I used to think I knew the meaning of the word “interrogate.”
An interrogation was something you would observe on a “Law&Order” show when the detectives sat a perp down in an empty room and asked him questions.
The term also had military overtones and was much discussed during the aughts. It was the subject of a well-regarded 2004 book, “The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda,” which was written by a military intelligence officer and a Washington Post writer.
Serious dictionaries seem to share my understand of the word’s meaning . From two of them:
“Interrogate, to ask questions of formally or closely, in examining: to interrogate a witness” Webster’s New World College Dictionary
“Interrogate, to ask someone many questions in a formal situation, often in a forceful way that can be seen as threatening: We were stopped at the border and interrogated for hours by the police. Cambridge Dictionaries Online
But the word is being used differently these days.
Change No. 1: The military/police edge has rubbed off.
Last year, while reading “My Brilliant Friend,” an Italian novel that had captivated tutto il mondo, I came upon this paragraph about the narrator’s challenging high school:
“Even Alfonso, although he was very disciplined, had difficulties. One day he burst
into tears during the Greek interrogation, something that for a boy was considered
My own high school had a full complement of overbearing teachers, but nobody in the place would have called an oral quiz an “interrogation.”
Since the novel was translated from the Italian by the highly esteemed Ann Goldstein, who also has translated the works of Primo Levy, it seemed fair to assume that she knew what she was doing here.
So I looked a little further.
The Italian verb is easily derived from classical Latin: interrogare, to ask ; from inter-, between + rogare, to ask.
In Italian, it seems, an interrogation means a series of questions asked and answered between one person and another. An interrogatorio does not seem to imply an official, presumably hostile questioner.
Change No. 2: Interrogation now involves only one person: the questioner.
A few months ago, I watched an American academic discuss her work in a television interview. She said she had “interrogated” several traditional texts and that this examination had led to her critique. My ears pricked up at this, but unfortunately I did not note down the professor’s name or academic specialty.
Last month, while I was reading an English author’s movie review in the New York Review of Books (a publication for eggheads, not that I count myself among their number), I came upon this sentence:
They are both analysts of power, and how it is distributed: and they both understand
that power is most poignantly interrogated through narratives about women.
Obviously, “power” is not a person sitting in a police interview room. It is a concept that is being analyzed and, from the sound of it, challenged. The examiner, in both these situations, seems to be a critical human working toward developing a judgment.
Change No. 3: Interrogation has become an intellectual exercise.
Notions of “interrogate” were floating in my head during a Facebook chat I had last week with a young friend who graduated recently from a fine liberal arts college. She had made some political statement, and I demurred on its free-speech implications.
I am certainly not against free speech in any capacity. But part of the responsibility of
free speech is that we address what people are saying and interrogate bigotry, and know that words lead to actions. . . .
I wrote back:
I am interested in your use of the term “interrogate,” which seems to have acquired a
new meaning in the last year or so. I’m curious about when and where it arose. Can
you offer me any guidance?
Here is what she said:
Sure! My usage of the word “interrogate” began while I was in college, where we were
asked to aggressively question ourselves and what we were learning. It’s what I use to
critically engage with a text. I think (but I really don’t know) that there has been a shift in education away from reading and absorbing material and towards reading and
engaging with material.
This means asking questions of a text. Who is the author? Who is their audience? What
are they trying to achieve? What biases, implicit or explicit do they hold? This can lead
to dismantling of the systems that privilege certain people above others. So when I talk about interrogating bigotry, I’m talking about questioning its source. If someone is putting forth homophobic ideas, where do they come from? What threat does the open acceptance of the lgbtq community pose to the people who would rather us stay silent? Why are they disgusted by homosexual displays of affection?
An easy example would be as a student of theatre, interrogating Shakespeare as a text.
His plays are full of double and triple meanings, and so if I ask questions of the text I’m able to grasp a deeper understanding of not only what Shakespeare meant in his time, but messages might be gleaned from a modern audience looking at a play.
Interrogation of a system, whether it is a system of bigotry or the system of a play,
doesn’t always lead to an easy solution (or any solution) but it does make clear what it is we are actually facing. This is why I think critical and analytical thinking skills are so
fundamentally crucial in our educational system and for our country.
“Interrogate,” seems to have been appropriated by those who labor in the groves of academe. I can see the appeal. “Interrogate” is a more active, muscular verb than, say, “analyze” or “examine.”
In addition, “interrogate” has something in common with the traditional American use of the word. It implies a critical, probably harsh confrontation with a subject to bring out facts that the subject does not want to reveal.
I don’t want to go too far with this, but I suspect that in some ways this new verbiage reflects the 1970s shift in the study of the humanities to deconstructionism.
Where previously a given piece of work was studied in the context of its creator’s life and world, the deconstructionist approach evaluates a work against a contemporary, presumably more sophisticated intellectual milieu and often finds the older work wanting.
I can see the both ways of looking at art. Ideas and mores change over time, of course, and history has not been kind to many historical figures and ideas. Still, the works that have survived have survived for a reason — they continue to resonate with people of later periods.
As I noted before, the Latin meaning of interrogate implies a questioning of one person by another person. This new definition is an an internal discussion within the interrogator alone.
To “interrogate” a work by stuffing it into the frame of a postmodern zeitgeist risks making the work into a reflection of the interrogator’s point of view.
There is evidence for this in the real world. We know that police interrogations sometimes result in confessions by innocent suspects.
This new construction interests me. I think I would enjoy watching a contemporary scholar interrogate Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Euripides’ “Medea,” or Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”