Questions are a form of power (and who gets to ask them matters)20 March 2023
Questions are a form of power. Given how ubiquitous they are in our everyday lives, this truth about questions is easy to miss but not, I think, hard to appreciate. Questions bond us, inform us, and invite us to participate. They direct our attention to one thing and away from another. They can be used to challenge, provoke, expose, and humiliate. Whether or not we consciously recognise or intend it, questions can and do both empower and disempower. This is no more apparent than in the restriction or outright prohibition of certain questions or certain questioners. Whether by virtue of social convention, legal mandate, silencing, or unjust ignorance, the questions that we can and cannot ask, and the people who can and cannot ask them, reveal much about underlying structures of social and political power.
Consider for a moment, the questions that you, personally, cannot ask. Can you make a list of such questions. If you are like me, this list will not come easily at first. Indeed, it may take a moment to accept that there are any questions that you, personally, cannot ask (perhaps, on some level, you will never accept this). You are an autonomous, free-thinking individual with a right to free expression protected and enshrined in constitutional and universal declarations. You can ask anything you like.
Putting important nuances concerning the freedom of speech and expression to one side, it is worth thinking about this some more. Can you really ask anything you like, to anyone, at any time. Would you ask a stranger in the street what they earn or when they last had sex. Would you ask your mother-in-law if she has put on weight. Would you ask your boss to go and get you lunch. If you are like me, probably not. As with everything else that we do, a complex array of social conventions and cultural norms are in play when we ask questions and these subtly influence what we do and do not ask.
Notice also that being ‘like me’ is a non-trivial factor here. Perhaps you are not at all like me or are unlike me in certain important respects that render the task of coming up with a list of questions that you cannot ask much easier. Perhaps you were told as a child that it is rude to ask for a second helping at dinner because there was limited food to go around, and you would never dream of doing so, even as an adult. Perhaps you were educated in a context where students were discouraged from asking questions because they were considered insubordinate, and you follow the same rules in your professional life now. Perhaps you were once ridiculed in public for asking a ‘stupid question’ and have been humiliated into silence ever since. Perhaps you simply find it more comfortable to listen to other people’s questions than to ask your own or to limit the use of questions in conversation, as is reported by some people with neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD. Who we are as individuals, each of our life histories and complex identities, plays a role in determining what we do and do not ask. Important criteria, such as race, gender, class, and neurotypicality intersect with underlying power structures to influence how and whether we ask questions.
Furthermore, there are numerous formal settings in which asking questions is either explicitly prohibited or implicitly inhibited. This is most obviously the case during legal proceedings where leading, loaded, and irrelevant questions can all be subject to courtroom objections. More significantly, it is not only the type of question but also the questioner that is determined by legal rules in court. Barristers for both prosecution and defence are allocated structured time for questioning, but those on the stand are strictly limited to answers or, at most, clarificatory questions. A similar dynamic exists less explicitly, but no less significantly, in other formal settings such as healthcare and education where patients and students respectively are often implicitly discouraged or disincentivized from asking questions. The question-answer dynamics in these and other contexts, reflect, embed and reinforce the corresponding underlying power dynamics in play.
Despite all this, you may remain unconvinced that there are questions that you, personally, cannot ask, even if there are some questions that you would not or should not ask, for a variety of reasons. The challenge was to create a list of questions that you cannot ask, not a list of questions that would make you or others feel uncomfortable. So, your list remains blank. There are two further things to consider before you give up altogether.
First, you speak a language, perhaps multiple languages, but not every language on Earth. This means that there are some questions that you cannot ask simply because you do not know the words. If you speak English, as I do, you are extraordinarily lucky that in many places, most of the time, the questions that you ask will be met with a degree of comprehension. If you do not have the words, hopefully someone else will. Still, the questions that you can ask are inherently limited by the language in which you ask them. The impact of this is all the more significant for those who do not have access to a widely-spoken language. Both language accessibility and language construction impact our ability to ask questions.
Second, there are things you do not know. Famously, according to Donald Rumsfeld, these can be broken down into two categories: the ‘known unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’. Rumsfeld accurately observed that it is the latter “that tend to be the difficult ones”. This is, at least in part, because we cannot ask useful questions about unknown unknowns; we don’t know what we don’t know to ask. This is true for all of us, regardless of whether we have benefitted from the privilege of a good education or read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from cover to cover (as my brother claims to have done when we were teenagers); there are still plenty of unknown unknowns out there.
The speed of technological development over the past 50 years makes this all the more apparent. Even Einstein would have struggled to come up with the question that consistently (and puzzlingly) ranks as the most common question typed into Google: ‘what is my ip’. He would presumably have been more comfortable with the second most popular question – ‘what time is it’ – but no doubt further baffled by 2022’s top five Google search terms: ‘Facebook’, ‘YouTube’, ‘Amazon’, ‘Wordle’ and (incredibly) ‘Google’. Ignorance, perhaps more than anything, determines what we can and cannot ask. If you are like me, the task of creating a list of questions that you cannot ask has suddenly gone from difficult to impossible. Not because there are no questions for the list but because the list is now infinitely long.
The questions that we do and do not, or can and cannot ask, are determined by countless complexities of convention, identity, language, knowledge, and ignorance. These reflect and expose underlying power structures and, in many cases, arise out of broad socio-political and economic injustices. Social conventions and norms do not arise in a vacuum but reflect both contemporary and historical socio-political trends, many of which serve to exclude and marginalise minorities and vulnerable groups. Our individual identities are likewise subject to norms and biases that all too often oppress and silence those whose voices (and questions) that need to be heard the loudest. Linguistic injustice further skews the dynamic of power in favour of those who happen to have been born in countries where a dominant language, particularly English, is the native tongue. And, of course, not all ignorance is created equal. For those deprived of a good (or any) education, or lacking access to global knowledge resources, such as libraries and the internet, the ability to ask questions is further unjustly constrained.
All of this matters because questions are a form of power. The questions that we ask determine much of what we come to believe and know. They play a vital role in our cognitive development as infants and shape important aspects of our character as adults, such as how open-minded, humble, attentive, and curious we are. They help us to connect with each other and to build and sustain human relationships. Moreover, they exert control over what we believe and how we act by directing our attention to one thing and away from another. This multifaceted power of questions renders them a complex and invaluable social and political tool; questions both empower and disempower. As with any powerful tool with the capacity to both positively and negatively influence ours and others’ lives, we should, I believe, be paying closer attention to what, why and how we ask questions, and who is and isn’t asking.