Softball Questions

I attended a meeting this week at the senior center where I live. The goal of the meeting was for each of the principal administrators to give a report of work being carried out in her or her department. It wasn’t an impeachment hearing; just a routine report to the residents. There was a time for questions after each of the reports and there actually were questions after some of them. They were, in most instances, question intended to clarify some minor element of the report. [1]

While this was going on, a woman in the row behind me muttered, “These are softball questions.” In this essay, I would like to consider two questions.

  • The first is whether these were, in fact, “softball questions.”
  • The second is, should they be softball questions or, to ask the question in a more pointed way, should they have been hardball questions.

What is a softball question?

The direct meaning of the expression is that it was an easily answered question. Also, probably, an easily evaded question. The Director of Marketing, for instance, was asked how long the waiting list is for people who want to live at Holladay Park Plaza and she gave the answer.

I think that was a softball question in the direct sense of the term but the expression is softball 1generally used in disparagement. “It should have been a hardball (difficult) question, but instead, it was just a softball (easy) question.” As you can readily see, this gets us into much more difficult territory. In order to know whether it was a “softball question,” we need to know whether it should have been a hardball question.

And it gets worse. Clearly, it is the assessment made by the user of the word that matters here, so if I had had the chance, I could have asked, “Why do you think hardball questions are the most appropriate ones in this setting?” [2]

And it (probably) gets even worse than that. She probably meant not that this particular department head should have been asked hard questions, but that “they,” the administrative staff, should as a matter of practice be asked hard questions. If I am right about that, then the real scenario involved an alienated or angry resident and an administrative staff that is thought to be unresponsive or devious. And THAT would be why “softball questions” are such a waste of our time and “hardball questions” are always more appropriate.

Hardball questions

The metaphor calls for a little understanding. Baseballs (hardballs) are harder than softballs and they are thrown faster. Softball pitchers range from 70—85 miles per hour. Baseball pitchers get over 100 miles per hour. The point of the metaphor is that getting hit harder by a harder ball would hurt more.

And so it would. But now we have arrived at the point where we can ask why the hardness of the ball and the velocity of the pitch should be defining elements of a question. A question could be categorized in other ways, certainly. Was it founded on a realistic understanding of the situation, for instance.

As a legislative assistant in Oregon, I got a routine Friday afternoon call from a constituent [3] who persisted in asking why “the government” was spending so much money on military hardware. I told her that I thought it was a real shame that the U. S. was doing that, but that I worked for the state of Oregon, one of the least militarized states, and that we were definitely not spending money on military hardware. “That’s just like you guys,” she said, “always shifting the blame.” By “the government,” she meant “you guys,”—they say :”you lot” in British films—including me and she was not dissuaded. Her question was not, however, based on a realistic assessment of what the government of the State of Oregon did.

abate 1We might ask of a question, rather than asking about hardness and velocity, whether it had a useful notion of the causes of the event in question. Holladay Park Plaza is going to have to spend a substantial amount of money replacing its heating and cooling systems. If that was caused by sabotage, we need to know about that; if it was caused by the gradual deterioration of the present system over the last 50+ years, then we need to know that. It isn’t that the sabotage idea is harder and therefore more appropriate, it is that it misattributes the cause. The virtue of the explanation that the system is old and needs to be replaces is not that it is a softball question, and therefore inappropriate, but that it correctly attributes the cause of the problem and sets us up for appropriate action.

If this were a pitched battle—the beleaguered residents against the oppressive administrators—you could make some case for hardball questions. But if, as I suspect in this case, it is an alienated or angry resident who just wants “them” to get hit by a pitch, then I think asking of a question that it be potentially hurtful, is really not a good enough reason to ask it.

[1] I know mine was. Dining Services recently began to offer Open Table as a way of making reservations in the dining room. I like the new service very much, but it is irksome to fill in the same information time after time. “Is there any way,” I asked, “to have the basic information filled in automatically.” There is, it turns out, and I will do that.
[2] That would not have been well received, I am sure, and I am also reasonably sure that the woman who made the complaint did not know why she thought more difficult questions should be asked—in which case, she would very likely have told me to mind my own business. But I beat her to it; I minded my own business before she told me to.
[3] Legislative assistants don’t actually have constituents, but they work for elected representatives who do and the usage simply spreads through the office to that secretaries are said to have “constituents.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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