How Not to Be a Terrible Sea Lion

How Not to Be a Terrible Sea Lion April 4, 2022

“There are no bad questions” is one of those collected pearls of wisdom that sounds good on the surface. Questions encourage thought, we’re told, and encouraging thought is always a good thing.


Well, perhaps we should examine the premises here.

Do questions encourage thought? They certainly can do so. After all, if inventors didn’t ask questions about how a task might be done more efficiently, a lot of the conveniences we depend on today might never have been invented. If the early Christians didn’t ask questions about who Jesus was, then a lot of the dogmatic formulations the Church depends on for building its theology wouldn’t exist. You might say that heretics were nearly as important to the early Church as the Church Fathers and Doctors. Without the heretics, the Fathers and Doctors wouldn’t have become teachers and defenders of the faith.

In recent years though, questions seem to be directed more toward obfuscating truth than revealing it.

Take the pandemic, for example. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen anti-vax activists claim to be “just asking questions” about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines developed to date to protect against COVID-19. A talking head with a YouTube channel whom no one has ever heard of will pop up and start proposing “alternative” treatments, or passing on the latest conspiracy theories, or complaining about vaccine mandates.

As sure as sunrise, the video will be splashed across social media and anti-vax pundits will be urging everyone to watch, claiming that the Mainstream Media won’t “dare” report on this or that claim. Or speculating that the geek gods at the major social media platforms will “censor” Brave Folk like the favored talking head (who somehow manages to get a lot of social media air for someone constantly being “censored” into silence).

Of course, many of the social media giants have been tweaking their algorithms to downgrade the amount of notice people pushing false information can acquire. And “victims” of “shadow banning” wail that they just want to ask questions.

Pardon me for a brief digression. As a one-time people herder on a discussion forums site, allow me to reassure you that if the social media giants really wanted to “shadow ban” users, they could do so. They’re not banning anyone—at least not those who still have access to their accounts and can post. What they’re doing is lowering the visibility of posts in the general newsfeed. The posts still show up on a person’s “wall,” where all of that person’s friends may freely gather and comment. The posts just aren’t getting as much air time in the newsfeeds of their social media connections.

When all you do is ask questions though, you’re not listening. More than that, you’re probably making a public pest of yourself.

Years ago, I found a cartoon that brilliantly illustrated the problem of Just Asking Questions. It was titled The Terrible Sea Lion. The story opens with two people touring the countryside, minding their own business. One of them comments that she likes most marine animals—but, well, she could do without sea lions. Her companion gasps, and with good reason, because up pops a sea lion who insists on finding out why this woman dislikes sea lions.

Insists so much, in fact, that he follows the couple about, “politely” attempting to engage them in conversation. He follows them home, invites himself to dinner, spends the night in their bedroom, is there the next morning, all the while Asking Polite Questions. Show your evidence! he says, then becomes offended when told to “Go away!”

Hmph! “There’s no need to raise your voice,” the sea lion huffs. “I’m right here.”

Indeed. And that’s precisely the problem. Right there asking questions instead of listening to people who desperately want him to just go away.

“Sea lioning” has since entered the vernacular as a tactic used by trolls to wear people down with constant bad-faith questions until they lose their temper and appear to be the aggressors.

Do people often seem to become impatient with what you consider to be Honest Questions? Rather than ask more questions of others, perhaps take a few minutes to consider some questions yourself.

What’s your goal? What do you hope to gain from the discussion? Do you really want to learn, or are you hoping to in some way “expose” something about the person you’re interrogating? If you really do want to learn, then stop questioning at the first answer you get. Thank the person for their answer, then go away and think about what they said. Any attempt to keep asking more questions without engaging the first answer you get is a form of hectoring that will quickly upset, well, just about everyone.

What are your tactics? Are you repeatedly tagging your target so that the person can’t claim not to have seen your question? Tagging on social media is a useful feature, but if you keep tagging someone after that person tries to leave the discussion, you’re using tagging to engage in harassment. By all means, feel free to tag someone who asked you a question. You’re also free to tag public figures who use their platform to engage the public, so long as you don’t abuse the privilege. As a rule of thumb, more than once in a week is too much to drop into someone’s notifications (unless a conversation starts; even then, refer back to the first question).

Are you giving back as much as you take? It’s easy to ask questions. It’s a lot harder to answer them. (Take it from someone who spent a large chunk of her professional life answering questions.) If someone does take the time and effort to answer your questions, are you acknowledging that? Expressing gratitude? Interacting with the points made in a thoughtful way? Opening yourself to answering questions in return? If not, you’re just creating a lot of work for others.

Asking questions used to be a noble endeavor. Just ask Socrates (so to speak). But asking lots of questions without creating space to listen and think through answers isn’t Socratic. It’s just sea lioning.

(Image: Sea lion, Pixabay.)

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