Last Wednesday I attended a debate at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, at which three men engaged in a lively, literate, and deeply-informed exchange. After they finished and the moderator opened the floor for questions, the usual thing happened. The questioners by and large had no questions. Instead they offered up prolix piles of words that led nowhere in particular. Some sought to show off what they mistook as their own superior knowledge. Others scolded. A few got lost in their own labyrinths. The closest we came to a question was the j’accuse rhetorical jab more or less in the form, “Don’t you agree that you are an ignorant buffoon?”
Some of the questioners were deliberately abusing their opportunity. That’s bad manners and an erosion of the civility that is needed for worthwhile public debate. But a good many of the questioners simply didn’t know how to ask a question. They were caught in the fog between wanting to communicate something that seemed to them urgent to declare and the need to ask.
Why has asking become so hard?
For surely we have all seen this. Events open to public response these days are swamped with people who don’t know how to ask questions. College campuses present some of the worst spectacles of faux-questioning prolixity and inconsequence. In principle, students and faculty members should have long since mastered the art or know enough not to display their incompetence. But no, they seem more and more possessed with a demon of self-expression that has recklessly discarded restraint.
The debate at St. Francis College focused on “the virtues of liberal Western Civilization compared to its Islamic rivals as expressed in author Ibn Warraq’s new book, Why the West Is Best.” Warraq spoke first and was answered first by Paul Berman (The Flight of the Intellectuals), and then Sohrab Ahmari (Arab Spring Dreams). The moderator was Fred Siegel (The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life). I was there because the National Association of Scholars, along with St. Francis College, Telos Press, and Encounter Books, was one of the sponsors.
The topic all by itself was sure to bring out some multiculturalists bent on sharing their irritation, as well as some Muslims determined to express their disdain for the apostate Ibn Warraq. And they indeed showed up and unselfconsciously testified to the accuracy of Warraq’s praise of the West for its openness to the expression of dissenting views and his criticism of modern Islam for its intellectual narrowness. But what happened during the questions-from-the-audience section happens all the time, regardless of the topic. Had this been the annual meeting of scholars at the Modern Luggage Association, there would have someone at the section on knapsacks pontificating on the superiority of the portmanteau, and someone else lost in an obscurantist account of baggage handlers in Baghdad.
Clearly we need help. This isn’t a matter of a deficit in “critical thinking.” It is a problem of recovering a lost art. Television and radio producers acknowledge this by filtering questions in advance or asking would-be questioners to submit their interrogatories in writing. We lose something important in this filtering. The questions that get asked are the ones moderators pick out to make their own points. We would be better served if people could ask their own coherent and pertinent questions.
The best reason to ask a question is to contribute to the quality of the discussion that has already begun. You can do this if you can draw something more and perhaps unexpected out of the speaker you are addressing. “Mr. Rasputin, I admire your tunic. Do you consider fashion to be a revolutionary statement?”
Think of yourself as someone who seeks to enhance the occasion, rather than as an opportunity to show yourself to advantage. “Mr. Darwin, your description of odd wildlife in the Galapagos Islands is fascinating. Do you think evolution works differently on large continents?”
You have not been invited to give a speech. Before you stand up, boil your thoughts down to a single point. Then ask yourself if this point is something you want to assert or something you want to find out. There are exceptions, but if your point falls into the category of assertion, you should probably remain seated. “Mr. Nixon, you are unworthy of being president,” is not a question. “Mr. Nixon, what else would you have done as president if Watergate hadn’t gotten in the way?” is a question.
Question periods are not really the right time to ask for factual details. You are not interviewing the speaker. “Mr. Hillary, what brand of shoes were you wearing when you topped Everest?” is a real question but not one that is likely to enhance the discussion. There are exceptions to this, as when the fact you ask about evokes a larger meaning. “Mr. Hillary, what do you consider was the most important piece of equipment you carried in your assault on Mt. Everest?”
Likewise, never offer up a roll call of your own facts or belabor them into a Perry Mason pseudo-question. “Mr. Malthus, are you aware that as economic development proceeds, birth rates decline, and that crop yields can be multiplied by a factor of x with the proper use of fertilizers, genetically-enhanced hybrid species, and market-based incentives?”
Weigh the usual interrogatory words in English: who, what, where, why, when. If you can begin your sentence with one of these you are more than half-way to a good question. “Who gave you that scar, Mr. Potter?” “What is a black hole, Mr. Hawking?” “Where is the Celestial City, Mr. Bunyan?” “Why are you wearing that letter, Ms. Prynne?” “When will our troops come home, Mr. Lincoln?”
You will discover that, if you think in terms of these simple interrogatories, you will be able to skip right over the prologue. The right question evokes its own context. If, having formulated a question, you still think you need to set the stage for it, try again.
Don’t engage in meta-speech. “I was wondering, Ms. Steinem, if I might ask you a question that I am really curious about.” Go directly to the question. “Ms. Steinem, who is the man you admire the most?”
Look at the person you are addressing. Speak your question directly; don’t read it. Wait for the answer before you sit down. Don’t try to ask a follow-up question. If the speaker evaded your question the first time, he will evade it again. If the audience applauds your question, you are grandstanding and have failed an important test of civility.
The best questions are poised between attentiveness to what the speaker has already said and the chance to deepen the discussion. That means you should not try to introduce a divergent topic. “I appreciate your analysis of the space-shuttle disaster, Mr. Feynman, but are you not morally troubled by your work on the atomic bomb?” attempts to wrench the discussion to a new place. But, “Mr. Feynman, your analysis of the space-shuttle disaster shows the frailty of human judgment. How do you think that bears on other areas of advanced technology?” builds on the theme at hand.
A few people have a gift for witty, memorable questions. You probably aren’t one of them. It doesn’t matter. A concise, clear question is an important contribution in its own right.
If someone ahead of you asks a similar question or if the speaker gets to your point before you ask, sit down. The audience doesn’t need to hear it twice.
Keep your autobiography to yourself. This isn’t the occasion for a memoir. There may be exceptions. If you are the Count of Monte Cristo come to settle the score with the man who unjustly sent you to prison for 20 years, then have at it. The audience will enjoy the show. Otherwise stick with the topic.
But don’t imagine you are there to right the grievances of humanity by shaming one of the oppressors. If you try this, you will annoy people, look like a fool, and most of all cast discredit on your cause. “Mr. Carnegie, aren’t those ‘free’ public libraries you keep building just meant to distract the workers from their exploitation?”
If you are tempted to speak “as” the representative of some category, resist. “As a native of Pittsburgh, I find your characterization of the open hearth Bessemer steel process historically uninformed and offensive,” accomplishes nothing. “Were there any viable alternatives to the Bessemer steel process in the 1860s?” would suffice. Declarations that begin, “As a woman…” “As an African-American…” “As a Christian…” all carry the same instant discount in the audience. They claim a privileged form of knowledge that no one need grant you. Other people in the same category may have quite different views. Who appointed me to speak for Pittsburgh or you to speak for all womankind?
Lastly, you have a duty to be interesting. Brevity can’t repair a truly dull question. Knowing the difference between powerful concision and powerless vapidity is a matter of discernment, and the same words could be either. “What caused the Civil War?” asked at just the right moment in a debate about civil rights could be a brilliant question, but “What caused the Civil War” in a discussion of the Civil War would probably come across as tedious. If you aren’t sure which it is, silence is your best friend.
This article originally appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on March 30, 2012.