Julia Cohn: The power of questioning

Sunday, February 11, 2018 - 5:31pm

When I was in elementary school, I had a laminated placemat with the presidents listed on it. Presidents were always interesting to me. George Washington had very different hair from Bill Clinton. And wasn’t it crazy that John Adams was the father of John Quincy Adams? My very liberal mother often talked about and involved me in supporting Democratic presidents; We canvassed for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, and I was confused waking up and seeing that George Bush was our president. I remember hearing her say, “It is going to be a long four years.” This always struck me, because Abraham Lincoln was celebrated in school since I could remember — but he was a Republican. I never stopped thinking about it.  

As I grew up, I learned about the history and foundation of political parties, and understood that they were very different in the past. But why, even as a young kid, did I question the character and beliefs of Abraham Lincoln just because our placemat said he was a Republican? Because I had thought for a long time that one side was perpetually in the right, and one was in the wrong. But in reality, I was the culprit of affiliating vague ideologies with beliefs that differ from person to person.

There is power in asking questions, recognizing what you do not know and finding someone who does. But there is also power in questioning what you do know: your core beliefs and your understanding of the world around you. A question. Seems so simple, right?

We live in an extremely politically-divided nation, where one side is always pitted against the other. Blame comes from both sides, with different perspectives and multiple reasonings. There is very little room for any “in-between,” where you are not reprimanding someone for misspeaking or supporting the “wrong side.” And it is easy to revert to outright dislike of people solely based on their political beliefs before hearing about their actions or their thoughts.

It is easy, whatever side you may be on, to automatically classify the opposition as “the other.” When you disagree with the beliefs of an argument, it is common to associate those beliefs with the person who holds them, thus further promoting our partisan society.

I am a culprit of acting in this manner, regardless of the political knowledge I have gained since the time of presidential placemats. I was a politically-active student last fall, and I definitely remember President Donald Trump’s election. After he became president, it was very easy to blame the Republican Party for his actions. This overstatement is glaringly wrong, and within the last year, I have recognized the power of a question.

Last year, I remember sitting with a friend during class right after the election. I knew this friend had voted for Trump, and I was still upset by his decision. When Trump fired James Comey, I was confused and overwhelmed by the changes that our nation was experiencing. So instead of attacking my friend, for one of the first times in my life I civilly asked him what he thought of the Comey situation; did this change his views about the president? Did he believe this was infringing upon a supposedly independent organization? And, of course, what did he think about the border wall? Instead of attacking his views, I questioned them. To my surprise, I was able to engage in an hour-long discussion about the reasoning behind his political beliefs. This did not make me support his decisions whatsoever, but it did help me to understand the logical thought process of the “other side.” And this was a powerful moment.

This is the time for critical reasoning. To look at a situation, a person, a candidate and truly think about what they are saying, proposing or doing. And, more importantly, why they are saying, proposing or doing these things. So, question your peers on their beliefs. Question your family, your professors, your mentors. We all have something to learn from the other side. Talking about politics with a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian — whoever it may be — does you absolutely no harm. Questioning someone else’s beliefs only allows you to understand them more, and to understand your position more, too.

Julia Cohn can be reached at julcohn@umich.edu.