The Devil Is In the Questions | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Devil Is In the Questions


JFP Editor Donna Ladd

Just this weekend, I was in a meeting with a business adviser. "Allow me to play devil's advocate for a minute," she said in response to an idea we'd had for our business. The question gave me a slight pause because I was in the middle of assembling this "GOOD Ideas: What Jackson Needs" issue and thinking about Jackson's potential, as well as what holds us back.

A huge hurdle is the lack of devil's advocacy in Jackson's world of ideas. Or, more accurately, we do not encourage questioning enough as a tried-and-true way to vet and test and discuss and perhaps even evolve big ideas. It's unusual to hear someone pushing a big public project to say: "Tell me what is wrong with my idea. Question me. Test me. Try me. Vet me. Make me prove 
the concept."

Too often, it's just the opposite. If you dare to question many big ideas, the folks who want it most are just as likely to bad mouth you as to look at you.

I hear many good people—Jackson warriors, I call them—sit around sipping a craft beer and bemoaning how hard it is to question some or another big, hairy idea without being demonized for their efforts. Inevitably, the project they want to probe involves tax dollars and would be cool if it happened. But it also has major obstacles that we need to identify and address early in the process to determine whether the idea is feasible at all, how to pay for it and how it fits into a larger vision for the city.

For daring to question, many Jacksonians are tagged "naysayers" who "need to get with the program." The worst things I won't repeat.

Jackson has a disturbingly long history of a fairly small handful of people coming up with ambitious ideas and allowing absolutely no dissent, meaning that the citizenry ends up expecting the projects to come to fruition, while not understanding the sugarcoated challenges. When they don't happen, citizens grow increasingly cynical at, supposedly, the city's inability to make things happen.

I've known situations where a smart, young thinker questions a project on a public website, and their boss gets an angry phone call from project supporters. I've known people who get belittled and disparaged personally because they ask questions about big public projects. I've met people (in addition to myself) who get long, scolding, angry letters and inappropriate emails because they dare to criticize development efforts, whether it's an unfeasible lakes project, an expensive arena or handing over convention-center hotel land to a controversial company as late Mayor Frank Melton and friends did (and which took years to get unlocked).

My own newspaper has been threatened, cursed and boycotted because we dared to report that people pushing large projects had undisclosed conflicts of interest. One local leader still refuses to talk to us on the record until we apologize publicly for reporting factual information about a public effort. Obviously, we can't and won't ethically apologize for reporting the truth, so we're blacklisted.

Needless to say, these attempts to squelch questioning of public projects is dumb at best, and self-defeating for the city at the worst. If there is anything that citizens of a city should do, it is to ask questions until a project is fully vetted. We should all raise concerns and express dissent anytime we feel like it (as we did for years with Melton's convention-center hotel deal until we were proved dramatically right years later). That kind of accountability builds trust, not suspicion.

I really don't get hating people because they ask vital questions. I am in the business of asking questions, and I teach others to find their voices and question. My own work, and that of my business, are made stronger by good questions. Even the nastiest dissent over the years has helped us improve: There is often a modicum of truth hidden in the ugliest of comments and even when surrounded by lies. I've learned to look for the truth and use it. And if there is no truth in the dissent, I've taught myself how to ignore it and stay focused on the helpful and the positive.

When I decided to write about this topic for this GOOD Ideas issue, I initially worried that the column would come across too negative. But that is not my intention. I actually see Jackson's renaissance efforts as much more positive than negative. My message is that we can't allow a few folks with thin skins to keep us from asking a lot of tough questions about expensive, ambitious projects, and I know that squelching happens too often, especially as more and more people tell me how they're ostracized when they dare to question.

Before I sat down to write about it, I did a search on "community" and "dissent" and actually turned up information about something called "Delphi Technique"—basically a system some policy-makers use to try to manufacture "consensus" by not allowing a lot of dissent in the first place. The Rand Corp. came up with this method in the 1950s to maneuver segments of the public into accepting certain public policies with minimal dissent. The goal, it seems, is to hold supposedly "public" forums where input from the public is actually very limited in order to look accountable and open to ideas.

Sure, this sounds like conspiracy-theory stuff, and it may be. But as I read about it, I thought of a recent "forum" on the "One Lake" project in which interested residents had to go station to station to talk to project supporters and write down comments rather than stand up and ask questions.

A critic of the process, Andrew Whitehurst, said that the Mississippi Development Authority has also employed such a closed approach to public commenting. It sure felt like the folks behind "One Lake" weren't dying to answer questions in front of people who might (or might not) dissent. A better approach for "One Lake" supporters is to hold a real public forum and answer real questions for all to hear. This lake idea may well be the right one; they must prove it with real accountability.

Limiting public input and dodging hard questions just delays a public hearing of answers to important questions—or maybe even the inevitable failure of the project years after we should have known better. Making good policy isn't about easy consensus; vetting and questioning must be at the center or we end up with problematic ideas "Peter Principled" to the top of the pile, leaving better ones in the trash pile.

I found a website that recommended three responses to efforts to squelch your question: 1) Always be charming, courteous, smiling. 2) Stay focused with written questions and don't respond defensively to attempts to belittle your questions. And 3) be persistent. Always be willing to say, "...but you didn't answer my question."

Then, ask it again. It matters. So does the willingness to answer it.

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