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Asking questions, encouraging meaningful discussion

| Monday, January 27, 2020

“So, do you like Trump?”

It’s an innocent question (hopefully). A fair one, too. But for years, it’s bothered me. And it’s not that I don’t like politics or think we should ignore the elephant in the room. Quite the opposite. It’s because it’s — obviously — a tremendously loaded question. Answer wrong and pay the consequences. Answer with the wrong wording or tone — farewell, my friend. Answer correctly, and I’ll keep listening.

But beyond all the intense emotions conjured by the mere mention of the president, maybe this question can teach us something as we enter 2020 and the voting season. Let’s take a closer look.

Do you like Trump?

Just the word “like” carries enough baggage of its own. What do you, the questioner, mean by “like?” Are you asking what I find attractive about Trump, or just what aspects or ideas of his I conclude to be smart or pragmatic? This inevitably leads to another question: Like what? His character? His leadership style? His policies? And, if so, which one(s)? The question is drowned in ambiguity. The answerer simply has no clue on what plane of thought the question is asked from, and so the question remains suspended in midair. Even worse, the questioner may not even know what they’re looking for because, well, they didn’t really think about it that much. They just asked. Admittedly, we do this all the time, but what chance does the questioner have of ever satisfying the question — if it’s even possible? A question lacking intention and specificity lacks fairness as well.

Details matter. Details show intent. Details show investment. Details show you care — not just about the answer but the answerer, what they think, what they feel. Conversation isn’t abstract, at least not entirely. It’s real dialogue by real people. Along with active listening, pointed, unique questions can help build trust, intimacy and relationships, relationships where we feel comfortable sharing our most deeply held beliefs and challenge us to think differently. But honestly, crafting specific questions is tough. It requires time, and it requires us to be willing to pause and sit in the awkward silence. And it is awkward. But it’s through the same awkwardness that we learn the most about others and about ourselves. If we are to truly strive for understanding, we can be satisfied with no less.

But this is only half the story, and this leads to the second problem with the original question “Do you like Trump?” In addition to being vague, it reduces the topic — no matter how specific — into a simple yes or no question. Either you agree, or you don’t. You’re either with us, or you’re against us. It’s a gross false dilemma that only exacerbates the polarization we hear so much about. Politicians love to tell us how they can solve the difficult, age-old problems with quick fixes. Personalities on television, YouTube and Instagram make every issue seem so simple, so cut and dried that its only barrier is the childish stubbornness of the opposition. In a world where everything is a click away, we desperately need to regain a sense of complexity in our politics.  

Anyone who takes the time to actually understand the nuance to the issues and debates we face understands this is (with, potentially, a few exceptions) just not true. That’s because both sides have evidence-backed positions and both have something to offer to the conversation. Until we recognize this ourselves, until we’re willing to look beyond the mantras, to put our own opinions to the test and even change them when necessary, we shrink from our duty as citizens, and the country is worse off because of it. It shouldn’t be surprising that there’s no panacea, no simple solution to the problems we face, but looking at our questions and issues from different angles and perspectives gets us closer to an answer, and that makes sense. Don’t doctors and nurses do this all the time with their patients? Different angles can lead to different diagnoses, but it’s in weighing all sides that leads to the best conclusion. It can be difficult and time-consuming, but this is the complexity and objectivity that’s needed in our political discussions if we are going to be honest with each other and honest with ourselves. After all, it’s easy to say we seek truth. Living this out is much harder, precisely because seeking truth requires us to search through the painful brush of analysis. But far beyond just that, it demands our impartiality. No, it doesn’t suggest it. It doesn’t even ask for it; it demands it. We can never be genuinely objective if we aren’t willing to challenge our own assumptions and re-evaluate the evidence. That’s because the truth is complex, nuanced and multi-faceted. It’s not satisfied by a tweet, one-liners and campaign slogans. It’s something that we get closer to through thorough and meticulous research. It’s something that takes time, careful attention and patience. It’s not something that excites people, but it’s something desperately needed — now more than ever. And the University is the best place for it to happen. We were literally built for moments and missions like these. If we don’t get the ball rolling, no one will.  

When we are open to conversations like these, they no longer become a mere transaction of opinions, but a relationship between two people, two people trying to better understand each other and the world. While simple and seemingly obvious, the way we form our questions cannot be stressed enough. Indeed, it’s the most important part of a conversation precisely because it determines the way the answerer feels and thus how they will respond. That’s why being aware of our questions means everything. Everyone says the first impression is the most important. This is precisely what questions do: They set ground rules, they create fences and open spaces and they control the environment in which we interact. It’s our duty to strive for the questions that will encourage the best conversation possible, ones where we’re actually able to understand where someone else is coming from, and, who knows, maybe we’ll find some common ground on the way! So instead of “Do you like Trump?”, what about “What do you think about Trump’s (insert [specific!] subject)?” The difference is small, but it’s extremely real, and it will affect the course of the entire conversation.

What I’ve laid out is not an easy or perhaps even exciting task. But that doesn’t reduce its necessity. Real change and compassionate understanding doesn’t come from podiums at campaign rallies or TV debates. It comes from personal, intimate, even mundane conversations. These are the things that open and change minds one by one. That’s why your questions make a difference, why your words make a difference and why you can make a difference. Now act like it.

Andrew Sveda is a freshman at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh intending to major in political science. Besides politics, Andrew enjoys acting, playing the piano and tennis. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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