How to Speak Your Mind

To be knowledgeable on a topic is to be able to make up your mind about it, to speak your mind about it, and to write it down. I want to look at the second of these competences today — the ability, if you will, to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people. As a scholar, you can’t be satisfied with just holding a great many “justified, true beliefs”; you have to be able to discuss them intelligently with people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. This openness to criticism is an essential part of being a good scholar, a holder of distinctly “academic” knowledge.

I’m sure you’ve been told at some point in your life that there’s “no such thing as a stupid question”. The person who told you this had the best of intentions, of course, but I’m sure you discovered long ago that they were, for lack of a better word, lying to you. There is very definitely such a thing as a stupid question; you’ve asked stupid questions, and you’ve been asked stupid questions. Indeed, what distinguishes a knowledgeable person from an ignorant one is, in part, the ability to distinguish between good and bad questions. Some questions come out of simple ignorance of the subject, while others are informed by the shared body of knowledge that guides work in a discipline. As a knowledgeable person, you want to be able to articulate and recognize good questions and deal with them appropriately.

You are not, of course, obligated to be able to answer every good question. “That’s a good question!” isn’t just an ironic dodge you use when you’re stumped. It is a recognition that, even given everything you know, even given everything we know, it is reasonable to have questions. The important thing is to be aware of the shared body of common knowledge that determines whether a question is good or bad, relevant or irrelevant. Also, do note calling someone stupid is obviously not a competent way of dealing with a question that seems to reveal ignorance of a field’s common stock of knowledge. Your conversational competence here will be displayed in your ability to politely guide the conversation onto more fertile ground, perhaps even discovering the kernel of wisdom that the question does contain. Just make sure that you and you interlocutors don’t waste too much time on matters that have long been settled.

Scholars also have a shared sense of humor. The members of a specialized knowledge community will find certain things amusing that others don’t. Knowledge, after all, plays a central role in establishing the boundary to “the absurd”. An Austrian economist’s reference to a “gale” can be witty in a way that someone unfamiliar with the work of Schumpeter might not detect at all. A sensemaking’s scholar’s allusion to your “map of the Alps” will not make sense to you if you aren’t familiar with Miroslav Holub’s anecdote and the role it plays in the work of Karl Weick. This familiarity with the comedic potential of the concepts and characters in a discipline of course also sets a relatively high standard. Some jokes are told and retold so often that telling them only reveals that you are new to the field. Some jokes ellicit no more than a groan.

On the other side of this boundary there is of course a series of subjects and claims that your peers will have little or no sense of humor about. These are the things that it is “not okay” to say, or what are sometimes called “politically incorrect” utterances. They do not expose your ignorance so much as your malevolence. To put it as plainly as possible, they identify you as a “bad” person. This is something that Thomas Kuhn pointed out half a century ago by suggesting that a scientific paradigm is organized, in part, around a shared set of values. Enforcing those values is a far from trivial part of the conversations that scholars must be able keep their footing in. Understanding the boundary of offensive speech in discourse is therefore an important part of being knowledgeable in an academic context.

Now, you may think I say that as a warning to stay away from offensive speech. But in fact I’m saying it to encourage you to learn how to manage provocations constructively. Just as you must learn to deal with the occasional “stupid” question politely, you will have to learn how to handle the occasional offensive remark. Indeed, just as an apparently stupid question may not, on closer inspection, be inappropriate after all, a remark that offends you may turn out to express an idea that the conversation needs to address in order to move forward. If we are always afraid of offending each other, or too quick to take offense ourselves, our conversations will not be able to tackle difficult subjects and help us learn (or teach) new truths. And one reason we may be afraid of controversy is simply that we lack the rhetorical skills to leverage it as part of a fruitful argument. We’re scared to engage because we feel weak or clumsy. We worry that we’ll get hurt or, worse, that we’ll hurt someone else. This worry is not conducive to interesting, intellectually challenging conversations.

All three conversational skills — a feel for the good question, a sense of humor, and a sensitivity to offense — are acquired by scholars through years of practice. Just as you can’t learn French merely by watching French movies, you don’t master a discourse merely by attending lectures. You have to speak up. You have to risk asking a stupid question, telling a bad joke, or offending the person you are speaking to. The academic system of schooling is generally forgiving of new entrants to a field in this regard, and being a student should, ideally, provide a context in which to make and learn from your mistakes. Like some others, however, I’m watching the developments on university campuses these days with some concern, and I would understand if you told me you were a bit anxious about speaking your mind. Still, it is very important that we learn how to do this. At a university, people who don’t know how to speak their minds can’t, properly speaking, consider themselves knowledgeable.

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