Things of Latvia: Panels With Too Many People On Them

Most of our 'Things of Latvia' are lighthearted observations on national quirks in this, the best of the Baltic states. But this one is different. I write it with a bottle of tranquilizers to hand and according to how things go, I may have to take one, two or possibly the whole lot.

Latvia used to advertise itself as The Land That Sings. Currently it is The Land That Is Best Enjoyed Slowly. Sound and slowness: both of which are certainly present in a third potential branding effort: The Land Of Panels With Too Many People On Them.

Over the last decade I have been to countless presentations, conferences, briefings, debates and discussions. Some were interesting, most were infuriating. Almost without exception, the reason the tedious ones were tedious was not because the speakers themselves were tedious but because the format was based on the classic Latvian formula: invite way too many people onto the stage, allot them a precise length of time to speak and ignore what they say.

One person speaking is a lecture. Lectures I like. Two people speaking is a dialogue. Dialogues are stimulating. Three people speaking means there will nearly always be a shifting balance of agreement and disagreement. Four people can see two distinct camps emerge during a style of conversation like a tag team in a professional wrestling match.

But beyond that, when you get five, six, seven, eight people all lined up on stage like ducks in a shooting gallery with no prizes on offer, and each one is allotted ten minutes in which to say how happy they are to be in Riga and how much they respect the other speakers and how the topic under discussion is certainly a valid one, it's generally time to either raid the buffet or go home.

Organizers seem addicted to having as many speakers on stage as possible at any one time, a classic case of quantity over quality and a very good way of ensuring good questions receive no interesting answers at all, or that any answers that threaten to get interesting are quickly snuffed out as the baton of speakership is passed down the line: for it is another rule that everyone must speak for exactly the same length of time so as not to cause offense and to satisfy all the sponsors who, of course, must register their presence not only in the conference program but up there on the stage like bank managers who have wandered onto The X Factor.

The audience is partly to blame, too. They should storm the stage or at least voice their objections, but it is hard to do so when everyone studiously avoids the front three rows of any discussion. This is a truly pathetic sight that only adds to the general impression that what should be brain food is a sad dance of apathy and timidity. As any schoolboy knows, the only two excuses for sitting in the back row are that you are either making out with your date or you intend to play poker.

I remember one discussion at the University of Latvia that I was particularly keen to see (and to record on my dictaphone). I sat in the front row, which was completely vacant. Just before proceedings started I had a tap on my shoulder from one of the organizers.

"Are you one of the speakers?" she asked with arch emphasis.

"No, I'm one of the listeners," I replied, refusing to budge, barely in the same time zone as the rest of the huddled masses at the back of the hall.

She looked at me throughout with a malign disgust that oozed persona non grata. I was definitely going to be put on a list.

When you go to the theater, the most expensive seats are the ones front and center. You don't go to see Hamlet believing that the best place to enjoy it is from behind a pillar at the back of the dress circle.

Then there is that most pernicious of institutions the 'Darba Grupa' or 'Working Group'. This is an officially-sanctioned Panel With Too Many People On It, or to be more precise a Panel With Too Many 'Experts' On It. I put 'Experts' in quotation marks as the expertise of at least half the members is usually questionable, based on the charming tradition that if someone describes themselves as an expert in any given field they are assumed to be telling the truth.

The purpose of the Darba Grupa is, after all, to extend discussion for as long as possible with the minimum of tangible results. It gives a reassuring impression of activity, postponing any actual decision-making in hopes that the problem under scrutiny will solve itself in the interim. Miraculously, it sometimes works. In 99% of cases the chief recommendation of a Darba Grupa in its concluding statement is the foundation of another Darba Grupa to probe whether the same sort of thing might happen again in future.

But there is hope. The DOTS organization is doing great things in encouraging the development of a robust debate culture. Many conference organizers have acknowledged that until now boring men in boring suits have been overwhelmingly in the majority, so that even getting boring women in boring suits on stage is an advance.

For all their occasional pretentiousness, 'startup' type events and things like the recent 'Mad City' conference do at least play around with and offer alternatives to this staid presentational culture that so badly needs a boot up the backside.

So please, next time you are at a discussion in Latvia: sit at the front, maintain eye contact, interrupt, ask questions, heckle and above all, if there are more than four people and a moderator on stage, get up and leave.

They will immediately form a 'Darba Grupa' to look into why the audience walked out.

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