The question is one of the most interesting semantic functions I know of. Easily used for a wide range of functions, the question can establish fact, authority, doubt, truth, narrative, and position all with out breaking a linguistic sweat. The leading question implies, the open ended question creates space, the hostile question sets tone.

But one of the things that I think needs more attention is the way that questions shape and transmit power. To wit, a short story.

The Survivor

I met her some years ago. Fewer than I’d care to admit, as you’ll see shortly, I am not a sympathetic character in this tale. I knew from before I met her officially that she had been assaulted recently. I don’t recall quite how the subject came up, but I tend to think that knowing myself, I had helped lead things in that direction. If nothing else, I’m a curious type. She told me the entire story, stopping very little. I had shut down in to dumb silence. I’m thinking about it now…and I’ve got a half-queasy feeling of anger and powerlessness. She slowed, and then stopped. Silence. “Well, say something!” Her tone was sharp. I don’t blame her for that…she had put herself out there and made herself extremely vunerable, and had no idea of if i was reacting in a helpful way or if she needed to close off and protect herself. I started asking questions. Had she reported it? No. She knew who he was? Yes, a friend of a friend. If you don’t, couldn’t he do this to someone else? He already had. The limitations haven’t run out…you can still file, you know? She backed away.

The problem wasn’t that my questions were dumb, though they were. The problem is the power that asking a question can exert. Like questions that background and elide the assumption that legal means are the acceptable means of responding to an aquaintance rape. Like questions that have everything to do with the questioner’s need to pattern and structure an unfamiliar experience, and nothing to do with centering and respecting the other person.

A few years after that, I was at a ministry conference. The homophobia was running high, and we had a panel on “Barriers To Ministry.” One young woman asked a question about queer ordination. The “ally” who was leading asked back: “What denomination are you?” She had said nothing about being queer herself, or in any way indicated that she wanted personal advice. She wanted to bring attention to the fact that there was a major “Barrier To Ministry” at a time when the lack of trained clergy was being bemoaned.

That night, a few of us clung to each other at the healing service…a handful of queers in unsafe space. Outed in such an enviroment, this woman had been betrayed by a question. Questions create gaze. They structure who is looking, analyzying, evaluating….and who is examined, critiqued, and objectified. For those of us who have grown up with priviledge, we are trained to ask. We expect answers. We believe other people will tell us things that we need to know. We have come to assume that our questions are relevant, interesting, pertinent, and helpful. We are addicted to our gaze, our way of looking from power. The question gives shape to that demand and presumption.

The point of this isn’t an indictment of curiousity. It is a cautionary tale about being in control and awareness of where that is leading. Coupled with priviledge, the question becomes interrogation, the expression of power through a demand posed as a question. I had no idea what it meant to consider and chose how to respond and protect oneself after a sexual assault. The questions I asked didn’t seek that knowledge. They sought the impression of order over my unease. The panelist didn’t have a clue about what it meant to seek ordination as a queer person. The question she asked didn’t answer that for her. It ended the conversation.

I can’t say what the magic words are, or what should be said instead of a question. Maybe the right thing is a different question. I have no idea, to this day, what I should have said. But what I have come to see is the way in which my (and many other people’s) response to sexual assault is immediatly evaluatory. The whole trope of “credibility” and fitting the “pattern” of how people react to sexual violence is witness to this trend. The combination of ignorance and priviledge mixes in the questions we find ourselves asking. They undermine the personhood of the people we ask them about. We use questions to elide that we are making assumptions and judgments about how a person “ought” to respond to rape.

I hope that I am learning to change my questions. I hope that I am not learning to be silent. I hope that my questions interrogate my own power more than than the choices of others. I yearn for questions that demand a response from the institutions that have been complicit with sexual silence. More than anything, I want the question that underlies all my other questions to be:

When can I, when can we, end sexual violence?