There IS Such a Thing as a Stupid Question (And It’s Not the One You Think)

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Man Giving a Persuasive Speech

There is no such thing as a stupid question.

We hear this cliche repeated many times throughout our lives.

Perhaps the first time is in grade school.

It’s that teacher, you know, the amazingly inspiring one who sees potential in you before it even exists. You have that look on your face like you have something to contribute, but you’re just a little to shy to raise your hand. It doesn’t matter. A raised eyebrow is enough for this teacher. The teacher calls on you, and you ask your question.

And then there’s class clown, you know, the one at whose jokes everyone laughs even though they are secretly annoyed. This insensitive comic blurts out, “That’s a stupid question.” The classroom erupts in laughter and your face flushes red with shame. Your teacher, although usually lively and jovial, grows suddenly stern and interjects, “Quiet!” A hush falls over the room as the students fix their eyes on the teacher. Your teacher–your rescuer–then says those immortal words that breathe new life into you: “There is no such thing as a stupid question.

And then you grow up, you run into this question again in the workplace. This time, you’re in a meeting. Your boss is discussing a plan that is about to be implemented, and something doesn’t quite make sense to you. This time, you have the confidence to raise your hand. Your boss nods in your direction, and you ask your question.

Unfortunately, there are also class clowns in the workplace. You know, it’s the one who is always making cynical and sarcastic remarks about everything. This person is slouched in a chair nearby. With shrugged shoulders and a loud huff, this clown interjects, “Well, that’s a stupid question.” This time, no one laughs. People in the room are a little more mature, and it’s just awkward. Your boss–again your rescuer–looks directly at the clown and says what everyone else in the room already knows, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”

This statement is powerful. It gives us a license to overcome our fears and vulnerabilities in order to ask the important questions we need in order to get meaningful answers. If we’re ever in a situation in which we’re afraid to ask a question because it might make us look stupid, I think it’s a great idea to repeat to ourselves silently, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.”

I agree entirely with the sentiment behind the phrase, “The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.” If we want to learn, we need to ask.

But, guess what?

There is such a thing as a stupid question.

It is likely that it’s not the question you asked in grade school. It’s also probably not the question you were asking in the meeting. It’s the kind of question we hear repeated over and over in popular culture, in political debates, and even in everyday conversation. This question is poisonous. It is divisive and, worse, prevents us from learning. What question am I referring to?

There is such a thing as a stupid question: it’s the rhetorical question.

Examples of Rhetorical Questions

We start asking rhetorical questions at a very young age–so that we can get our way. We want to go over to a friend’s house and play, so we ask Mom. Unfortunately, Mom says, “No.” Indignantly, we shout our reply, “Why can’t I?

Now, it’s possible that this is an honest question and we really want to know why. But, when Mom gives us her reasons, we probably won’t change our desires. Unable to come up with a rational response to Mom’s reasons, we’ll probably resort to repeating the question, “But, why can’t I?

Why do we do this? I think it’s because we don’t really want to know why we aren’t allowed to go over to the friend’s house. Our reason for asking the question is to convince Mom that she should allow us to go over to the friend’s house. It’s a rhetorical device. Our cunning little child brains are trying to trick Mom into thinking that there’s no reason why she shouldn’t let us go over to the friend’s house. Unfortunately for us, Mom is smarter than that.

Here are a few more examples of rhetorical questions we ask in our everyday lives:

  • What business is it of yours?” We don’t really want to know what stake the person has in the conversation. We are implying that they don’t have any stake in it.
  • How can things possibly get any worse?” We aren’t looking for a list. We’re implying that things can’t get any worse. Ironically, this is usually about the time when they do.
  • Did you hear what I said?” We already believe the person heard what we said. They just aren’t following our orders.
  • Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Clearly, we don’t want to know if the person is not ashamed of himself. We are telling him that he should be.
  • Don’t you just hate that show?” Again, we don’t want to know if the person does not hate the television show. We are implying that it’s bad, we hate it, and she probably should hate it too.
  • Who knows?” We aren’t looking for someone who has the answer. We are indicating that nobody has the answer. The question is unsolvable.\

We also see rhetorical questions in literature, film, politics, popular culture, and more. Consider the following:

  • What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet pronounces these famous words in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Of course, Juliet doesn’t really want to know what importance there is in a family name. She is implying that the name means nothing.
  • What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner isn’t really asking about the role of love in the relationship. She is saying that love doesn’t matter, and it’s just a fling.
  • You talking to me? In the movie, Taxi Driver, Robert Deniro knows you’re talking to him. He just wants you to see how surprised he is that you have the audacity.
  • For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated? How many white families have lived in stark poverty? How many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we’ve wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?” When President Lyndon Johnson asked these questions in his appeal for voting legislation, he wasn’t asking for an empirical head count of white people who had been negatively affected by racial inequality. He was arguing that the number was substantial.

Aren’t Rhetorical Questions Just Silly?

(Do you see what I did there?)

Actually, rhetorical questions can be useful. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Look at the context in which rhetorical questions are almost always used. Rhetorical questions, not surprisingly, are all about persuasion. They are devices to unilaterally sway others to your way of thinking. So, if that’s what you’re trying to do, go ahead. Ask away.

But if you are honestly trying to learn the answers to your questions, getting into the habit of expressing them rhetorically is going to be counterproductive. Here’s another way of saying it:

If you’re trying to convince other people of your opinions, rhetorical questions are brilliant. If you’re trying to develop opinions that are more consistent with truth, rhetorical questions are stupid.

Obviously, I’m a fan of doing the latter. I think we’re all better off when we place a greater emphasis on perceiving, learning, and discovering than we do persuading, lecturing, and defending.

Even if we can use rhetorical questions to get our way, they still leave us worse off in the end, because they lead us to believe something is true when that may not be the case.

When we convince other people, we more fully convince ourselves. And then we become even more firmly entrenched in our views. In our minds, the persuasion validates the deception. We convinced them, we reason, so we must be right.

Perhaps you’re content to live with such a shallow frame of mind. If that’s the case, just remember that a time may come when your dogmatic beliefs no longer serve you. You may reach a point at which you’ve rhetorically questioned your way into absurdity.

As for me, I want the truth. Maybe not always. I mean, I’m human. I don’t like being wrong. And sometimes I do have opinions that I want other people to share. But, when all is said and done, I think I will be better off by having expressed more questions to which I honestly wanted to know the answers.

So, what about you? What kind of questions are you asking? Are you asking questions to change other people’s minds or questions to sharpen your own?

I agree that the question you don’t ask is a stupid question. Silence will never get you answers. But there is a question that that is far more self-limiting than the one you don’t ask.

It’s the one you ask without really asking. It’s the one you tell. The most stupid question you can possibly ask is the rhetorical question.

featured image courtesy of the Kheel Center of Cornell University licensed via Creative Commons.

The Curiosity Manifesto: Investigate