I'd love some feedback, but we've run out of time

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The Independent Online
THE SUMMER conference and festival season is in full swing. Thousands of us in seminar rooms, church halls and pubs sit listening politely to the experts, applauding their remarks appreciatively, however poorly prepared their material or tedious their performances.

Sadly, when it is our turn to participate in these so-called forums for public discussion - 'Any questions? We're interested in hearing your views now' - we cannot assume our comments will be given the same consideration, or, indeed, any consideration at all. The attitude of the pundits towards us can often be described only as cavalier.

I once went to an arts festival seminar where two authors said they would not speak on the given topic because they did not approve of it. Would such self-indulgence be tolerated on a live television programme?

On another occasion, at an Edinburgh Book Festival event, the chairman initiated an already curtailed question-and-answer session by saying he would ask a question himself. He then embarked on a literary dissertation which lasted longer than the contributions of some of the invited speakers. The little time remaining for public discussion soon dwindled away.

Arts experts are not the only culprits. At a conference on 'self-determination and power', no less, the leader of one 'workshop' used our contributions to elaborate on his own impressive erudition. His seamless flow of rhetoric was impossible to breach, so that each time he did draw to a graceful close, we frustrated punters almost came to blows in our clamour to be heard. After all, had we not paid to have the chance to debate our views? At one point, he suddenly looked at his watch: 'Goodness, time's up]' We all looked at our own watches and discovered they must be slow.

At another political conference I attended, members of the public were openly patronised in the lecture rooms and snubbed in the coffee queues - to such an extent that some of us rebelled and castigated the academics for their condescending attitude to the plebs. We were gratified that for once they seemed at a loss for words.

Nervousness is fatal. Allowances are seldom made for those who have to psyche themselves up before they have the courage to speak at all. If they cannot keep their emotions within the bounds of rhetorical convention, their opinions, however pertinent, will not be respected.

At a British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting on nuclear fuel, a distraught woman accused Nirex, the nuclear industry's waste disposal company, of engaging in a whitewashing exercise. Her points were perfectly valid, but her unrestrained emotion embarrassed the high-powered assembly. The men on the platform maintained a frosty silence, she left the hall in tears, and the meeting continued as if she had not spoken.

Sometimes platform speakers address members of the audience by name. 'Thanks, Bob. I note your stance on this issue has changed slightly . . .' Immediately the rest of us feel as if we have strayed into some private club instead of a public meeting.

These groupies can be a real hazard. Secure in their solidarity, and masters of the intimidating sigh and titter, they are quick to indicate when outsiders should be seen and not heard - which is frequently. At the self-determination and power event, I found myself consoling a religious peace campaigner who had been vociferously pilloried during the crowded open session for having dared to express 'unfashionable' views. Instead of suppressing this tyranny, the chairman had chosen to ignore it.

Such are the conventions of conventions. The intellectual feast often seems intended for the benefit of the dispensers of wisdom rather than the seekers after wisdom. Of course there are honourable exceptions. But if the experts cannot show a little more generosity of spirit towards members of the public who have bothered to turn up, the suspicion will grow that they require our presence merely to inflate their egos and enhance their prestige. If they persist in ignoring our concerns, and renege on their promise to confer with us, we may decide to stay at home the next time.

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