Tag Archives: curiosity

Curiosity Call: Stretching Policy and Personal Assumptions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jan

Kid Questions

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.  Bertrand Russell

Curiosity takes ignorance seriously, and is confident enough to admit when it does not know. It is aware of not knowing, and it sets out to do something about it.  Alain de Botton

Ask yourself three questions and you will know who you are.  What do you believe in? What do you hope for? But most important – What do you love?  Paulina Simons

Don’t question if the world is real; question if your thoughts are. Marty Rubin

As the UN prepares for its 75th anniversary and its decade of action on sustainable development, many are likely in this time of massive fires and human displacement to question both the pace of UN reform and the robustness of the UN’s commitment to implement all of the promises embedded in the 2030 Development Agenda.  And, as we creep ever-closer to a reckless Middle East military confrontation (check out the crowds at Suleimani’s funeral earlier today), many are also questioning the ability of the international community (especially the UN Security Council) to serve as an effective mechanism of conflict prevention rather than as a mere channel for acknowledging newly-escalating tensions.

Such questioning in our view is well within bounds.   It is important that the UN Is held to account for its promises as with other institutions including small NGOs such as our own.   We have all taken on important commitments to enhancing food security, mitigating the devastation from climate change, ensuring peace and security, and much more.  Such commitments were willingly embraced and it is right and sensible to question the resolve of our erstwhile leadership at times when goals get bogged down or otherwise fall woefully behind schedule. A case could surely be made that we are now living through such a time.

That said, the quality of our questions also leaves much to be desired, to our leadership for sure, but also to persons closer to home.

We tend to know just enough about the people whose lives and work we encounter to label them and stick them in boxes of our own making.  We know what they “do” for a living.  We know something about their relationship status and political biases along with a few characteristic habits – often the ones that mostly annoy us.   In such a social environment, we increasingly tend to interpret questions as intrusions on what remains of our privacy, or as judgments on our lack of physical or professional perfection, in part because the questions we are asked, when others even bother to ask them, seem intended to expose rather than explore, to satisfy some prurient interest rather than enhance connection, to promote and amplify an-often limited knowledge base rather than offer invitation to build a base together broader than we could ever build alone.

When was the last time that any of us were asked the kinds of questions that made it more possible for us to explore rather than define, to connect rather than defend?   When was the last time we were asked questions that created safe-enough spaces for curiosity and vulnerability, that allowed us to seek together what we don’t know rather than recite what we already know (or rush to consult our phones as some ultimate authority, thereby abandoning the questions altogether that phones alone can’t process)?  And when was the last time we asked questions ourselves that didn’t house a distinct (and unspoken) agenda and that embodied a commitment to listen to the answers no matter how difficult or challenging those answers might be?

I thought so.  Of the attributes of a rich and connected life that we refuse to practice, asking good questions has become, for too many of us, the top rung in an increasingly lengthy chain.   Our collective curiosity increasingly extends little beyond the fact-checking that can be spewed out by Siri.  Our collective questioning increasingly extends little beyond information that we can “use,” including use against each other.

And yes there is a UN angle on all of this.   Our statement-rich policy environment is shockingly void of questions, certainly of the open-ended variety and mostly (where they exist at all) deeply embedded in our policy accusations.  We read statements and then consult our cell phones to see if we get any tweaks on our twitter feed.  We’re not interested much in what others have to say, in part because we’re heard it all before, and in part because nothing we hear is likely to change what we have to say going forward– or more precisely what our governments or organizations allow us to say.

In the absence of authorization to the contrary,  our questioning in this policy space is infrequent and confined to filling gaps in policy briefings.  It is much less about enabling the curiosity to explore and examine the consequences of our policy choices, to look more closely at our mandates and mission statements and ask ourselves, “if we get what we say we want, how will people be affected?”  Who will be helped or hurt?  And what adjustments need to be made in how we do our business (including a reality-based examination of current and future threats) such that the helping is maximized and the hurting minimized?

A reader might be tempted to assume that such curiosity-based questioning is deeply affirmed and encouraged within the policy community.   But this assumption also needs to be interrogated.  It is easy enough to believe that those pulling the policy levers have your best interests at heart.  It is harder to believe that there are problems and challenges, sometimes most easily perceivable at local level, that are mostly (and sometimes intentionally) invisible to decision-makers.  Those of us who are blessed to sit in these discussions on a daily basis know how impenetrable policy bubbles can be, how dismissive they can be of the evidence and testimony that can complicate the job of policy but can also enrich and extend its products.

Clearly we need to ask better questions of our leadership but also of others in our more immediate orbit, questioning not only the “what” but the ‘why.”  We need to know more about how people do their work in the world, how they overcome challenges and limitations, how they arrive at the opinions that drive their decisions; but even more how they believe, hope and love and what all of that means for the “reality” of their practical decision-making.  And others need to know these things about us.

This past week, a medical practitioner I frequent (and like a lot) said something to me along the lines that “I have known you for years and I don’t really know what you do.”  He assumed that the problem was all about my failure to disclose. That’s surely part of it.  But the other part was about his unwillingness to raise his own level of curiosity, to embed that curiosity in the form of questions, and then allow me the space to respond.

This allowance is something we simply don’t do enough for each other.  We need to make more time to move beyond what people “do” to the larger questions of why they do it and what it takes for them to do what they do.  We need to take our own “ignorance” more seriously,  even our ignorance about the people in our more immediate environments whom we claim to “know well.” In that light, we would do well to “hang more question marks” on all the things we take for granted or that we imagine we already know, the things that we accept because we are too busy or distracted, or because we convince ourselves that we can’t do anything about them anyway. We need to make more space that would allow others in and around our lives to reflect on and share more of their nuances and multiple dimensions.

Here’s to a more curiosity-filled 2020.  In this difficult time for the world, we need every heart and brain engaged beyond the immediate and apparent.

 

The Courage of Good Questions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Mar

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Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas. – Marie Curie

I’ve always been really curious about things and slightly confused by the world, and I think someone who feels that way is in a good position to be the one asking questions. -Terry Gross

I spent many years in school, but it was rarely a happy or satisfying place for me. There were simply too many times when the “who said so” of ideas trumped the complexities behind what was actually being conveyed.   For me, school was full of ideas that seemed beyond reproach when they left the mouths of the instructors, only to be revealed as incomplete and at times even misleading down the road.

And such a long road it was.  It was not until my doctoral program that I literally “lucked into” mentors who were more passionate for their ideas than for their careers, who were far more curious than defensive, who understood at the deepest levels that most of the problems soon to confront the world had not yet been faced, let alone overcome.

These mentors pushed me hard, beyond trying to impress others with my edgy “cleverness,” towards a place of rigor and kindness – rigor characterized by attentiveness and the willingness to “ask the next question,” and kindness grounded in the (hopefully) humble recognition that all of us, even the most accomplished in worldly terms,  have much still to learn.

Part of what Global Action seeks to accomplish (and occasionally does) is to embody that all-too-rare combination of attentiveness and curiosity, understanding that the best questions make good use of existing context and help to examine not only what has been “settled,” but to preview the ground soon to move under our feet, requiring more of what Jeremy Taylor once referred to as “the incontinency of the spirit.”  In our office, we don’t often abandon attentiveness for chatter, but we do at times try to ask good and hard questions at the UN, not to draw attention to ourselves but rather to the unresolved matters of policy that are both far from consensus and close to undermining our current, fragile stasis.

The UN can be a remarkable place, filled to the brim with experience and expertise on the widest possible range of policy concerns.   It provides, in some ways, an education like no other.   But it also harbors noticeable intellectual deficits.  There are few opportunities for genuine open-ended discussion on policy needs and responsibilities.   There are few questions posed that genuinely push “authorized speakers” to signal new space for potential policy shifts.   We are a building full of consensus-builders and (on the NGO side) campaigners, useful skills to be sure, but skills not ideal for breaking up our superficially optimistic mood or reminding people of the hard truth that some of the consensus resolutions they worked so hard on are unlikely to accomplish much in the world beyond First Avenue.

Two examples from this past week highlighted the pedagogical frustrations and opportunities of this very political space.  On Wednesday, the UN University organized an excellent discussion on the problem of modern slavery.  The keynote speaker made learned and helpful background remarks which emphasized distinctions between the “prohibition” of slavery and its “eradication.”   The pitch was, as is often the case in UN conference rooms, for the provision of national legislation that parallels and supplements international legal obligations to prohibition.

Fair enough, though as we pointed out, there is a deep conundrum attached to this approach.   Within the Human Rights Committee, for instance, a frequent response given by states whose human rights record has been called to account is something along the lines of, “this can’t be happening here, we have laws to prohibit it.”  But as NGOs in Geneva are fond of reminding Committee members, the presence of laws does not by any means guarantee eradication of the practice.  Thus our concern that a focus on legislation alone is insufficient to end the scourge, while a focus on eradication might make states more reluctant to sign on to human rights agreements in the first place.    How to navigate this problem?

The response we received was unfulfilling at best, almost as though the expert hadn’t considered this conundrum previously (surely he had) or failed to appreciate it being brought to his attention during a session that was being webcast. Moreover, no one in the audience approached us afterwards (or even made eye contact) to continue the conversation.  Apparently, ours was not a polite, courteous question, despite the fact that it seemed well within the band-width and interests of the speaker to respond and reflect.

This is what the UN is like too often – implicit and even excessive deference to “experts” and “authorities” who are often, but by no means always, on the best possible policy track.

Fortunately, there are bursts of healthy curiosity to be found if one is open to them.  One such occasion was on Tuesday when Ecuador ably convened a gathering to discuss prospects for a Fourth Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD).  There has been no such “special session” for 29 years now and delegates spent most of this morning discussion debating the scope of a possible meeting, whether to focus on one of the many stubborn areas of disarmament dysfunction or instead authorize a thorough review of all disarmament-related processes.

At one point, the Ecuadorian diplomat intervened, wondering aloud (lamenting perhaps) why the word “disarmament” so rarely is heard now across UN headquarters?   The question was simultaneously simple and brilliant.  For if disarmament has been downgraded in at least some quarters from a core UN priority, can a “special session” possibly help to restore its luster?

Despite the fact that disarmament matters attract some of the most capable diplomats in the UN system, the topic itself has never had a lower profile in my entire UN-based tenure.  Part of this is due to the discipline itself – inflexible architecture, low levels of state trust, treaties that are disregarded or are full of loopholes that uncooperative states are happy to exploit, invitations to weapons manufacturing states to hide behind consensus as a way of undermining disarmament agreement, a focus on managing the flows and modernization of weapons rather than reducing their volume and “footprint.”

But part of this low profile is due to successes in other parts of the UN, successes that have spawned a series of new, interesting, policy-rich discussions on conflict prevention and sustainable peace, conversations that often explore the implications of omnipresent weapons for development, climate, trafficking, even gender based violence.   Disarmament practitioners are only rarely present for these discussions; indeed SDG 16 on “peaceful and inclusive societies” was drafted and adopted with almost no involvement from disarmament-focused diplomats or related UN resource persons.

Whether another SSOD can resurrect the UN disarmament priority is debatable. What for us is less debatable is that our collective task here remains not to get things settled so much as to get them right.  Good questions – probing and respectful – are important contributions to ensuring timely and credible responses to constantly evolving global challenges, including human rights and disarmament challenges.

The most-curious Ralph Waldo Emerson once prodded teachers that when your students correct your mistakes, “hug them.”   There is little reason to believe that hugging will become common practice inside the UN, but a bit more curiosity regarding gaps yet to be filled — and perhaps even a modicum of gratitude for those who expose such gaps — would help keep us all on a more progressive policy path.