Weeklong Training #2: Melian Debate

Of all the readings I might have expected to be assigned during Weeklong, Thucydides (my old nemesis from History grad school) wasn’t one of them. Yet there it was, the chapter on the Melians, an island nation drawn into the Peloponnesian War, in our prep materials. Reading it in the context of how we act on our ideals in the face of a practical threat was enlightening, but I couldn’t see how it would apply to our training.

My confusion grew when I showed up at the first session Monday morning, and the group leader (Don, from the night before) asked who had participated in a Melian Debate before. Was this to be some kind of quiz in the form of a reenactment? I didn’t raise my hand with a few other folks who indicated this was new territory, figuring anyone who’s read that same passage at least five times before should fare okay.

Don lined up teams of four debaters, named them Melians and Athenians, then set them to argue their respective positions. The only rule, he told us, was, “I can interrupt.” He occasionally retired people from the line-ups and called new folks. Then he made the teams switch allegiance and argue the other side. Everything seemed like an academic exercise until he started sending people out of the room.

I wasn’t called until the end, so I sat there, half my brain trying to psychically will good points of argument to the various players, the other half frantically scanning for a pattern to Don’s interruptions. I couldn’t find one. People who hardly said a word were sent from the room. People who engaged ferociously for their side stayed for long minutes, then returned to the audience. No rhyme or reason.

Apparently, others started questioning Don’s calls too, because a group from outside the room came back in with the intention of disrupting the debate. They proposed sending an assassin to kill the Athenian delegation. Don responded by announcing that the Athenians start destroying Melian villages. The escalation of urgency drove both teams into ever more retrenched arguments, despite being increasingly uncertain what the end game or victory even looked like. Finally, Don called a halt to the exercise, about three minutes after I joined the Melians.

Then came the moral of the lesson: This wasn’t about winning or losing. In fact, the reenactment of the debate wasn’t the point at all. What really mattered is how we reacted to power–namely, Don’s power. The way we responded, individually and collectively, to Don’s commands revealed how we generally respond to people in positions of power. Almost all of us simply followed orders. We sat down when Don said to sit down, we left the room when he said to go, we grew agitated and desperate when he started giving “reports from the front.” None of us questioned his choices, and when a group did try to take back some control, they were disorganized and ineffective, ultimately still responding to the artificial emergency and not Don’s role in it.

We felt terrible. Because, deep down, we hated knowing he was right.

I didn’t find out as much about my own responses to people in power because I wasn’t called into things until the very end, but maybe that’s its own lesson. I tend to wait until I either see something that needs to be done, or I ask for jobs from people who seem to have a sense of the larger plan. When I’ve initiated my own plan of action in the past, I’ve been slapped down by people who don’t like a different way of doing things, or my take-charge attitude, or not vetting my plans according to the “proper channels.” And I’ve let those unappreciative responses intimidate me from being more of a self-starter.

People in power have absolutely no interest in making room for people out of power at the table, so you have to be willing to build your own power with other people until they have to take you seriously. We can’t wait for authority figures to ask our opinion, or sit down when they tell us to. For a room full of activists determined to buck the system and change the world, facing such undeniable proof of our less-than-commanding attitude toward power was an unwelcome Monday morning wake-up call.


  • Interesting – I think I know how I would have reacted – cause I am very … hierarchical in my brain set. Authority, that I respect, is to be deferred to, authority that I do not is to be worked around without upsetting the apple cart, or I find a new organization to apply my talents to, it isn’t worth trying to fight senior management.

    Not quite applicable for what you are looking for this training to do, community change/involvement, but still interesting.

    • We can’t change how we interact with power until we *know* how we interact with power. And when we’re just asked the question, the answer we usually come up with sounds great, but isn’t an accurate reflection of how we actually act when push comes to shove. This exercise got right to the heart of our dysfunctions.

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