Chairs, Chairmen, and Robert's Rules of Order
The subject on which I have become a monomaniac, in the view of my friends, is not one that exercises many people, whether scholars or common folk. When I compose so much as a letter-to-the-editor of a local newspaper, concerning this obscure complaint, it is sometimes rejected on the grounds that I'm beating a dead horse, that they've already had enough on that subject, or for some other reason unrelated to the subject matter, as that they do not print letters that are only replies to other letters. When I bring it up in context around the coffee pot in the department common room, among mathematicians or (as on another occasion) among political scientists, it turns out that what galls me daily and sometimes hourly is something their own walk of life doesn't seem to have to worry about. They often agree with me in principle, saying it is indeed a damned shame and they wish someone would do something sensible about it; but that's when no women are present: Let a woman walk into the room and they are ashamed to go further.
The subject of such delicate treatment is not one of women's rights, nor of women's worth; it is only a matter of language, of English usage. (And it does not concern what a previous generation might have called "indelicate language.") But to ignore a problem and indeed a scandal just because it has already been deplored is no answer. I should be able to invent an analogy. Let us enter the domain of history. False histories abound. Nicolai Bukharin, from his execution in 1938 to the collapse of communism fifty years later, was known by every obedient Soviet citizen to have been a saboteur, English spy and betrayer of the Revolution. Of course everyone with any understanding of history, including many Soviet scholars, knew otherwise; but except for a few makers of history texts and biographical dictionaries a Russian could live a normal life, neither having to lie nor to shout the truth from the house tops. Those few Russians who wanted to protest the lies about Bukharin would only, after a time, if they did not find themselves in jail or a mental hospital, find themselves regarded as cranks. What difference does it make? -- their friends and neighbors would ask. Would an official retraction of the story do anything good, like lower the price of clothing? Wouldn't your time be better spent at something else? We already know about Bukharin, those of us who think about these things, and you'll only bore the others. Yes sir, they'll say, you are perfectly right, and what did you think of that penalty in the second quarter of the Redskins game?
The truth about Bukharin, little as it matters to most people, is still regarded by them as having greater moment than the truth about language. The very word "truth" seems inappropriate to language, which apparently just is; it changes not only from country to country, but from county to county, and within a even a small neighborhood it can be seen to change from generation to generation. Anyone who has read Chaucer, Shakespeare, Johnson, Browning and Nabokov can testify to this. Who among us would wish to state that one of them writes a truer English than the other?
Yet when I hear a colleague in a college committee talk about "gathering all the department chairs together for a meeting," I become angry. I wish I hadn't heard it. The word "chair," (for "chairman") is now standard at my University, and I hear it and read it in official pronouncements all the time. Why cannot I simply get used to it, taking it as the new word for a perfectly ordinary idea? Chaucer certainly didn't use the word "Chairman," and the syllables denoting that officer are totally different in Mandarin, Spanish, and Cherokee without offending me in the least. What's in a word?
In my youth I learned -- quite rightly -- to deride those purists who wrote letters to the newspapers protesting the use of "ain't." When I was among people who used that word, I used it, and when I was not I used some alternate construction, just as today I will speak French in France and English at home, in both cases as much like a native as I can manage.
To take an analogy even closer to "chair" for "chairman," we observe that the person making the major announcements on a national television network news program used to be called "anchorman," and is now called "anchor," for exactly the same reason. That irritates me too, but not as much as "chair" does, and it probably will not do so at all for very long. Why the difference? The difference lies mainly in the history of the words.
"Anchorman" was a recent coinage, a poor metaphor for a high-priced show-business functionary. The metaphor was apt when new, but like most metaphors that enter the standard language it turned mindless and dead, becoming a simple word. Children grew up understanding what an anchorman was on a news program without any nautical image entering their heads.
But then, feminist linguisticians discovered that it was not that simple. The word contained the m-syllable and therefore had to be emasculated it to suit present standards. The irritation I feel at the result is substantial; let me count the ways:
There is, firstly, the ignorance displayed by those who insist on believing that the syllable "man" is some sort of affront, implying (as it does not, or did not before announced so) that the person designated by a word bearing that suffix is necessarily male. There is, secondly, the ignorance displayed by those who cannot or will not care to distinguish logically the office "anchor" from the person "anchorman." And there is, thirdly, the hypocrisy: In the name of equality and peace between the sexes one would expect actions designed to ignore the distinction between man and woman on the grounds that the reminder of that distinction can only be a source of conflict. Instead, we have a neologism that, while pretending to suppress the irrelevant, succeeds only in emphasizing it, reminding me with its every use that mankind is divided into men and women, and that there is a vociferous party of women that wants me to think about that division every minute. "Anchor" neutralizes "anchorman" in the same way that the application of a fig-leaf to an ancient statue turns our minds away from thoughts of sex.
A thoughtful student of language will point out that this might not last. A fig-leaf is patently there, with a sexual organ beneath, and this despite the passing of centuries; who can ignore it? The word "anchor" to a generation that has never seen its predecessor will serve as no such reminder; it will be a simple word which, like so many words in every language, will have several meanings, each according to context. Sometimes it will designate a small and heavy object, perhaps of iron, that secures an otherwise movable thing, like a ship; and sometimes it will designate a person who serves a similar purpose on television. The logical distinction between the person of the anchorman and the position he fills, the office, as it were, or function, to "anchor" the show, is of little importance. They are, in television, much the same thing. If we follow out the metaphor and imagine Mr. Peter Jennings as analogous to the metal object thrown overboard rather than to the man who has done the throwing and ties down the other end of the rope, no harm is done to the metaphor or the understanding.
I rather like the image of the television anchorman turned anchor, with his teeth in the mud, but this image will not outlast my generation. Even supposing that television news in its present form endures, there is almost nothing in our literature to remind the addict of the next century that the word "anchorman" once existed, and that its offensive syllable had to be chopped off at the root.
But the case is not the same with "chairman" and "chair."
It is not that "chair" necessarily designates, in this context, a certain piece of furniture. As we shall see, it did not do so in the past, despite that having always been one of its dictionary definitions; and now that the word has displaced "chairman" in most universities and scholarly organizations without a recorded case of anyone's having tried to sit on one, it is plain that anyone who claims opposition to the new usage on this basis is being facetious. There is, however, a second distinction between "chair" and "chairman", one of greater importance, the distinction between office and man which somehow must be made and indeed will be made by any educated person, that is ignorantly obscured by this particular substitution. The gap in our linguistic structure created by the lack of a word for what used to be called "the chair" is one that will have to be addressed, unless the gap itself so impoverishes our political conscience that we end with no need to distinguish the two ideas. That would be the worst possible outcome.
Why this would be a tragedy will take some explanation, for I have discovered in many conversations and other recent experiences that not everyone shares my sensitivity to this particular intersection of politics and linguistics. Quite the opposite. Where I am sensitive to the confusion of chairman and chair, the Provost of the University of Rochester, in a letter to the faculty dated September 14, 1987, argued in favor of emphasizing that confusion. Having been petitioned by a group of women members of the faculty to do so, he wrote as follows:
... Beyond possible discrimination in [administrative] decisions there is a more subtle issue of attitudes. Attitudes may not finally affect judgment but they can undermine the easy mutuality and respect that should pervade the community. Attitude is, of course, a complex matter since it involves a meeting of perceptions. Some complain of insensitivity, others of hypersensitivity. Yet the first moral claim must go to those offended and disturbed.
As an example, there is sensitivity on the seemingly mundane matter of "chairmen." Perhaps it is not a great issue but it is an issue and it would be gracious and sensitive for the University to respond. Thus, we have directed that in all University publications the "style-book" designation should be "chair." This is a small actworth doing -- as it is worthwhile for all of us to take care in eradicating overlays of sexual stereotyping in our ordinary discourse. I hope you will be sensitive to other examples as well...
The University means not only to abide by the letter of the law, not only to be fair, but to be gracious and concerned. We wish to have a true sense of community, not mere legal order: amelioration and elimination of sexism is one move toward community.
Had the Provost in his high school days been, as I was, a member of the Philomathic Debating Club, he might have thought to oppose to the offended and disturbed sensitivity that was petitioning him a different sensitivity of his own, and he might have arrived at another solution. But he lacked this unusual advantage of my youth, as I doubtless lack one or more of his; and as there is no short way to explain (let alone induce) that sensitivity so lively in me and missing in him, and no short way to protest his edict without being thought "sexist," I shall have to take the long way: a path beginning with a description of the Philomathic Debating Club, continuing with a commentary on Robert's Rules of Order, and concluding with
analysis of my own "offended and disturbed sensitivity" concerning the word chairman.
It would not stretch the point too far to say that parliamentary procedure was what the Philomathic Debating Club was about. That's practically all we did. It is true that each of our meetings featured a Debate or Oratorical Contest, for which four or six members would have been preparing for weeks, but this was only the Program of the Day, taking perhaps an hour to ninety minutes. The rest of our three-hour meeting time was devoted to Business, and to Good of the House. Business came first, the Program next, and Good of the House last, for whatever time remained.
"For the Good of the House" was a 19th Century phrase befitting the 19th Century origins of Philomathic, of which I was a member in the years 1938-1941. It was a small club in Detroit, Michigan, founded in 1898 and deceased in 1950, with average membership of about thirty over that period. The age limits for membership were 14 to 21 years, yet we ran the club without sponsorship of any school or adult organization except for our own alumni, who ranged from college students to noted judges and tycoons in the Detroit area, and who occasionally came to our meetings to coach, to referee, and to encourage us. They also would chip in a bit of cash when the time came to print a program, rent a meeting room, or to buy the gold, silver and bronze medals for our annual Model Meeting Debates and Oratorical Contests. The Lewis Brothers Funeral Home, for example, regularly advertised in our Oratorical Contest programs, at $5.00 the ad. It was rumored that they had once advertised "Reduced Rates for Philomathians," but while this would have been a characteristic sample of Philomathic humor I have my doubts.
Mainly, the alumni were our teachers. Certain Philomathians, generally those who had served as Speaker (as our president was styled), were, when superannuated at age 21, elected "honorary alumni." They then had the privilege of participating, though without vote, in any meeting they attended; and while they came not in great numbers to the weekly, Sunday afternoon meetings, we couldn't have done without them. They taught us how to run our business affairs, how to speak and debate, and they taught us what it meant to maintain a civil order.
"For the good of the House," the automatic last rubric on each week's agenda, was used to permit any member or honorary alumnus, when recognized by the Speaker, to speak on any subject whatever. The hour being late and the Program ended, a member needed some courage -- and wit -- to seek, gratuitously, to enlighten the rest of us under so condescending a rubric. Some of them weren't up to it.
maintenance of order in such cases was a challenge for the Speaker. The
By-Laws permitted recourse to the Sergeant-at-Arms for the ejection of a rowdy
member, but I never saw such a case; it would have been a moral defeat for all
concerned. Usually a fine of three to five cents, or a threat thereof,
would do the job. But none of this was done, nor would the membership
permit it to be done, without the full use of the most elaborate safeguards
against tyranny we could find, as detailed in Robert's Rules of Order.
Order could also be a problem under Old and New Business and the like. There was really very little to be done: we heard from committees in charge of the Model Meetings, socials, publicity and all the rest, much like any garden club or fraternity. Programs to be printed, advertisements solicited, medals engraved; we even had a Treasury. Objectively speaking, we had a good ten minutes' worth of Business to accomplish at our average meeting, and almost none of it was controversial -- yet we could easily consume an hour at it, or more.
Not that we dithered. We were all of us devoted to logic, to clarity of expression, and to justice. Nobody got shouted down (few of us could afford a five-cent fine), but nobody was permitted to ramble on, or commit any other breach of order. What took all the time was seeing to it that these virtues in fact prevailed. If someone got off the subject, even for a moment, a Point of Order would be taken, and the Speaker would call the member to order. Sometimes the member would then object, explaining that he was just getting to the point; and he would therefore appeal the decision of the chair. This would require a vote of the house, either sustaining the chairman or the member. If the member prevailed, he would go on speaking, but then he might be succeeded by someone wishing to amend the motion on the floor. Debate on the amendment would ensue, and perhaps amendments to the amendments, motions to lay on the table, or defer the vote to a future time certain or indefinite.
The structure of the parliamentary situation at a given moment in such a meeting was such as would have to be diagrammed on paper for lesser men, but we Philomathians prided ourselves on intellect. We were like chess players, or (anachronistically) computer programmers; we revelled in the complications of nested motions and chained procedures, each modified by the affix "debatable" or "non-debatable," and each with some particular priority status relative to the rest. Nobody enjoyed all this more than the Speaker, whose honor, whose glory it was never to falter, never to lose the thread, and never --- well, hardly ever --- to be overruled by what was fundamentally a fair-minded House. And finally to put a stop to it all in time for the Program, leaving time for Good of the House at the end. Cutting the Gordian Knot would have been contemptible, something for Alexander the Great, for tyrants, but not for intellectuals like us. One does not win a chess game by throwing the opponent's king out the window. Our business meetings were brought to a timely end only by strict application, down to the finest of the footnotes, of Robert's Rules of Order.
It does sometimes happen, though too seldom by half, that an admirable development in art or philosophy turns out also to have been influential. Robert's Rules of Order, first published in 1884, is one of the happy examples. Almost every deliberative assembly in America claims to proceed by its direction, from garden club to weavers' guild and every college faculty meeting, excepting only those majestic organizations which, like the United States Senate, publish rule books of their own.
The practice of the American House of Representatives was the source of much of Robert's Rules, whose author, General Henry M. Robert, made no claim to originality in his compilation of the best in earlier parliamentary tradition. He gave explicit recognition to the fact that his rules' origins could be traced even further, to the British Parliament, especially the House of Commons. But like Isaac Newton, who protested that if he saw farther than others it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants (itself not an original conceit), Robert made superb use of the materials he had inherited, and he maintained a steady view of his purpose throughout.
"Where there is no law," his preface states, "but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty. Experience has shown the importance of definiteness in the law." And then, quoting an earlier writer, "...there should be a rule to go by, that there may be a uniformity of proceeding in business, not subject to the caprice of the chairman, or captiousness of the members. It is very material that order, decency and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body."
An assembly, then, is more than a collection of persons, a possibly capricious chairman leading possibly captious members. Men there surely are, but they are constrained by function and by order. Members may debate, disagree, delay; but within reason. When the vote is taken and the House has made its decision, that decision is unqualified, indivisible, and dignified: yea or nay is in the end spoken by the assembly itself, and not by its members, whose personalities are irrelevant, and whose divisions are interred by the vote.
As the membership is to the house (and now, Mr. Speaker, I am getting to the point), so is the chairman to the chair. A casual reading of Robert's Rules might at first lead one to believe that Robert uses the words "chairman" and "chair" interchangeably, but this is not so. The distinction may be illustrated by the following quotations (all from the 1907 edition):
(1) ...and the chairman requests the member to state his point of order, which he does, and resumes his seat. The chair decides the point, and then, if no appeal is taken, permits the first member to resume his speech.
(2) …the chairman should not take the chair till a quorum is present, except...
(3) In some cases, in order to state the question clearly, the chairman should do much more than merely repeat the motion... In the case of an appeal, he should state the decision of the chair (and, if he thinks proper, the reasons for it), and that the decision has been appealed from; he then says, “The question is, shall the decision of the chair stand as the judgment of the assembly?”
(4) After the vote is taken, the chairman states that the decision of the chair is sustained, or reversed, as the case may be.
In (1), the chairman speaks to members, but the chair decides the point. In (2) it is clear that the chair, being something "taken by" the chairman (if a quorum is present), cannot itself be the chairman. In (3) and (4), the chairman states the decision of the chair; as a person he has things to say, and perhaps explain (if he, the person, thinks proper), but the decision of the chair, as announced by the chairman, is as indivisible and as indifferent to personality as the judgment of the assembly that follows.
Herein lies the origin of the miracle of good order in the Philomathic Debating Club. We had no reverence for the Speaker as a person, for all that we had elected him to the office, yet we accepted his three-cent fines and his overruling us on points of order or personal privilege. Or, if we didn't accept a ruling, we didn't quarrel or call him names. Actually, it didn't matter who was in the chair; if the Speaker was absent it would be the Clerk (as our vice-president was styled), or Assistant Clerk or the Sergeant-at-Arms. The debate concerned the ruling of the chair, and it could be overruled by the house, and in neither case did people as such have anything to do with it. There can be no occasion for anger at abstractions, and there was nothing to be gained by any of us in sabotaging our institutions.
Nowhere in Robert's Rules of Order is the word "chair" defined. It does not even appear in the index, though "Chairman" is there one of the longer entries, with subheadings, 'duties of,' 'election of,' 'temporary,' 'inexperienced,' 'hints to,' etc. The chairman is invariably referred to as a human being, whose personal qualities may be of some importance to the effectiveness of his office; but the officer is by no means the same thing as his office. The chairman is the person who at the moment performs the duties of that office and announces its actions, but though he may be temporary or inexperienced, or fall ill and have to be replaced, the chair itself continues u ninterrupted, even as does the assembly itself, however much its members come and go.
That Robert does not ever define "chair" demonstrates a wisdom beyond its time, for "chair" is in fact an axiomatic entity in the parliamentary system, incapable of definition except inferentially from its properties as given by the later text. Robert could have tried to define "chair," but he would have run into an infinite regress. A corresponding problem is well known from the experience of ancient Greek geometry:
Euclid had sought to define "point," for example, as "that which has no parts," but until one already knows what a geometric point is, this definition conveys no information (and not even then). Modern mathematicians recognize that "point," "line," and the like are in effect defined by the properties the axiom system declares for them, no more and no less. Having been given points and lines without definition, one can go on to postulate that two distinct points admit but one line upon them (without caring what lines or points really are), and then to define "triangle" in terms of the earlier notions, and finally to prove some theorems. It is the accumulation of these later properties of the undefined notions "point" and "line" that in the end serves to give them definition in our minds; not everything is capable of definition ab initio.
In Robert's time this inescapable property of axiomatic systems was still in process of development and appreciation. Schoolchildren were still being taught, according to the mysteries of an earlier generation, about a point's having "no parts," whatever a "part" might be. Correspondingly, Robert might have defined "chair" as the office held by the chairman, but this would have been to beg the question of what an "office" is, relative to a parliamentary system. And so on, ad infinitum, as every user of a dictionary is sometimes forced to recognize.
General Robert knew better than that. Standing on the shoulders of Euclid as well as of the fathers of the parliamentary systems of England and the United States, he was not impelled to begin with futile definitions. The true definition of "chair" emerges only gradually as the Robert system unfolds; it is the summation or union of the various powers and duties assigned to it, together with the cautions Robert directs at the chairman from time to time. In particular, the chair is neither a person nor a piece of furniture, nor yet a geographical location at the front of the assembly hall, though one might wish to use one or another of these notions metaphorically for some poetic or illustrative purpose. What the chair is can only be deduced from the uses of the word throughout the book. To anyone who understands Robert's system and its rationale the meaning of "chair" is clear, and the confusion of the words "chairman" and "chair" unthinkable.
Other books of the time observed the same distinctions. M. P. Follett's The Speaker of the House of Representatives (edition of 1909), while not technically a manual of procedure, enunciates a clear distinction between not only the person and the office, but the piece of furniture as well:
"The Speaker upon motion puts the question that the House resolve itself into Committee of the Whole. If agreed to, he appoints a chairman and leaves the chair. The metamorphosis of the House into Committee of the Whole, however, does not absolve him from the duty of attendance. He must be at hand to resume the chair whenever a quorum of the committee is found not to be present, or whenever the committee sees fit to rise and report ... or in case of sudden disorder ... indeed, the chairman of the committee formerly did not occupy the Speaker's chair, but that of the Clerk, expressly in order that the Speaker might upon occasion return to his place without delay."
Any attempt to replace the word "chair" by "chairman" in the quoted paragraph would be ludicrous, as would any substitution in the reverse direction. Miss Follett was driven by her study of the actual practice of the House of Representatives to observe the same distinctions that Robert also found inescapable.
Nor is there any confusion of the terms in other manuals, of which, despite the preeminence of the successive editions of Robert's, there are many. Cushing's Manual of Parliamentary Procedure (1887) contains, for example, "...consequently, the presiding officer ought not to take the chair until the proper number is ascertained to be present; and if, at any time, in the course of the proceedings, notice is taken that a quorum is not present, and, upon the members being counted by the presiding officer, such appears to be the fact, the assembly must be immediately adjourned." Here the presiding officer (Cushing's word for chairman) behaves like the human being he is; he counts the house. If he finds its numbers wanting, the chair is simply not taken; the office does not exist in this case, even though a live (potential) chairman is present.
Neither Robert, Cushing, nor Follett make any explicit reference to the possibility that the Chairman might (or might not) be a woman. They all use the generic "he" in referring to the person holding the office. There are those who argue that the generic "he" was imposed on the English language by male grammarians, mainly in the 18th Century, in order to render women invisible, and in fact Miss Follett's book was published at a time when the Speaker of the House of Representatives was necessarily male; but this does not prove that her "he" was any the less generic when she was speaking abstractly about the chairman of an assembly. A more recent manual, Alice F. Sturgis' Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (1950), speaks abstractly throughout, since it is not about any particular assembly, and like Robert and Cushing she uses the 'masculine' personal pronoun when referring to a member of an assembly, or its chairman. Does this mean she is lending her hand to the conspiracy to render women invisible? Hardly:
"If the presiding officer has no official title," she writes, "It is always correct to address him as 'Mr. Chairman,' or if the presiding officer is a woman, as 'Madame Chairman.'"
Observe the "him" in the quoted sentence; it refers to the presiding officer, a person immediately thereafter explicitly recognized as a person of either sex. Having established that both "Mister" or "Madame" are appropriate prefixes for "Chairman," Ms. Sturgis never again finds it necessary to call to her readers' attention the fact that mankind is divided into two sexes. (Some more recent scholars never tire of it.)
Innumerable examples to the same effect may be taken from parliamentary practice itself, rather than from professionally written manuals of procedure. Nancy Wharton Bolger's paper, The Wednesday Club: A Centennial History, in the University of Rochester Library Bulletin, vol. XXXXI 1989-1990, p.45, offers the following.
At the tenth meeting, "Mrs. Alling moved that the discussion be spontaneous, each one speaking as she feels so inclined without waiting to be called on by the presiding officer." In 1895 it was agreed that "numbered papers indicating the order in which members are to speak will be distributed by lot at the opening of the meeting. After each has spoken, the chairman may at her discretion allow any member to speak briefly in reference to any point touched by the regular speaker, but not on any others...The responsibility of holding the discussion within reasonable bounds rests with the chairman."
Except for Mrs. Bolger's introductory phrases, the quotations are taken verbatim from the secretary's minutes of the meetings of this women's club in Rochester, which has flourished from 1891 until the present; the passage concerns the evolution of what might be called parliamentary practice in that club. The point, of course, is the unselfconscious way in which the 1895 secretary spoke of the club's "chairman" while referring to that officer in the same sentence as "her," the club being entirely female. Feminist linguists of the present day aver that the word "chairman" is invidious, that they feel "excluded" when they hear it, even when some male
present insists it is intended to refer to the presiding officer regardless of sex. Women of 1895 did not feel this way. It is plainly not the use of words like "chairman" that has made women of today believe in its male connotation, as indeed some do; it is propaganda. Having in recent years been told again and again to feel excluded by such words, and having been forbidden to use them in English classes in school, it is easy to believe it a natural development that the language is changing in this direction, and that those who would resist the substitution of, e.g. "chair" for "chairman" are in fact trying to deny women equality of treatment by the English language.
Alice F. Sturgis' 1950 book, referred to above, contains one other valuable phrase concerning the chair: "The chair is an impartial, impersonal head..." That is, it is not to himself the chairman refers when saying "the chair requests....," but to that "impersonal head" Sturgis is here offering as a sort of definition. It cannot really serve as a definition (for, what is a 'head,' then?), yet "impartial, impersonal head" is a useful phrase to remind us of the distinction between chairman and chair, and we will return to it.
First let us ask why Robert and the others invented the notion of chair to begin with. Robert's Rules are, after all, directed at people. It is people who are to read the book and to follow its instructions. The chair is not an entity that can read the book or be moved by its philosophy. Would it not be possible for Robert to have written a book of instructions for parliamentary procedure without use of that abstraction? Could he not have said that the Chairman (for example) is defined as the person receiving the plurality of the votes cast on a motion worded in such and such a way, and that in this case or that the Chairman is instructed to do this or announce that? And that the rules regarding the impeachment, replacement, voting power and so on, of the Chairman, are thus and so?
Surely it is not necessary to speak in abstractions like "The chairman shall rise to put a question to vote, but may state it sitting; he shall also rise from his seat (without calling anyone to the chair) when speaking to a question of order..." Could not Robert have written instead, "...(without calling anyone to replace him as chairman)..."?
Consider the four quotations listed earlier with labels (1)-(4). In (1), Robert could have written, "The chairman decides the point..." In (2), he could have written, "The chairman should not begin the session until a quorum is present..," while in (3) and (4) "the decision of the chair" could be replaced wherever it occurs with "the decision of the chairman," without seeming to make a material alteration in sense. It is, after all, the chairman who actually makes the decision in (1); why credit the decision to a fictional 'chair'?
The easiest explanations, which are doubtless correct as far as they go, are historical and functional. We have long been led in our political and religious lives by kings, bishops, mayors and the like, and just as long accustomed to distinguish between the king and the Crown, the bishop and the See (The "See" is in fact etymologically the "Seat" of the Bishop), the mayor and City Hall. To make this observation is not to explain it, but only to show that there is something natural about both the distinction between person and office and the occasional deliberate metaphorical confusion of the two, as in "Go fight City Hall."
On the other hand, our history teems with tyrants who bent this confusion to their own purposes, as when Caligula, from having represented the gods, himself became one, or when Louis XIV (reputedly) said, "L'état, c'est moi." William Tell was no anarchist; he undoubtedly believed that a Bailiff of Uri should hold office and be obeyed in the proper course of business. But to confound Gessler --- indeed, Gessler's hat --- with this necessary office? A free-born man must needs protest.
If every child learns, through the story of William Tell, the distinction between office and officer, not as a logical distinction of category only, but as a moral distinction of the utmost gravity, then there is something profound at work. And if we reflect that our language has evolved, like our species, through natural selection, and harbors relatively few functionless atavisms, we can by study of function come to understand what has been the survival
value of this distinction that came so effortlessly to General Robert as he wrote sometimes of the chairman and sometimes of the chair.
As a 19th Century military man, accustomed to fighting for flag and country, Robert might well have obeyed a law requiring him to salute a symbol of office, but never a symbol of the officer. Gessler's hat was not symbolic of the Bailiff of Uri; it symbolized Gessler, quite another thing. Robert, like William Tell, would not have saluted the hat; and in his Rules of Order he was careful never to ask anyone, any member of an assembly, to salute the chairman. Obedience to some sort of order being necessary, or in his own words, "...that there may be a uniformity of proceeding in business, not subject to the caprice of the chairman, or captiousness of the members...," it becomes absolutely necessary to have an entity worthy of unvarying respect. No human being can measure to such a requirement, hence the chair.
This invention is of course not due to Robert, to whom the idea was so natural that to call it an invention would doubtless have surprised him. But it was not so natural to him that he was unaware of when he was instructing the chairman in his duties, as against when he was describing the function of the chair. He knew one from the other, and it is plain from his language that he could have defended his usage in each particular case on rational grounds, not merely tradition.
Now reason alone may serve to justify or explain the distinction between man and office so cherished by Robert, but it will not explain how this came to be, or why it has endured. That an organization must have order if it is to endure is undeniable, and that its leadership must be respected and deferred to is an obvious corollary, but the separation of chair from chairman is perhaps not the only way to ensure this respect.
One may doubt that in ancient Egypt and Babylon such a separation was made, that the person of the Pharaoh was distinguished from the abstraction of his power. But even if this reading of ancient politics is mistaken, there is no logical reason to say the two must be separate. The reason we, the members of the liberal Western democratic tradition, find the distinction natural and necessary is rooted in our own history and our own attitude towards the perfectibility of man.
As to our history, it is sufficient to cite our legends, William Tell and The Sun King for example, as mentioned above, and our revolutionary rhetoric ("...to restore the ancient rights of Englishmen"), to remind ourselves of the development of an ingrained suspicion of personified authority. As for the perfectibility of man --- we don't believe it, even if some Marxists affect to do so. We at the Philomathic Debating Club had a Speaker to obey; but can anyone imagine his putting up a hat like Gessler's, to be saluted, or saying, "Le Club Philomathique, c'est moi"? The deification of the chairman of the kind of assembly Robert was writing for would simply not do.
Robert's Rules insist on the imperfectibility of man, not just man as represented by the chairman of the assembly, but man as represented by the assembly itself. The rules give every opportunity for the minority views to be argued, they hinder not only the chairman but the very majority from untimely forcing some truth on the rest. They provide a mechanism by which even a single person, regretting having voted with the majority, can cause the assembly to consider again whether it may not have been mistaken. They provide another by which the rules themselves may be suspended for a time (while the assembly becomes a 'committee of the whole'), as if to say that Robert's Rules recognize that circumstances might some time render even Robert's rules unwise.
Still, no mechanism can run itself. With all the care taken by Robert's Rules to ensure that tyranny will not prosper, that the minority will be heard, that the very majority will sometimes reconsider, and above all that anarchy shall not reign, the success of the system depends in the end on the belief we all place in the virtue of the ends to which the system is, after all, dedicated.
Senator Joe McCarthy, for example, did not share this belief, and was able, for the time his colleagues were intimidated by his popularity, to use the rules of order against themselves. "Point of order!" he would cry endlessly, to gain the floor or to silence a foe, in a nauseating perversion of the words of parliamentary law. The United States Senate does not use Robert's system verbatim, but its rules do have the same spirit. Doubtless the rules of order in the parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran share a good number of words with ours too, but in an environment devoted to a revealed and overriding truth these words take on another meaning than they do here, and do not function to Robert's --- to the liberal --- purpose.
Our purpose, and Robert's, requires us not only to follow the rules, but to respect these rules as they are announced by the chairman of the assembly --- or to appeal from his decisions to the house, where the majority may overrule him. It is of the utmost importance that such an overruling not be regarded as a revolution, or as treason, as it would in some other civilization where the Emperor is the same as the Empire. To say the Emperor (or Ayatollah, or Bailiff of Uri) is mistaken is treason, it is insulting to the august personage, while to say the same of the chairman of a democratic assembly is to say nothing very remarkable, nothing that can't be worked out by a vote, nothing that needs a Guillotine or cup of cyanide to settle. It is the distinction between chairman and chair that makes this possible. One may think the chairman a fool and still respect the chair, or one may revere the chairman and still call the decision of the chair mistaken, all without endangering the stability of the commonwealth; but once the two ideas are confused there is no reconciling debate and civility.
That danger is always present. Robert's words alone will not save us from ourselves. If in our hearts we wish to confound truth with what our leader dictates we will become impatient of debate, and our assemblies will turn into rituals, as they are and have been in most of the world through most of its history. The same might be said of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. If the spirit of liberty leaves our land, no ten articles will of themselves hinder its departure, and the very Supreme Court will declare slavery to be freedom, inequality to be equality, and war to be peace.
It does not follow that we should abandon the words, or be indifferent to their presence, or cease teaching them to our children. They are reminders of what our history has taught us, and they are tools which we can use, so long as we cherish their purpose, to guarantee that we will not through inattention lose what was so hardly gained. Sharp tools will not make a good carpenter, but dull ones are no improvement. Robert's Rules of Order will not of themselves save us from McCarthy and Khomeini, but we must understand them and their spirit --- even improving them as experience suggests, for they do, in keeping with their spirit, allow for their own amendment --- if we would, with our posterity, enjoy in our assemblies the blessings of liberty.
My first emotion on reading the Provost's edict was, therefore, grief. His heart was in the right place, perhaps, but his ignorance was as disheartening as a death in the family. The committee of offended and disturbed (female) professors that induced him to issue that edict was political, with only such morality as political calculation allows. Politics is always said to be in the interest of morality (usually a "higher" morality than mere honesty or accuracy of presentation), so that anyone familiar with the clash of manifestos can read their petition with understanding, even sympathy, without therefore yielding to it. The Provost, however, had a duty to know better; he is the academic leader of the University, the man whose judgment determines the relative emphases we place on science, philosophy, art, history and the technologies. He speaks for us to the outside world.
He spoke for us on this occasion, declaring ignorance not merely of the importance of the distinction between man and office, but of the distinction itself. Where once we had two ideas, he has reconstituted the language to allow us to express only one. In a short time, one supposes, we or our progeny will, like the Bailiff of Uri, only have the one notion left in our consciousness at all.
My grief was only increased with time, as more deaths occurred, as more professors took up the same confusion, and as more committees of offended and disturbed women brought their case to even more organizations, including my own American Mathematical Society, winning the day in every place associated with the academy, including the editorial departments of most publishing houses. Today it is only in newspapers, reading of garden clubs and wine societies far from the halls of learning, that the word "chairman" still appears, or sometimes the unnecessary, tedious though still correct, "chairwoman." As the higher learning penetrates the common consciousness, however, even this will pass.
The Philomathic Debating Club died in the year 1950, victim of a change in the culture of urban youth of high-school age needless to detail here. The death of Philomathic was an early manifestation of a trend that has continued to this day, and that is visible in the decision of our Provost to modify our language in what he was persuaded was a gesture of generosity and accommodation.
The arts of formal debate, once honored and taught in the schools, are now neglected by a generation taught rather that compromise, accommodation and generosity will smooth away all differences. They know better, of course, for in the criminal courts, and in the Congress, and on the football field, contest rather than "graciousness" precedes the verdict; but hypocrisy dictates that we pretend -- as a general rule -- to believe otherwise
Assemblies governed by Robert's rules have, similarly, given way to committees that feel shame if their decisions are anything less than consensual. Manipulation there surely is, but it is hidden in the pretense that "all that formality" is unnecessary, or -- worse! -- “divisive”. Potential dissenters are silenced by shame: for the good of the house it is best to take no votes, lest someone be made to feel alien to the common will. Already it is true that hardly anyone in faculty assemblies nominally governed by Robert's Rules of Order knows any longer what those rules even are, or why. And as the Provosts and other guardians of decency impose appropriate changes in our very language, hardly anyone in the assemblies of the next generation will even be able to read them. They won't have the words for it.
©Ralph A. Raimi
6 July 1996, Revised 24 June 2005