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I have been doing a lot of thinking about town hall meetings. I think I know why they are a bad communications model for the 21st century.
Town hall meetings are a part of New Englandís cultural history. The town hall was usually a simple clapboard white building surrounded by six feet of fresh snow or piles of fallen leaves from sugar maples. It was the place where the adult population of an entire Norman Rockwell village could gather to discuss the issues of the day. Everyone in that building knew everyone else - knew their financial situation, their family dynamics, and their political loyalties. There were no such thing as hidden agendas. Everyone knew where you were coming from. When a person changed peopleís opinions in a town hall setting, that was some powerful speaking.
Today, town hall meetings are attended by virtual strangers who, when not attending these gatherings, are calling in to talk radio and blogging endlessly about government conspiracies. They have way too much time on their hands. They come not to listen. They come to be heard. They come not to consider, they come to demand. With faces contorted by real anger over the insults done to them, they are blinded to the hurts suffered by others.
I would like to propose to our political leaders at all levels 3 rules for conducting future town hall meetings:
1. If the meeting is called by an elected official, only those eligible to vote for that specific office should be allowed in the room. If the first district state assembly person called the meeting, then only persons residing in the first district should be there.
2. All attendees should sign a common courtesy pledge, promising not to interrupt the person who has been given the floor. If the pledge is violated, the violator is escorted out of the room.
3. Every town hall meeting needs a truth referee. Chosen by both sides in a debate, the truth referee would signal by a special red light when a false or misleading statement has been uttered. The referee is then expected to correct the mis-statement. Until the false statement is corrected, all microphones are turned off.
Until such reforms are enacted, I would rather have our leaders speak to us via the media instead of by means of a throwback to the 19th century.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Mark Shook is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Israel.