An Allegory of Folly (early 16th century) by Quentin Matsys
Have you ever asked or been asked a stupid question?
What constitutes stupid questions? How does the asking of them often nullify their stupidity?
There is an old adage that the only stupid question is the one we do not ask. That is true sometimes, but there really are stupid questions that are asked.
"Stupid" has this etymology:
The relationship between exercising stupidity and being in a stupor is profound.
Therefore, a stupid question is one that is numb, disengaged, apathetic, or drunken.
To break it down with an acronym, a stupid question has these characteristics:
S - Surface - It is exemplified by the student who, after a moving lecture of the meaning of life, raises his hand and, as the professor prepares of an insightful and probing question asks, "Is this going to be on the final?"
T - Trivial - With the opportunity to probe some pretty profound principles of perpetual truth, we focus on insignificant details. Another professor, Dr. Charles Tyer, once lectured us from a classroom overlooking a bucolic mountain view. He asked us if we were focused on the view or on the fly specks on the window. Trivial questions miss the view for the fly specks.
U - Unconsidered - Any question worth asking someone else is worth asking oneself first. Then ask if
- (a) you could not find the answer within yourself,
- (b) you want a second opinion, or
- (c) you sense that there are any number of answers and approaches to the question and you wish to enter into dialogue over it. Once you have wrestled a while with a question, it is no longer stupid.
P - Perfunctory - A perfunctory question is one you are using to accomplish something other than the quest for truth. It is an obligatory question like the one at the blood donation center when they ask if you have had marital relations with a non-human primate in the last 12 months. It is the question where you state your name for the record. It is merely functional and automatic. Anyone can ask it given a script.
I - Inflammatory - An inflammatory question is asked when you know that the answer is going to embarrass,indict, inflame, or discredit the person giving the answer. In online forums,people who asked such questions used to be called "flamers." They were just trying to start fires. There was no value placed on the quest for truth.
D - Disengaged - This is the essence of stupidity in every area of life. As Forest Gump's mother said, "Stupid is as stupid does." That is why Gump was never stupid in spite of his lower than average intelligence quotient. In spite of the challenges he faced, when he set out to do something, he fully engaged in the process. When he asked a question, he really wanted to know the answer. He looked beneath the surface of things. He thought about life and the big questions. Gump was, as his drill sergeant said, "brilliant," because he was fully engaged.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. No question that digs beneath the surface a bit, ignores the fly specks, is given some thought, comes from your own heart and mind, seeks real answers, and is fully engaged can ever be a stupid question. ASK!