The Power Of Questions

This came across my Twitter timeline yesterday.

It really made me think. It is easy to laugh at the man being interviewed. He says, “When you study the history, that [slavery] was one thing the war was about. People don’t go to war for one issue”, and yet, when asked to “name three other things the war was about”, his response is “Uh, I’m not a historian.” The speed he goes from conviction to doubt is disorientating. Beyond the giggles though, there is a lesson to learn. The interviewer asked a couple of questions and forced the person he was interviewing to think. He eschews antagonism or “gotcha” questions, choosing instead to ask simple questions, questions which lead the interviewee speechless. Maybe it was a trick of the editing team, but I give credit to the interviewee for stopping to think. Often, when people are put in the same situation, they deflect, go off on tangents, use strawman arguments or do anything to avoid reckoning with the truth that is presented to them.

After watching this interview, you can imagine how disappointed I was with today’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). I wrote about that disappointment last week, but in the context of the interview above, it is amazing that Theresa May has less ability to answer a question than a man defending confederacy. I’ll boil down the Q&A that she and Jeremy Corbyn had:

Corbyn: Your party said Universal Credit (UC) would lift 350,000 children out of poverty. Do you still believe that?

May: We introduced it because your party was rubbish.

Corbyn: The Child Poverty Action Group says UC will put more children in poverty as does a government survey. Do you accept that?

May: I have 2 anecdotes from people that say UC works for them and, anyway, people suffered when your party was in government.

Corbyn: Foodbank usage is 4 times higher in areas where UC has been rolled out. People with disabilities are being forced onto UC. Will your government make sure people get the support they need?

May: Work is the best way out of poverty.

And on and on. In what other walk of life does a person get to dodge questions like this? Add to it the puerile atmosphere when the questions are being asked (from all sides) and it is easy to despair, believing that the people that are elected to represent us see their profession as a bit of a joke. It must be an in joke though, because no one I know is laughing.

As dispiriting as PMQs are, I think it is important to continue asking questions. The right question asked at the right time can lead to real and lasting change. Consider the questions “why?” and “what?” and the impact they’ve had in the last few years.

  • Black women asked “Why is R Kelly getting away with his behaviour?”
  • Entertainers asked “Why do we allow people like Harvey Weinstein get away with abuse?”
  • Malala Yousafzai asked “Why is education denied to me?”
  • LeBron James asked “What can I do for my city?”
  • Colin Kaepernick asked “What can I do to bring attention to police brutality against black men?”

There are countless examples of people asking questions that have led to progress. “Question” is a verb. Verbs are actions. A good question should make you do something. A student asked me why I taught and it helped set off the chain reaction that led to me going back to university, a good thing for me.

My advice is to not be like politicians. Don’t be afraid to ask and answer difficult questions. Unlike them, we have no need to fear change.


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