When I was a child, my mother warned me before we went to a tourist attraction: “Don’t ask people too many questions.”
I didn’t understand why she told me this. I was still in primary school and, like a typical kid, I was full of curiosity. A hungry kid, I always wanted to learn more, to explore more. This curiosity made me an avid book reader. It also made me a hell of a questioner. Whenever there was an opportunity to ask questions, I would be the first to raise my hand. My curiosity wasn’t just at full play in class, but also when we were traveling, when I would bombard our tour guides with questions.
“You ask a lot of questions, it can be distracting,” my mother said. “It attracts unwanted attention. You would look weird and annoying asking too many questions. Not everyone finds your questions important, so just be considerate.”
At that tender age, I wasn’t aware that I was asking too many questions. Looking back, however, I realize she was right. I’ve also learned that people may find those who ask many questions annoying. My experiences in classes and public forums have reinforced this idea that you shouldn’t ask too much questions. Whenever our teachers offered us to ask questions, other kids seldom raised their hands, even if they did have questions about the lesson. Then I discovered that a high school friend was considered annoying by my classmates because he always asked questions, even if they were questions on innocuous topics. Asking questions on more “sensitive” issues was even more complicated.
Having realized this, I grew reluctant of asking questions in a public forum, fearing I be judged. I second-guessed myself whenever I was about to ask a question: Should I ask? I tried to be someone who would not bother others with my questions. I wanted to be normal.
Our society does not promote curiosity. In public forum such as in class or seminar I am always under the impression that you are better off not asking too much. Even teachers would be annoyed if you pop them with too many questions. Sadly this is reflected in our literacy rate, which ranks 60th in the world. Literacy rate is an important aspect that explains the interest of people finding and understanding new knowledge.
The reason is simple. Our culture values integration and assimilation and our largely collective society values consensus. We are supposed to feel that we belong to our place, which entails conforming to the norms in public space. Compromising is premium, even if it means you must ignore systemic flaws or some glaring issues.
Questions are the exact opposite of that. Questions raise issues and challenge us to solve problems by answering them. Questions are disruptions, and if you cause too many disruptions, you are considered as an issue of sort. Question something controversial, and you disrupt the very fabric of the society itself.
Vladimir Nabokov put it best: “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.”
In a culture that doesn’t value curiosity, people lose their sense of wonder. People become less open-minded. It breeds judgmental people with limited perspective. And this affects its political scene. A study by Dan Kahan, a law and psychology professor from Yale, with his colleague shows that curiosity plays an important role in shaping politically motivated reasoning. The study shows that instead of intelligence, curiosity is a very crucial factor in countering politically motivated argument.
Given our current divisive political atmosphere and the growing fundamentalism that tends to “limit” the discourses through the use of restrictive interpretation of religion, this study becomes even more relevant. From Kahan’s study, we can conclude that cultivating a curious culture is important to improve the political atmosphere.
But how? I don’t pretend to have the answer. Curiosity is intrinsically motivated. However, cliché as it may sound, we can start with small steps, and the smallest steps we can do is to start with ourselve. Begin by asking questions more and more about your surroundings, starting for example with your “habit” and your media consumption. Support people who are brave enough to raise questions, instead of shutting them down. And when you’re curious about something, speak up, ask questions. Don’t hold yourself back.
Get in touch with your inner child, the one who is not embarrassed to ask questions. That’s what I’m also trying to do now.
Ireisha Anindya is a pessimistic dreamer whose heart belongs to well-written narrative pieces, difficult characters, and fresh juice. Her eyes are wide open, partly due to her constant surprise at her environment and partly due to her undying curiosity. She has a jerkbrain that she loves nevertheless.