Learning With Respect vs. “Just Asking Questions”

teacher at map with chalkboard
Teacher meme by PTICA10

On one side: “I’m just asking questions! Why are you being so harsh? If you want people to learn about sexism and racism and stuff, you should be more patient.” On the other side: “I don’t believe you’re asking in good faith. You’re JAQing off: ‘just asking questions’ as a way of poisoning the well, derailing the conversation, and wasting my time.”

In conversations about sexism, racism, and other social justice issues, this meta-conversation is one of the most consistently contentious. And it can be hard to explain exactly what’s wrong with “just asking questions,” or even to precisely define what it is. But my friend and colleague Heina Dadabhoy said something recently about this issue that crystallized it for me:

If we sincerely want to learn from people, we approach them the way we would a teacher. And that means approaching them with respect, even with a certain degree of humility.

If we really want to learn from people, we assume that they know more about the subject than we do. When we don’t understand them, or when what they say contradicts things we thought we knew, we don’t automatically assume they’re wrong. We think about what they’re saying; chew it over; maybe talk it over with other people in the class, or with other people who’ve taken the class before. And when we have questions, we ask respectfully. We assume that they have informed, knowledgable answers, and we listen to those answers.

This doesn’t mean we never disagree. People have been disagreeing with teachers for millennia, with wildly varying results. Sometimes it’s just arrogant bloviating; sometimes it’s an important part of how our understanding moves forward, as individuals and as a society. (And yes, in my time as a student, I’ve indulged in the former.) Respecting a teacher doesn’t mean unthinking obedience.

But when we’re learning from a teacher, we don’t start off by disagreeing. We don’t start with a hostile or contemptuous attitude, with the assumption that they must be wrong. We don’t argue with them every step of the way, and we don’t go out of our way to trip them up or shoot holes in everything they say.

And when we’re learning from a teacher, we don’t assume their time is ours to command. We don’t get hostile if they don’t have time to debate with us — or don’t have time at the exact moment we want it. If they direct us to other resources that can answer our questions in more detail, we follow up. At the very least, we don’t get pissy with them for saying, “Here’s a book/ essay/ documentary that can answer a lot of the questions you’re asking: if you still have questions after that, come back and we’ll talk some more.” We recognize that this is part of how teachers teach, that an important part of knowing a subject is knowing where to learn more.

In fact, when you assume that your friend or acquaintance or random person on the Internet is obliged to debate whenever you want, for as long as you want, in whatever space you want including theirs, it’s more unwarranted than treating a teacher that way. Teachers are, after all, teachers: it’s their job to answer questions, and to be patient with questions they’ve answered a hundred times before. It isn’t their job to answer every single question they’re asked, on demand, regardless of whether it’s relevant or whether they’re even on the job — but answering questions and being patient with ignorance is part of what they’re paid for. That’s not true of your friend or acquaintance or random person on the Internet. If you’re asking them to explain a thing about sexism or racism or what have you, they’re already giving you their time and emotional labor for free. They’re your teacher — and they’re volunteering their time.

The reality is that women are the experts in sexism; black and brown people are the experts in racism; disabled people are the experts in ableism; etc. To be very clear, that doesn’t mean you can defend your sexist opinions by citing your one female friend who says they agree with you. There are certainly chill girls and so on, marginalized people who ignore or deny the realities of their own oppression. And there are often disagreements and debates within a marginalized group (such as feminist debates over pornography).

But if you’re talking with a marginalized person who’s conscious of their oppression and well-informed about it, and you’re sincere about wanting to understand their oppression, you need to approach them with the respect and humility you’d give to teachers. When you don’t treat people as teachers, it’s reasonable for them to assume you’re not there to learn.

Learning With Respect vs. “Just Asking Questions”