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The temperature here is set to reach a hundred degrees by the end of the week, and we’re the lucky ones. In some parts of the country, it’s too hot for airplanes to fly. On days like this my dad used to throw us in the truck and head out to the lake, his scratched-up driftboat in the bed and us with our thighs stuck to the hot vinyl seats in the front. I remember being so small, kneeling in the curved belly of the boat while my father rowed, one eye on the sky for July thunderstorms. “Sit still, mae-mae,” he’d remind me. “Don’t rock the boat.”


There’s a logical fallacy named “begging the question” in English. The Latin, petitio principii, is a more accurate moniker: the fallacy arises when a speaker makes a statement which assumes supporting evidence that does not exist. “Avoiding the question” is a closer translation in modern English.

“Prescriptivist for pay, descriptivist for play” is how an editor friend describes our style of work. Changing language can change the world. In a society like Elizabethan England, with rigidly defined gender roles and codified naming schemes, there was no need for a gender-neutral form of address. Mister was first used to replace master in 1551. In the modern world, where people of all genders are in the workplace and you’re addressing your application letter to someone with a name like Rowan, it’s nice to have an option that acknowledges whoever they might be.

The prescriptivist in me would love it if people would stop using “begs the question” to mean “raises the question.” I’m going to Canada for vacation does not “beg the question” of whether Canada is a popular vacation destination.

Don’t rock the boat begs the question of what boat are we in, where is it going, and with whom? That is, it neatly avoids the question of do you want to be in this boat at all?


The purpose of not rocking a boat, as my father often pointed out, is that it’s fairly easy to capsize a boat. In a boat like ours we had rigid roles to play if we wanted to get across the lake to our picnic spot. The rower provides momentum, but faces backward. This means someone else has to face forward and provide navigation and steering. Everyone else in the boat is responsible for making sure the boat stays afloat and nothing falls out.

If nobody rocks the boat, everybody reaches the destination together.


Sometimes you look around and the boat looks more like a handbasket.


“Don’t rock the boat” is a variant of “wait and see” politics. In broad terms, it asks the advisee to trust that the rower and navigator are taking them somewhere they want to go. That the policies being set without their input are in their best interests. That if they don’t upset the rower and navigator, they’ll end up in a better place. But we’re not children on our way to a picnic. We’re in treacherous waters; there are shoals in front of us, and sandbars, and sometimes the passengers can see what the navigator misses.

Before we decide not to rock the boat we need to look ahead of us. Maybe it’s better that this boat not reach that destination. Look at who’s navigating. Ask yourself if they’re going to choose wisely.

If nobody rocks the boat, everybody reaches the destination together.

Except when we don’t. Except when some of the passengers are bent on throwing other passengers overboard to ensure they don’t reach the destination. Look around: if everyone like you is getting thrown overboard, what’s the benefit to you of helping the people who are doing the throwing make it to shore safely? At least if everyone is in the water together, everyone has to come up with a solution. Otherwise “I’m drowning” is answered “but I have a boat.”

Rock the boat.

Rock the boat until it’s going somewhere safe, somewhere you want to go. Rock the boat until there’s a navigator at the helm you trust to choose the direction, a rower capable of getting you there. Only then, sit still.


Our picnic spot wasn’t perfect. It was rocky and muddy, but it was secluded and there was a shallow cove to swim in safely away from motorboat traffic. We’d put the old canteen in the lake to keep our drinking water cool, and get streaky sunburns where our lotion rubbed off. Eventually, worn out but cooler, we’d pile our things back into the boat and shove out into the lake again, looking forward to home and a good night’s sleep.

“Don’t rock the boat,” my dad would remind us.