Unaskable Questions

Some questions shouldn’t be asked. For example, it would not be right to ask “Is slavery moral?” or “Should we exterminate this ethnic group?” Any question that denies someone else’s humanity isn’t open for debate. Even asking the question is offensive.

What questions are unaskable? “Unaskable questions” are a category. The prototype-based theory of category shows that categories are understood by comparing potential members to the best examples of the category — the prototypes. For example, for Americans, a prototype for the category “bird” is a robin, and we understand that a penguin is also a bird but is relatively far from our prototypical member. Categories have fuzzy boundaries. An SUV is a member of both the categories “car” and “truck,” but isn’t close to the prototypical examples of either.

For me, good prototypes for the category of unaskable questions are the questions above about slavery and genocide. When we encounter other questions and are confused about whether they are unaskable, we can compare them to our prototypes. How is this question like or unlike unaskable questions about slavery and genocide?

Many of the more contentious areas of internet discourse today are at the fuzzy boundary of the category of unaskable questions. Some people are deeply offended that the question even be asked, while others feel it must be asked because people don’t agree. How can we come to a better mutual understanding if we can’t even talk about it?

I believe that talking to those you passionately disagree with is important. You are not likely to change their minds, and they’re not likely to persuade you. But maybe you’ll all come away at least understanding why others feel as they do. It’s not appropriate to discuss truly unaskable questions. But maybe some questions that walk up to the border of unaskable could be addressed in some way.

Here’s an example. In the abortion debate, both sides feel that the core question is unaskable. If you believe a fertilized egg is a human being, then asking if it’s OK to kill it is unaskable because it is denying the humanity of a person. On the other side, many people believe (as I do) that a woman has a right to control her own body, and a fertilized egg isn’t a person until later in its development. Consequently, denying a woman the right to make choices about her own body is denying her humanity. The question is unaskable on both sides.

Both positions on the abortion debate have underlying assumptions about the nature of life. Every argument has unstated assumptions underlying it. In Toulmin’s theory of rhetoric, the unstated assumption is the “warrant” of an argument. Maybe we can make more progress in difficult discussions if we explicitly identify and address those unstated assumptions. Let’s not talk about abortion — let’s first discuss what is life. Let’s not talk about gender-affirming medical care — let’s first talk about the fundamental nature of gender. It’s at least a place to start.

It feels to me like the space of unaskable questions is expanding, and blocking out civil discourse. Are there issues where you have an opinion, but wouldn’t dare share it? Sociologists note that when someone is aware that their opinion might be unpopular, they often refrain from sharing it. This is “the spiral of silence.” Keith Hampton showed that people who become aware through online discourse that their opinions might be unwelcome often become less willing to subsequently share those opinions face-to-face as well as online.

The process by which we decide difficult questions like abortion is political — and hopefully democratic. But democracy requires civil discourse. And we can’t have civil discourse if we can’t even ask relevant questions.

Where Next?

I believe that society would benefit from more civil discussion of hard issues. We aren’t necessarily going to change one another’s minds, but maybe we can better understand why others have different points of view. It’s hard to have those discussions when we so many questions can’t even be asked. And engaging on difficult issues is draining — we can’t expect people to be able to politely discuss really hard issues and calmly respond to offensive-seeming provocations ad nauseum. We especially can’t ask members of marginalized groups to continually defend issues that threaten their right to exist in society. And right now that’s it — we’re stuck. We don’t agree, and we can’t talk about it.

I don’t know the solution to these problems. But I wonder if we might design better discussion platforms that aim to make meaningful conversation about hard issues more feasible. My students and I are going to try.

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Amy Bruckman

I do research on social media, including online collaboration, social movements, and online moderation and harassment.