The Courage of Questions and the Kindness of Answers
by: Nancy O. Meyer PhD originally posted 2/2/19
It takes courage to ask a question. A question is an acknowledgement of ignorance. Some questions, granted, are very easy to ask: How much is this? Do you have these in a 9? Although, in certain contexts, even these kinds of questions can be difficult questions. Do have this is in in a larger size?
When I was growing up in the ‘80s, gender bending bands were all over the place (trust me, this going somewhere!). Frankie was telling us to Relax, Boy George was asking do you really want to hurt me? and hair bands like Bon Jovi were using more hairspray and makeup than I was. With all of gender bending going on, and with LGBTQ groups starting to really find their voices, we all had questions. This whole thing was unusual and we didn’t have experience with it from childhood. Our parents never talked about it. But, we had to be quiet and careful about our ignorance. It was rude to ask if someone was gay, and they could easily get angry with you for asking, at least that’s what I perceived in my own little corner of So Cal. These people had good reasons to be weary of questions. Prejudice was still rampant even in the most liberal of communities. It was weird, and called our attention. Some of my best friends were gay, but I wouldn’t dare ask them directly, so I was left to ruminate and wonder. I wonder now, if we had asked, and if my friends had felt safe enough to speak, could equality have come sooner?
I think about this frequently because ignorance is one of the greatest sources of fear and anger. If I don’t know about you and my questions go unasked or unanswered, I have to connect what few points of knowledge I have with ideas that come my imagination or, worse, other people’s imaginations. All of this imaginative work is usually not created from the best possible scenario. As a matter of survival we fill in the gaps with worst-case scenarios. If you’re not like me, you might be hostile towards me. In the absence of better information, I have to assume you won’t like me. Now, since you’re likely to be hostile towards me, I had better be ready for battle, and the best defense is a good offense.
This matters even more because people who are angry and afraid are easily controlled and manipulated by that fear and anger. This is especially true if they have already acted in fear and anger. Now they have a stake in being right, and not having to admit to being wrong, or worse doing something that is largely considered inappropriate in modern society and they don’t have to apologize. The most dangerous person is not the one who changes their minds and actions, but the one who will not do so, no matter what.
It takes courage to ask a question. If you ask the wrong person, you may get rejected and still have no answer. Even questions meant with genuine curiosity can be answered by rhetorical backhands. Wait, you have PhD in Hebrew Bible but you’re not a minister…or even Christian, or Jewish? Why would you do that? Can be answered in two ways: Because I wanted to, ok! Or, with a genuine answer: I want to understand the human condition and within our society the Bible is part of the backbone of who we are. It’s an expression of our cultural ancestors, and understanding its relationship with mythology, psychology, and history helps me understand the people around me, myself, and our society better.
It also takes courage to answer questions that seem intrusive or highlight how you may be different. It may require you to be a little more introspective, perhaps more knowledgeable, and more forgiving of those around you than you might be otherwise. Answering a question can invite criticism, castigation, or expulsion from a group. Questions may not be phrased in a respectful manner, they may sound accusatory, especially from anyone who is coming from fear or anger: Why do you wear that scarf on your head? It’s not like anyone is THAT concerned about your hair! My immediate response to this kind of question would easily be, F*%k off and mind your own damn business! I imagine. But this answer is not helping the problem already posed in the question. This conversation just escalated the tension and no one walked away with anything positive. In fact, the little information that was given created more reason for fear and anger on both sides! We all may be called upon to answer a belligerent question, but usually that belligerence comes from an insecurity brought on by actually summoning the courage to ask the question.
It’s harder to hate and fear people you know. It’s harder to judge people you understand. At some point, someone has to lay down their sword and engage in actual communication that de-escalates fear and anger, and that may mean listening not to the words or the tone of a question, but listening to the ignorance and the underlying curiosity: who are you? Any question has some element of wanting to understand something better, and that is what we need to answer. Questions should be places of reward. Asking a question creates vulnerability by acknowledging our own ignorance, our own lack of understanding of our world, our neighbors, our kids, and sometimes ourselves.
Questions also create vulnerability for the objects of that curiosity. Sometimes, the person asking does not actually want an answer. They ask, but they are not listening for an answer. Sometimes the questions implies (or even directly states) some real or imagined wrong doing: You know the Bible, but you hate God. Why is that? Awkward.
Nevertheless, in a society that is so afraid offending, and with people sometimes easily taking offense, it would be better to ask a question. What did you mean by that? (not in an accusatory way), Can you re-phrase that? Why are you offended by this? Can you understand what I mean? If we are going to live together as a community, we have to see and listen to each other. We have to respect and understand the differences AND the sneaking similarities you didn’t notice before you asked the question.
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