been dealing with these problems for centuries, it is well-known 
how to do it democratically.

There are plenty of arguments for allowing the status quo to 
continue. And arguments for doing otherwise. The fact is that we can 
do both, if there is sufficient interest. An unmoderated list can 
feed a moderated list.

>However, Robert's Rules are designed for meetings with a defined
>agenda, and this listserv isn't really a meeting, nor does it have a
>defined agenda.

That is not correct. Robert's Rules are designed for meetings, 
period. Obviously, there is something that brings the people 
together, some interest, but nothing other than that.

One thing is true. If what you want is only "free-wheeling debate", 
with no resolution or indication of consensus, or almost none, then, 
of course, this is what you will have.

>   We could probably impose a bunch of rules on
>ourselves to make make RONR more applicable, but it's not clear to me
>that the result would be an improvement over the free-wheeling debate
>we have currently.

If the moderator were to intervene here under unusual circumstances, 
it would be, I presume, an improvement from the point of view of the 
moderator. If it were an improvement from the point of view of all 
those who cared to vote on a resulting appeal, then I'd say that Mr. 
Kuhlman would have nothing to stand on.

It is, in fact, clear to me that making the list moderated, 
routinely, would severely damage the debate here (unless certain 
conditions obtain, which are difficult and onerous, probably, with a 
list of our size.)

>There are also a host of practical problems.. Who would serve as
>chair? What would be their incentive to run for office?  And what
>election method would be used to select them? :-)

I will point out here that this problem was solved long ago. There 
are special problems for mailing lists that don't exist in 
face-to-face meetings; the sock puppet problem is one of them. 
However, that the list owner is essentially a dictator suggests a solution.

It should be understood that my major work is with this very problem. 
This list is functionally a Free Association, meeting in a place 
kindly provided by the list owner. The list owner has elected not to 
function as a chair, though, as I pointed out, under some 
circumstances he might have a legal responsibility.

So we could, *if* we want one -- I haven't seen that we do --, elect 
a chair. We have no authority to compel the owner to give the chair 
moderator privileges, but we could certainly ask. The owner would 
then decide, I presume, whether or not the request was legitimate, 
and this would include judging whether or not the election process was proper.

Now, what would the election process be? Again, this is quite a 
standard problem. The simplest solution is that any member, at any 
time, may move that the group elect So-and-So as chair. The person 
doing this, who should not be So-and-So, would function as chair for 
the purpose of conducting this election. If a majority of those 
voting vote Yes, then So-and-So becomes the chair. If not, not; a 
motion to elect someone else would be in order.

But, that's unfair, it might be protested. What if a member doesn't 
want a chair to be elected? What if a member wants someone else? What 
if a member thinks we should use some other election method?

Robert's Rules provides the obvious answer. The motion to elect I 
described is an ordinary motion. It is debatable and it is subject to 
appeal. To close debate and proceed to a vote requires a 2/3 
majority, if the temporary chair is following the rules. (Given that 
the group has not adopted the rules, the chair is not obliged to 
follow them, but would you not think that the rules sufficiently 
protect minorities?

In any case, I will note that deliberative procedure on the motion to 
elect A, if considered an election method, satisfies the Condorcet 
Criterion, and it also will almost certainly choose the Range winner, 
if those who support Range take steps to insure that Range 
information is available to the group.

But what if a two-thirds majority would prefer to simply elect A? It 
would be undemocratic to subject the group to tedious debate, given 
this preference.

Robert's Rules are *not* designed, as was stated, for groups 
following some agenda. It was designed to *allow* groups to function 
efficiently and democratically, for whatever purpose the group 
follows. They were designed to disallow extended and useless debate, 
which could otherwise *prevent* the majority from acting, or at least 
it would seem so.

What takes place on this list is not debate under the meaning of 
Robert's Rules. It is open discussion, what would under the rules be 
considered meeting as the Committee of the Whole. A chair can still 
function under CotW conditions, mostly to prevent abuse and to prove 
a means of adjourning the committee (not necessary under list 
conditions, but important in face-to-face meetings) and convening the Assembly.

But meeting as the Assembly requires that no debate take place 
without a motion. A motion could be a proposed action, or it could be 
a proposed resolution of any kind. (There is a process for avoiding 
debate on objectionable motions.) The Assembly does not begin debate 
on a motion until it has been seconded. This single rule could 
prevent a lot of useless debate! But *discussion* can quite properly 
begin on something without a second. This would never be allowed in a 
formal Assembly, unless the rules were waived, or the meeting 
adjourns to the CotW, or the discussion is transferred to a Committee.

I have seen no motion to elect a chair here, only a comment that it 
could be done. Neither have I seen a motion to adopt Robert's Rules 
or any other set of rules. This is not debate, this is discussion.

You want true debate, it can happen with rules. Not likely without. 
Discussion, almost by definition, cannot lead to formal decision; 
individuals remain free to take what they like from it. We could not 
properly say "The Election Methods list concluded that Method 
Whacky-Whack was not suitable for use in public elections."

If we adopted process, such a statement would become possible. It 
could be quite useful, in fact.

>Elected leaders are sometimes a necessary evil, but they are a poor
>substitute for direct democracy within a group of informed individuals
>full of enlightened self-interest.

That's correct. Robert's Rules firmly establish functional direct 
democracy. The chair is not a "leader," per se, though sometimes 
chairs are leaders. If the "leadership" of the chair is 
controversial, I'd say, this would be a poor choice for chair. A 
chair should be perceived, by as many members as possible, as fair 
and unbiased, or, at least, more interested in the fairness and lack 
of bias of the meeting process than in any personal agenda. There are 
people like this.

>> >Does anyone have experience with Nabble, or know of other reasonable
>> >solutions to this problem?  It's time we stop pretending the problem
>> >doesn't exist.
>>At this stage, there is a simple solution. I've got the flu today and
>>a headache, so I don't have the strength to look at Nabble. But,
>>quite simply, the group should have an active moderator with the
>>power to put a member who is disruptive to the list, causing harm,
>>defined, if necessary, by vote.
>I'm sorry to be so harsh, but "I don't have time to think about your
>suggestion, so I'm just going to tell you what I've already decided"
>isn't good enough.  In fact, you've given me another reason to argue
>against moderation.

I fail to see that. Remember, a motion has not been entered. We are 
not debating. If we were debating a motion to adopt Nabble, whatever 
that is, I'd be well-advised to read about Nabble, and so would, 
indeed, any list member who cared enough to vote on the motion.

This is why it is important to distinguish between discussion and 
debate. It is harmless to ignore discussion, or, more accurately, one 
harms only oneself. I did not harm this list or Mr. Kuhlman by my not 
looking immediately at Nabble, because I found it easier not to at 
that particular point. (I had a splitting headache, I was coming down 
with a cold, plus I had looming responsibilities with my children.)

But if a motion were under debate, and, especially, if the question 
were being called, and the motion is going to affect my rights in the 
future, or the way my name and the fact of my participation here 
would be used by decisions made under Nabble, then I'd better know.

And were a motion under debate, my comments *might* have been ruled 
out-of-order by the chair and could be striken from the record. The 
record of debate should be as free as possible of serious 
irrelevancies. If you think about it, the reasons are obvious. 
Irrelevancies would make it much more difficult for a member to read 
the debate and come to conclusions regarding it. It is very, very 
different from discussion.

>On the surface, your comment is inoffensive.  Your post is polite, and
>well-enough reasoned. You've certainly given no reason for a potential
>moderator to reject your post.

Absolutely not, as far as I could see, unless the chair considered my 
remarks irrelevant to the subject of the list, which would be a stretch.

>   However, by ignoring the proposal at
>hand & redirecting to your own agenda, you've engaged in a degree of

No intention existed of diverting attention from Nabble. Given that 
this is discussion, I simply wanted the option of simply electing a 
chair to be on the table. It is actually the mildest of 
interventions. (Unless we elect a draconian chair, but presumably we 
would decide to remove such a person. A chair, indeed, should be 
fairly strict with debate, to keep it on-topic, perhaps with proper 
Subject headers, but not with discussion.)

>   If given the opportunity, I would rank your response
>low to medium low.  You might find reason to do the same to this reply
>of mine.  I assert there's value in being able to do that.

Great. I wouldn't dare to rate Nabble without investigating it.

>If we can agree on that much, then the question becomes "what do we do
>with these post ratings?  how shall they be aggregated?  what impact
>should sustained low quality posting have on an individual?"   Since
>we're a bunch of people who love to argue, would could probably carry
>on over those questions indefinitely.  For the sake of making progress
>on a very important issue that's been neglected for too long, I
>propose that the group adopt an existing set of standards.  Nabble has
>an interesting system established, though there may be others worth

Is that a motion? If so, I would take steps to insure democratic 
process. This binds no one. This is what I call a Free Association, 
though without the formal traditions that would guarantee, as far as 
possible, that it will always stay that way.

>>However, where there are a number of choices to be made, Range is
>>excellent for gathering information about the state of the
>>membership, for the use of the moderator as well as for the members
>>should a motion be presented for vote. A Range vote could drastically
>>shorten the deliberative time necessary to discover consensus, and
>>groups like this should always attempt to reach broad consensus,
>>particularly before taking drastic action.
>I agree enough with this sentiment to let it stand without argument
>(my concerns about Range don't really come into play in these
>conditions).   So, let's hear some more arguments so that we can move
>towards that consensus!

Let's have a motion first. A formal motion. I could construe Mr. 
Kuhlman's post as being a motion, but given that this list has *no* 
tradition of presenting motions and debating them, I'll let him 
confirm or deny it. I would, in fact, request that Mr. Kuhlman repost 
the text of his motion, without argument, very simply, and give the 
subject of the thread as MOTION: [brief name for motion]. "MOTION: to 
adopt Nabble rules" would suffice, and, for convenience, I'd put the 
URL for the rules in the motion.

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