Join an Inquiry, not an Inquisition

If there’s an afterlife and it doesn’t go well for me, I’m pretty sure I’ll be stuck in an endless-but-otherwise-typical Eugene Q&A session. The room will be crowded and overheated. Two-thirds of the audience will be fidgeting helplessly, rolling their eyes, signaling their passive contempt for the other third. My eternal nightmare features people working out their personal issues with a microphone, a question, and an innocent person attempting to provide answers.

There will be the sanctimonious scold, improvising new versions of “I told you so.” There will be the tone-deaf speechifier, stringing together four or five unrelated points, flouting the form by adding “Don’t you agree?” at the end. There will be the “nth degree-er” who takes points made in the presentation past their logical conclusions toward a less-than-logical conclusiveness.

A dozen years ago, when I was president of the City Club of Eugene, I actively campaigned for better and shorter questions from our members. This included privately confronting members who postured when they should have just asked their question. Most responded well, and questions improved. But that was easy, because asking questions was a privilege reserved for members of the club. I had leverage.

Most question-and-answer sessions in Eugene are open to anyone, so there is no club or membership or leverage. We get all comers, reliably doing what they always do — scolding, speechifying, nth-degreeing. It’s embarrassing.

Gandhi said something like, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Here’s my corollary to that: “Undo here the fate you fear.”

And so, here I am, inviting you to attend a free lecture Tuesday evening at Harris Hall. (March 25, 7 PM, 125 E. 8th Ave.) Some of my friends helped make the arrangements and there will be a question-and-answer period. Before I tell you the topic, please understand my request. Don’t care too much.

Join an inquiry, not an inquisition.

Physics instructor David Chandler will be asking questions about the World Trade Center buildings that collapsed on September 11, 2001. He will present what he believes is evidence that the official inquiry following that tragedy landed somewhere between an insufficient attempt and a criminal cover-up.

But don’t skip ahead to the conspiracy theories. Please.

As I understand it, Chandler won’t be asking for a sedition and treason trial. He — along with several thousand scientists and engineers — is simply asking that the inquiry into the events of that day be reopened and reviewed by qualified experts.

Maybe the anomalies in the completed official report will be cleared up. It’s possible that a series of unforeseen factors combined to produce the unprecedented cataclysm that horrified us that day. We all should hope so.

If part of Chandler’s presentation leaves you intrigued, ask a reasonable (and short) question. We need to cultivate a culture of curiosity. Where better to begin than in a question session? Skepticism is good; cynicism is bad.

If you feel motivated to do more, find some modest way to help. Write a small check, or take on a tiny task. Write a single letter, or read a short book. Talk to just a few close friends. Get involved, but only a little bit. Pay attention, while continuing to live your life.

Each of us must find our own sweet spot between apathy and paranoia. Caring too little is certainly the most pervasive problem around us, but caring too much is also dangerous. Remember that Screwtape always sent his devils out in pairs.

On this and a thousand other issues, we need more regular people to get engaged, doing what they can between their other daily tasks. If lots more people care a little, we’ll be less reliant on the few who care a lot. That will be better for everyone.

We cannot know for sure where a re-opened inquiry will lead, but that’s exactly what inquiry requires. Knowing the answers too soon and too surely is how our questions end up saying too much about us, and very little about whatever subject is at hand.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.