Monday, March 14, 2005

Inviting Questions

I had an experience yesterday that made me think about the subversive impact of asking certain kinds of questions. I'm not talking about the vague bumper-sticker admonition to "Question Authority!" but rather a very specific and deliberate kind of asking for the opinions of others.

The experience involved a telephone conversation with one of the long-time Canadian activists who participated in my social movement history project (one who also now happens to be living and active in the United States). We know each other not just from that, however, but also because we both contributed to a particular social change project a few years ago and had the chance to meet a few times that way, so after our business related to my project was completed we chatted for awhile. This conversation included quite a bit of political talk, of course. Two of the topics that came up were the threat of the SEIU to secede from the AFL-CIO and the related debate over how to transform the union movement, and also some discussion of Philippino politics and the fairly public conflict between the Communist Party and some non-CP leftists. The person to whom I was talking was long active in the anti-dictatorship struggles in the Philippines before he came to North America as a refugee and is currently a staffer with SEIU, so on both of those counts he knows way more than I do.

The subversive thing, the thing which took me by surprise and disconcerted me, was the he asked my opinion on both of those issues. I'm usually fairly able to come up with things to say on most issues, including those which I know a lot about and those on which I am more of a novice, but I found myself more tongue-tied and stuttery than I am accustomed to when responding to both of these questions, and I wasn't quite sure why. And in reflecting on our past association, I realized I'd had similar experiences with this particular individual before.

After some thought I now realize that I had some trouble handling those quesitons, or at least handling them as smoothly as I would've liked, because it is so rare, even in progressive political and social movement spaces, for people with more experience/expertise/authority in a given area to ask people with less of each of those things for their opinion, especially in a way that demonstrates a genuine interest in the answer. I've had lots of conversations in the last ten years with activists with clearly greater experience/expertise/authority than me with respect to some issue or movement or controversy -- some in my former capacity as a journalist, some as a researcher, but most (including yesterday's call) just as a fellow activist because I want to learn from their experience and knowledge. In the majority, even if the conversation as a whole included communication in both directions, the segment relating to their particular experience/expertise/authority tended to involve them talking and me listening. Beyond that, this tendency to leave unchallenged the unidirectional flow of communication along the line from greater to lesser experience/expertise/authority (or perceived experience/expertise/authority) is also a boy thing -- there are women who do it too, but on the whole they are more likely to encourage bidirectional communication. And when the roles have been reversed, though I can call to mind occasions when I haven't fallen into that pattern, I probably have to admit that there are more (particularly when beer is being consumed) that I have.

The person with whom I was talking yesterday is a very skilled and experienced practitioner of popular education. I suspect his deliberate invitation for me to share my opinion in areas which he knows orders of magnitude more about is related to the philosophies and practices in that tradition. It is tied to the radical notion that people have a right to an opinion based on being people, not based on being experts. Experience and expertise still matter, of course, but we need to work to change our socialized (though often not terribly conscious) tendency (especially among men) to link them to who is presumed to have a right to say what they think and who is more easily allowed to take up conversational space in both formal meetings and informal conversations. How many people have we driven away from our movements by falling into this pattern and making them feel ignorant and excluded and unwelcome?

There are never magic answers, but judicious asking of, "What do you think?", genuinely meant, even when you have a clear advantage of experience and expertise, is one of many steps we need to take in order to create equitable relationships, which are the building block of equitable groups, which we need in order to struggle for just and liberatory societies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi again:

The timing of this post is coincidental with a couple of my recent similar experiences, albeit in less overtly political spaces. Both of them are related to the talk I gave at the conference last week.

I was filling in for my supervisor, giving a talk about particulate matter and cardiovascular disease (a topic about which I am not an expert) at an international conference on occupational health.

In the first instance, I had just finished rehearsing my talk for my supervisor and some colleagues, and my supervisor asked me "So what is the significance of these findings?" It wasn't the question itself that caught me off-guard, since it's an obvious one in the circumstances. If someone more 'junior' than I had asked it, I would have had no hesitation in answering it confidently and at length. However, because it was my supervisor, I perceived the question more as him 'testing' my knowledge than of seeking information or discussion, and as a result, I answered him in a very stilting fashion, and I think probably the intonation of every sentence went up at the end as if I was asking questions instead of answering one, seeking his approval for each statement instead of simply making my argument in a matter-of-fact way. I ended up feeling totally stupid, even though I completely knew the answers; I think my discomfort was largely borne out of anxiety that he knew "THE ANSWER" and that my response would be in some way deficient from his point of view.

In the second case, this afternoon, one of the conference organizers who had attended my session called me to thank me for my contributions, and asked me "What would you do differently next time?", not meaning what would I, personally, do differently, but what would I have liked to see done differently if the panel were to be done again. Now, this man is a recognized authority in this field, and a very experience and accomplished scientist; again, it felt very odd to be asked this question by him. "Surely," I thought, "given his vast experience he would know better than I would how to improve such a session." But in his case, it was genuinely meant, which I cannot say for certain of my previous example.

And how many hundreds of thousands of times have I witnessed a student being questioned by a faculty member (usually a young male one) after a presentation, where the faculty member is asking a question he already knows the answer to in order to test the student? It's embarassing for all concerned (except possibly the questioner, who probably gets off on making people uncomfortable because of his expertise). (Some readers may know exactly who I have in mind in this case!)The "genuinely meant" criteria is critical.

In addition to the issues of equity and justice that Scott mentions, I think there are probably important and useful pedagogical lessons to be learned from this as well.