On Questions

By Michael W. Harris

My life revolves around questions, both the asking and answering of them. As a research and instruction librarian, my stock and trade is teaching students how to ask better research questions, how to construct those questions, and how then turn them into searches. I show them how to inquire in databases for information, I teach them how to question knowledge and writing that came before, and I assist them in constructing arguments that would answer questions a reader might ask. To say that my life is about questions is an understatement, and as such it is sometimes hard for me to stop questioning myself, especially internally.

I question my thinking, trying to really get at why I believe something or react to something in a certain way. I question why I make/made the choices I do. I question how and why I act the way I do. I question where I am going and who I want to be. I question how others react and treat me. I question if I should be doing something differently. In so many ways, it is an internal, intense form of Socratic questioning. The downside is that without at least a second person in the discussion, it is hard to reach an answer. In a monologue of questions, all queries become rhetorical and the discussion becomes a one-person race around an infinite loop.

However, while the chasing of one’s own tail is a futile exercise, I do firmly believe that it is much more important to question one’s identity and preconceptions rather than to arrogantly believe that one is correct. The heart of the Socratic Method is the questioning of our underlying assumptions in order to stimulate critical thinking and to better interrogate ourselves, our beliefs, and our society.

To me, a truly nuanced view of our world and those around us lies in the questions, the uncertainty. Nuance, and truth (if that can ever be known), lies between the darkness and the light. It begins with us questioning what we know, understanding that there is much we do not know, and asking the questions that begin to approach some sort of answer, or at least the beginning of an understanding.

I feel like we live in an age where nuance has been lost, mainly because we have stopped asking questions and instead seek out reassurance in answers that we want. And in a culture and society where seemingly every possible answer to every possible question is but a Google search away, everyone can have the answer they want reaffirmed by someone else, regardless of the soundness of that answer. We accept without question, and in that acceptance not only is nuance lost, but also any chance at a Socratic dialogue or actual debate. We accept our source as true and instead of debating and discussing the merits of our position and sources, we just hurl URLs at each other over Twitter or Reddit or Facebook.

I see your Rachel Maddow clip and raise you this Breitbart article.

We don’t question, we just yell. We take everything we may disagree with as an affront to ourselves and our identity and lash out. Even playing Devil’s Advocate or simply asking “what if” has become a dangerous proposition because in the attempt to step into the shoes of someone you disagree with or see as reprehensible we risk identification with the Other. And for some, that is truly beyond the pale.

But in not questioning, we risk losing the nuance of understanding. We become entrenched in our certainty and trapped in a feedback loop of having our views reinforced within our filter bubbles. It is only in the act of asking questions that we can begin to understand. In the questions we find that nuance, that middle path. And while truth might be ever elusive, with questions we can approach it much closer than we could otherwise.

Questions can hurt. Questions can cause pain. They can challenge in ways that unsettle us and can also shake us to our core. But questions are also the beginning of understanding and I guess sometimes we have to hurt and be hurt to start the journey.

My life revolves around questions. In my job, in my personal life, and in my research. I question the media I study. I question the articles and books that I read. I question and I question and I question. But I still need to work at being okay with having few answers.

As I begin a new chapter in my life—being out of school, embarking on new jobs in new places with new people—I begin a new phase in my personal and professional life and I am questioning almost everything. What do I keep and what do I discard? What do I strive for and what goals do I let go of? What is useful to me and what is holding me back?

Who am I? Why am I here? (With apologies to Admiral James Stockdale.)

And while these questions are both simple and existential, I feel that if one can actually answer these questions then you are not asking yourself enough questions. Or the right questions.

My life revolves around questions. And as long as I ask questions, I know I will continue to grow as a person.

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