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Preserving Democracy

Roberts Rules of Order

If you are in an organization and need to know more about Robert's rules click here. There is a new chapter in the book especially for HOA's.




September 2001 


 By Robert McConnell Productions

This month a terrible act of violence was committed against the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon. The news coverage sub-titled it "America under Attack." Our president, George W. Bush, has said democracy itself was under attack. This Newsletter does not usually cover national events unless it relates somehow to the practice of parliamentary procedure. However, our company’s main interest, from its very inception, has been to preserve, defend and promote the democratic model and ideal wherever it may be found. In this article we want to address the issue of how a true democracy responds in situations like this, and how each one of us living this ideal will preserve the democratic order. We hope this article will help the reader sort things and think through the right course of action. If we are all of one mind on this subject we can preserve democracy, bring the perpetrators to justice, and hopefully put an end to terrorism itself.

 What is democracy?

When we wrote our first edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Simplified and Applied, we gave a great deal of thought to the concept of democracy and how it should work in organizations. At the same time we realized that these basic principles of democracy were basic principles of living in a civil society. In our book, we have defined democracy "as rule of the people, based upon laws, rules, regulations that the people have agreed by a vote that they will obey." Another important quality of democracy is that it makes use of the talents and abilities of all the members in a society. Each individual is valued for the contributions that he or she makes to the organization, the country and the world. Other concepts of democracy include a fair trial and justice based upon impartiality. As we bring these ideas into our daily life and treat others equally we are preserving the spirit of democracy.

To have genuine democracy in our organizations, our government institutions, and ultimately in the world, each one of us has to live democratically. Let me here reiterate the three basic principles of democratic action that we explain in our book. Then I will explain how implementing them will help preserve democracy.

  1. Take up business one thing at a time.
  2. Promote courtesy, justice, impartiality, and equality.
  3. The majority rules, but the rights of the individual, of the minority and of the absent members are protected.

Take up business one thing at a time.

In our company, when one of us is in the middle of doing something, and another one asks, "will you do such and such?" Our reply to each other is, "I can only do one thing at a time." By doing one thing at a time, we can be attentive to the needs of others. How often do we race through life, trying to do several things at one time, and in the course of doing this we trample on the rights and feelings of others?

Some talk on our cell phones while driving and run into others. Others write e-mails while watching TV and end up sending something that offends another. Another reads the newspaper while eating breakfast with his family and slights others. What if we did one thing at a time, paying attention to it, devoting our thoughts and energy to it, until it is completed? We no doubt would get more done, have less stress and more orderliness and peace in our lives. Thus bringing harmony to those around us. This is certainly true in business meetings; it must prove true in all aspects of our lives.

Promote courtesy, justice, impartiality, and equality.

This we believe is one of the most important concepts of a democratic society. In tyrannical and autocratic societies, these qualities are lacking except perhaps among friends and family.

Courtesy and kindness expressed to everyone prevents road rage, school shootings, anger, revenge, and ultimately wars and feuds. Courtesies also result in getting others to co-operate which is necessary to get things done whether it is in the business, in neighborhoods, in families, in organizations or in governments. Without courtesy, not much gets accomplished unless it is done in a tyrannical way. This is the way of fear, intimidation, and threat of violence if it is not done the ruler’s way. Things do get done this way, but are the best ideas brought forth and carried out?

Courtesy includes listening to others, being open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Courtesy respects the rights of others and sees others as being an equal instead of a subordinate or an inferior. Courtesy promotes impartiality and justice because courtesy and kindness are the activities of righteousness.

Righteousness is that aspect of living, which adheres to the rules of an orderly society. It has come to mean to conform to a given standard, to that which is legally and ethically right. To Plato and Aristotle and other ancient Greeks, righteousness was paramount for preserving a civilized society and was the foundation of justice. It is also true for us today.

Self-righteousness, which takes rules and bends them to suit an individual’s viewpoint, is the foe of righteous government and democracy. This is what is asserting itself in many aspects of government and a civil society. During the week of the terrorist attack, our company has received some interesting e-mails and telephone calls that we could equate to a terrorist’s attacks on organizations. We heard such stories as officers trying to subvert the rules to get their way; members trying to oust officers because they didn’t like the way they were doing things; and presiding officers preventing members from brining legitimate ideas before the assembly. Robert’s Rules of Order was never intended to be used in a tyrannical way-- to railroad through an idea or to expel someone from office or membership. These rules are to preserve democracy, fairness, impartiality, righteousness and justice.

Yes, democracy is under attack. But the enemy is not out there. It is within us—within each of us. Every time we break a principle of democracy, we undermine democracy. Every time we take away another member’s right to speak, or don’t listen to what another is saying, we are undermining democracy. Every time we speak an unkind remark, or that another doesn’t know what he is talking about, we are undermining democracy. Every time we take short cuts or ignore the rules altogether, we are undermining democracy. Every time we think we are right and they are wrong, we are undermining democracy. In fact, self-righteousness is the enemy of democracy and no doubt one of the biggest problems in organizations.

Let me digress for a moment. In one organization, members’ self-righteousness is trying to divide the group. However, the two members involved do not see that way. They both believe each one of them is right. Both of these members could be right, but because each sees the other as the "enemy", whatever the other proposes is wrong. A definition of self-righteousness is to believe that one is morally or intellectually superior to another—"smugly virtuous" as one dictionary so aptly puts it. A self-righteous person may be right with his facts and how to go about doing it. But if willfulness tries to push the idea through, not caring about what others think, then that is wrong. This is undemocratic.

However, the righteous person listens to the other point of view. The righteous person listens to reason. He or she can accept that there might be another way that is just as viable to accomplish something. While the self-righteous member is intent on seeing his point of view be victorious, the righteous member seeks what is best for the organization. Self-righteousness polarizes the membership, which often ends in dissolving the organization, or driving good members away. The righteous approach puts aside personal interest, preserves unity, and promotes that which brings the most good for the majority of members.

The Bible gives sound advice for the preservation of democracy. It says, "Come let us reason together." This is the foundation of democracy. Let us come and reason together about a problem. Let us present ideas, discuss them, and listen to each other’s points without being prejudice. Let us make decisions based upon our governing documents, the purpose of the organization, and on reason. Let us accept that the majority rules, and that the minority will carry out the wishes of the majority, or find a right way to rescind the action. Henry Robert’s says in his book Parliamentary Law,

"Where there is a radical difference of opinion in an organization, one side must yield. The great lesson for democracies to learn is for the majority to give to the minority a full, free opportunity to present their side of the case, and then for the minority, having failed to win a majority to their views, gracefully to submit and to recognize the action as that of the entire organization, and cheerfully to assist in carrying it out, until they can secure its repeal."


"Get the facts" is a constant reminder here at this company. "Don’t jump to conclusions, before you get the facts" is another motto at this company and in our home. How often do people go off on a verbal rampage, or some other kind of rampage because they don’t have all the facts and jump to conclusions? This happens in families, in business, in marriages, in neighborhoods, churches, governments and schools.

For true justice to take place, for true justice to right wrongs, get the facts. I was visiting with my neighbor the day after the terrorist attack. We were talking about who was responsible and what we should do. At this time nothing had been uncovered. The authorities were still investigating and looking for leads. I replied that we must not be too hasty in our conclusions. I pointed out that since DNA testing, attorneys are finding that many death row inmates did not commit the crime. Innocent people have been found guilty by those who have decided who the criminal is, and then found facts to fit their case. What we want to do is let the facts lead us to the guilty parties. The biggest mistake that we could make, I explained, was to arrest the wrong people and let the true terrorist be free to commit further atrocities.

Justice is impartial. It lets the evidence lead the way. It doesn’t make assumptions and then try to support them. Justice listens. Justice is impartial. It sees and treats all as equal before the law. Justice is not bent on getting revenge, but enforcing and carrying out the law.

In our dealings with others, are we just? Do we really listen, get the facts, and see all equally responsible for obeying the law? Do we treat our friends and family different from others? Do we let our friends get by with things, but not those we don’t like? Or do we treat all people the equal?

In one organization I heard someone say, "Well, that person is my friend, I know he wouldn’t break that rule." But he did...

Justice gets the facts and enforces the rules in a courteous, kind, right way. It corrects; it doesn’t destroy. For example, if a presiding officer is doing things wrong, the just member takes the officer aside and courteously explains the correct way to do things. He doesn’t criticize behind the officer’s back, or gossip about him to other members. Justice tries all avenues to correct before it censures, or removes from the offender office. Justice is patient, but its waiting brings the right results.

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Charles Dickens’ said, "These are the best of times, and these are the worst of times." If we can use these times to reflect on our own motives and actions, what would impel others to kill themselves and others, and how terrorism can be remedied through democratic ideals, we can make this a time to bring out the best in each one of us. And we can show the world how true democracy can bring healing, unity and justice.

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