If anyone needed confirmation that we have all gone COVID-crazy, the video of a December Zoom meeting of the parish council in Handforth, England, which went viral on the internet this month, should be enough to convince the greatest skeptic.
In Britain, a parish council is not a church organization but the lowest level of rural government. Because of the coronavirus, members of the council met via Zoom, but not without controversy.
The video offers a master class in all the hopes and joys of the Zoom method of human interaction. In other words, it is a mess; with a lot of oldsters (even older than myself) fighting what is an obviously unequal battle with technology and their sense of self-importance.
Viewers around the world have been entertained by the rhetorical dueling and the clumsy filming of the video, with close-ups of people who could have used a more flattering distance from the camera (angles on nostrils a bit too cinema vérité for my taste), as well as some screenshots of blank walls. There are also several times that asides are overheard, some of them of the PG-13 category. Think of one of the British sitcoms that used to run on PBS married to the style of American reality TV.
The Handforth councilors obviously take themselves and their job very seriously. Some people have criticized how much they interrupt one another, but if you watch the British Parliament sessions of C-SPAN, you’ll see where that comes from. T.S. Eliot said that half the harm that is done in this world is due to people absorbed “in the endless struggle” for self-importance. I’d say that a silver lining of the same thing is the humor of watching people exasperated about trivia and exasperating one another. The councilors are a comic study in group dynamics.
Much of the meeting’s drama appears to have been related to the question of who was calling the meeting to order. A representative of some kind of supervisory or auxiliary to the various parish councils seems to have taken it upon herself to chair a meeting. She commands with the sangfroid of the Queen of Hearts, sending some of those of the weaker sex (males) to Zoom timeout by muting them after they began shouting about points of order and quite passionately “disrupting” the proceedings.
The “chair”— who may or may not have assumed a title of “clerk” — that caused dismay among the others shouts the memorable line, “You have no standing here, Jackie Weaver,” before they cut him off. He reminded me of the story of Stentor in Homer who had a voice equal to that of 50 men, but was silenced by the Hermes, the Greek god of communication.
Weaver, aka the Queen of Hearts, vanquishes Stentor and his ally, the vice chairman, the youngest face in the crowd (who seems very aware of his position in the Zoom hierarchy) with a simple, “They shall be mute,” which must be the equivalent of “off with their heads” in the age of big-tech-knows-best censorship.
A peacemaker suggests that the two men be invited back to the Zoom meeting with full privileges if they promise to behave themselves. Another resists, insisting they must be punished and not allowed in.
One fellow tries to be the voice of reason and asks, “Where is the chairman?” to no avail. A woman then offers to chair the meeting because she is vice chairman of the environmental commission or whatever and this brings on an exchange of one-liners they used to call stichomythia in Greek drama class: “I will chair it”; “No you can’t”; “Yes I can”; “I will”; “No you won’t.”
The Queen of Hearts, imperturbable as Margaret Thatcher, decides to begin the meeting anyway without the help of either of the debaters and then the Invisible Man appears. His camera had been pointed at the ceiling and he had not been seen before. He was welcomed with chuckles by the other councilors, who obviously are so much more tech savvy.
If the rhetoric sounds less than Churchillian, the faces they make add some gravitas, pathos, and bathos to their words.
The video reminded me of why I have not tried to convoke a parish council via Zoom. Like it was for the elders of Handforth, such technology might be challenging for some, including myself. (The medium also reminds me of the old TV show “Hollywood Squares” where celebrities answered questions and swiped waggish insults.)
We do have one experience with the new technology of miscommunication, however. During a Zoom meeting for the board of our parish food pantry, one of the members had trouble with self-muting and was surprised to see the faces of his colleagues reacting to his expletive-not-deleted remark to his wife, his considered evaluation of an idea put forth by another. He apologized profusely to the gallery.
Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that does not love a wall.” Ditto for Zooms. Zoom communication is perhaps a necessary evil during the pandemic, but a kind of “Pit and the Pendulum” (look it up) torture genre for most people. I know, you can mute and hide and snack and read books if held at the right angle, but let’s hope that we can return some day to an interaction that is of the group-immersion type. Most human interaction is more fun (and more satisfying of our nature as social animals) in person.
A viewer tweeted my sentiments when she remarked, “I’ve never missed in-person meetings more than I did watching this parish council meeting descend into chaos.”
My gratitude to the Handforth parish council for its unrehearsed exercise in what the logic books would call the “reductio ad absurdum” of remote interaction. I wish that Gilbert and Sullivan were alive to produce “Handforth Parish Council: The Musical.” That would let us laugh at the human dynamics exemplified by the crabby old people sniping away at one another, and recognize ourselves in them.