Question Authority: “I wonder if that’s true.”
Is suspension of belief the same as active doubt?
Strangers, colleagues, friends and family are adept at sounding like they know what they are talking about. It’s a piece of the human condition in our U.S. of A. to come across with confidence (even better—hubris—if you can manage it). Use a certain tone of voice, jam words together quickly, toss in a few technical terms, keep your head steady and hold someone’s gaze, and—presto!—you’re an expert.
And your word matters.
Back in college studying philosophy I might have been an irritating presence with friends because the most common, most innocuous comments could elicit questions. Over time I learned to hold those questions to myself and mull things over in a less public way. But whenever I find myself in the presence of people who wrap themselves with authority, those questions pop out.
I’m attracted to Robert Sokolowski’s take on phenomenology. In particular, this notion of bracketing our natural thoughts and suspending a belief to ask about it and examine the pieces and parts and moments and manifolds of that belief. It’s a great thing to do in conversation, and many generous-minded thinkers and experts will walk that direction with me. But those intent on cloaking themselves with authority—those using bits of knowledge as rhetorical tools to one-up their conversation partners—see ordinary questions that come from bracketing as weapons of aggression.
And in truth, sometimes they are. To respond to the expert with “I wonder if that is true” is to question authority, to question context, to question orthodoxy. It also brings common relationships into question. Can we be friends if you question this basic statement?
And yet the most marvelous thoughts follow those ordinary questions. Thoughts that propel forward with much deeper motivation and insight.
Friends who allow you to ask very basic questions are a gift to be cherished.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston