This piece was originally published in the November 16, 2010 edition of the Kane County Chronicle
“Innocent until proven guilty” is the most fundamental principle in our court system, but I wonder how often this critical precept wends its way into our day-to-day discourse.
The possibility that this cultural tenet is lost in everyday life became painfully obvious during the recent mid-term elections. In the oft-violent language of the pre-election debate, those who fought for various opposing sides were frequently categorized as ignorant, idiots, or even evil—guilty without the slightest interest in the possibility of innocence. I know people on both sides of many of the issues, and they are good citizens who endeavor to do the best they can for our collective futures. They are not ignorant, idiots or evil.
Our disregard for the principle of innocent until proven guilty is related to another thought that swirls in the gray matter I use to think about life. Is the use of question marks a lost art? If you mentally recreate the debates that erupted in the weeks before the election, you will likely recall few serious questions—questions without an implied answer. Questions like “Do you really expect us to believe those lies?” do not fall into my definition of serious.
Serious questions open possibilities; periods shrink the potential for a truly new future. Serious questions seek wisdom; periods indicate that the knowledge we have at the moment is complete and final. Questions are future oriented; periods point to the past.
In spite of their generative nature, I fear we have lost the art of asking truly great questions. Asking questions, acknowledging we do not have answers, is difficult. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable can challenge our sense of self. Perhaps the world has shifted since I sat in the classroom, but I seldom received grades for the quality of my questions—and their ability help explore the as-yet undiscovered. My grades were based on the finality of the answers I conjured that ended debate and creativity. My grades, and the future they determined for me, were calculated by the deemed correctness of thousands of words that preceded endless periods.
I have little doubt that, as the founders of our democracy deliberated the dictates and edicts of King George, the same virulent discourse, with an equal disregard for questions, dominated many of the debates. There will always be a time, as we disagree about what is truly fundamental about being human, in which our emotions will get hijacked and we will use too many periods…and some will loom very large in our conversation. But I wonder if, in the court of our day-to-day lives, we might practice replacing some of our periods with question marks. I know I will try.