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Participant Entrapment (Alienation of Committed Activists)

Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue

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Part R of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991).


Each generation produces a number of well-qualified individuals concerned with one or more social problems and prepared to commit themselves, and possibly their careers, in an effort to achieve a significant impact upon them. Such people frequently instigate or function actively in meetings.

As in any occupation, some years are spent learning the dimensions of the problem and the possibilities for action, especially in a conference environment. Thereafter, however, many of them find themselves forced into positions of compromise. In an effort to stick to their original values, they come into conflict with conference structures and resource realities which often prevent anything more than token action.

They are encouraged to be patient and find that patience changes little. They find that those activists who have preceded them, and continue to attend meetings, lapse easily into cynicism or are satisfied with minimal change. They find that those who are similarly inspired, and who should be their allies, are frequently hostile and suspicious of any form of cooperation of more than a token nature.

Some become aware that even when their recommendations are fully accepted in a conference, and implemented by some organizational system with apparent success, the system in effect nullifies such achievements by adjusting itself so that other different problems emerge. There is then no end to such a chain of displaced problems, many of which are as much internal to the system of meetings and organizations as they are external foci of the action of a meeting or an organization.

These situations finally lead to a withdrawal (or "loss of faith") of many of the committed activists.

This withdrawal takes place without transfer of acquired experience and insight to others who might later be able to overcome the dynamics of entrapment. There is no accumulation of learning. Those who know about the dynamics are often unable to speak about them, or have lost the desire to do so. Those who do speak about them are frequently ill-informed, self- interested and merely provoke a repetition of learning cycles.

This withdrawal may well take the form of a refusal to participate in meetings in which their insight would be invaluable. They may argue that "large conferences are a useless waste of time". Such conferences then become meetings of the uninitiated with all that implies for their outcome.

Some withdraw partially and are willing to attend conferences if they are given some significant role in their organization, or as speakers. As such they may be totally indifferent to the impact on participants of the conflicting views disseminated by themselves and their colleagues of the same frame of mind.

Other eminent individuals attend conferences but remain silent in order to allow time for the uninitiated participants to interact and learn from the experience. Again this may prevent their experience from being appropriately reflected in the outcome.

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