On The Importance of Questions

I was thinking about Wikipedia the other day, when the founder was interviewed in an episode of Stephen Fry In America, a BBC production wherein the actor travels to all fifty states searching for the true American identity. It is irrefutable that the internet has altered the destiny of humanity—both for the better and for the worse—by sharing information worldwide and making real-time conversation and coordination across continents not only possible, but simple. Information on any topic, at any time, is now at our fingertips; and Wikipedia embodies that idea more than any other. It is the single greatest accumulation of knowledge compiled in the history of mankind, our own modern day Library at Alexandria.

            I remember being in Middle School in the early 2000’s, when Wikipedia was still in its relative infancy, and our teachers were constantly warning against using its entries for information. They pointed out that it was unmoderated, and that any user could post any information that they wanted to. The scheme of Wikipedia—one in which users, on a volunteer basis, would check new entries, require proper citation of verified sources, and remove unvetted information—seemed so pie-in-the-sky idealistic that it bordered on ludicrous. I remember even NPR didn’t believe that the system would work, and so posted fallacious but plausible facts on a handful of entries under different usernames to see which would stick. As I recall, none remained on there for more than 10 minutes. As a teacher now, I still will not allow my students to cite information from Wikipedia for their essays, but it does provide good background reading for them when beginning their research into a topic. Furthermore, the references cited at the bottom of the article give them a good starting point for their cited sources.

            People often call this time that we live in the “Information Age”, the “Digital Age”, or the “Internet Era”, but I think it is in fact a “Virtual Era”. Information has always been a stalwart feature of humanity, and the Internet of now is not what it was when the term was coined in the 1990’s. Today’s generation grows up feeling that a friend across the country or across the globe is virtually equivalent to one next door. “Hand Lifts”, a new plastic surgery that is gaining popularity in cosmopolitan metropolises, minimize flaws in the hand for newly engaged women to post flattering pictures of their rings on social networking sites. People spend more and more of their time in virtual worlds than in real ones, and so that is where they are putting their self-improvement efforts. “Likes”, “Views”, and “Favorites” have become the new social currency, displacing the actuals of person-to-person interactions (wherein you could View and do your Favorite things with people you actually Like). Our zeitgeist, even in face-to-face conversation, has become a mélange of hashtags (formerly known as the pound sign), LOL’s, OMG’s, and “verbing” of words that should be nouns (ex. “Google it”, “Instagram It”, and “Facebook him/her”). Even when people do things now, they are more concerned with how the pictures from it will look and how they’ll be tagged than how much fun they have (i.e. it has become a case wherein people care more how the pictures of their vacation will be received by others than by themselves).

            All of this is rather inane grousing by me—people have been bemoaning the death of the traditional conversation for years, and regardless of one’s personal beliefs about it, it’s just the way it is. Indeed, the observation of the irony that Social Networking has indeed formed an antisocial society is so trite that it borders on cliché. However, I was struck by something the other day when I was in my corner bar watching the Brasil-Chile match in the World Cup, and that is the death of the Trivia Conversation. As a nerd, this has always been my favorite conversation—one wherein a question is posed, either implicitly or directly, and the group sits, thinks, and derives an answer. Whether or not the group arrives at the correct answer is usually inconsequential to me; rather, it is the exercise in deduction and rhetoric that I enjoy. Now, though, a question is posed, and one person (or, more often several people race) pulls out his or her phone to look up the answer. Questions that begin “I wonder…” used to be followed by “hmmm”s, but now are answered with tap-tap-tap “It was…”. One such conversation was happening during that World Cup match, when the pair of forty-somethings next to us was debating what the furthest the US team has ever gotten in the tournament. They debated from memory for a while, talking about teams that they remembered from throughout their lives. While I typically try not to be an eavesdropper, as it is rude to both the eavesdroppees and the people I am with, I found myself listening to them using memory to approach the question. When one of them got up to go to the bathroom, a fellow patron of my age leaned over and told the remaining one the answer, unsolicited. The person nodded and politely said thank you, and when his companion came back, he was still gung-ho about debating the topic, but it was no longer moot (I would share the answer with you, but that would be counter-objective; suffice to say it is likely longer ago than you are thinking).

            This year marked the first year that we really saw the new Common Core implemented in our public Schools. This program has the purpose of making students think more critically, and use questioning and reasoning tactics to answer questions rather than factual recall or straight information analysis/comprehension. The Core definitely has flaws, and rightfully worries teachers because they are changing their methods and approaches while being held to the same evaluations, but the purpose is lofty and the goals more correct. We want to make a nation of learners—skeptical and curious thinkers—and we should. The Common Core is one step toward making that a focus, and assuming we tweak it as needed, it should do just that.

            As a Quaker, I was lucky to be raised in a family (immediate, extended, and in Meeting) that valued the conversation as a deductive device. We often had debates over origins of phrases and practices such as the origination of the word “hoosegow” for prison (it’s not as old as I thought) and the word “Scuttlebutt” (which was, as I thought, of mariner origin). We listened each week to NPR shows like “Car Talk”, “Wait…Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”, “Says You!” and Will Shortz’s Sunday Puzzle on “Weekend Edition”, wherein the process of reaching answers was always as important (or more so) as the answers themselves. While correct answers are important and have their place, the practice of thinking about, applying prior and related knowledge to, and hypothesizing solutions and explanations is the crux of being human, and of being Quakers.

            Unfortunately, even Quakers have fallen prey to this trend of offering decisive answers to questions that deserve thought and contemplation. We apply archaic thinking and writings to modern problems without question and then criticize (rightly) Strict Constructionist conservative Justices for doing the same. We offer a Meeting for Worship, wherein one is expected to commune with God and fellows and search for the light, then we tell people where that light is (and, more troublingly, where it isn’t). My mother likes to tell a story about a time in her life when she was having a great deal of trouble, and she went to my grandfather, and told him, “I’ve been praying and praying, asking God, but I still just don’t know what to do.” He responded, “Well, has thee been listening?” (Yes, I know grammatically it should be “thou”, but this is how the story has been relayed to me). Too often, I think even Friends represent that old Fran Lebowitz quote: “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” When the Peace Testimony was written, or when George Fox or William Penn were opining on violence or warfare, they couldn’t comprehend of a more-or-less Kingdom-less world, or of a Hitler, Assad, or Milosevic, Boko Haram or al Qaeda, a Rwanda or Armenia. The Testimony says that violence will not be undertaken “for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the Kingdoms of this World”, but what about violence against mass genocide? Such evil on such a large, efficient scale was incomprehensible to the authors, and so their writings and ideas must be adapted and applied. I find myself torn often with the teachings I was raised with about nonviolence and turning the other cheek and the teachings from History class about genocides and military intervention. I cannot fathom a person saying intervention against Hitler was wrong, but I have been told by Friends when I discuss this internal schism that if I were truly a Quaker, it would not be a question—that I have failed to understand the light. This is an incredibly deflating thing to hear, not because I really care about another’s opinion, but because it makes me think that that person has misunderstood the purpose of Quakerism (which I understand as the individual role in a collective search for the light), and it is in those moments of judgment of others that I do feel like a “bad Quaker”. I’m not saying that there is or is not room in Quakerism for the idea of justified violence, but I do know there should be room for contemplation, true contemplation, on that topic and the others we are so quick to dismiss as already answered. So whether you’re in Meeting or in a pub, at school or at dinner, when questions are posed, try to eschew the dogma or the urge to immediately search a reference (either literally or metaphorically) and take some time to reasonably and logically approach the question as if it were a brand new one. It is only in this way that we can hope to divine our purpose and continue a search for the light.






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