These are ______ times. Some of my friends are filled with joy and optimism, while aggravated by the dire apocalyptic prophecy and protest of the majority of the rest of my friends. It is very polarizing with neutrality, consensus and dialogue being hard to come by.
I share in the belief that we are entering an apocalyptic period for mankind, where our environmental protections are dismantled, our ability to collectively work for the benefit of our families and community will be hampered, our education and economic power will be stripped from us by those entrenched in power, and everything we hope to accomplish and work hard towards will be dashed to pieces by great forces beyond our control, such as our government or the changing climate. For the first time since I was a toddler, we could have nuclear war. Woe upon us all.
I discovered my own powerlessness when I protested against the impending Iraq War back in 2003, knowing that the evidence for war was falsified and that the wool was being pulled over the eyes of the nation and that global sympathy for 9/11 was going to be squandered pointlessly for a personal vendetta in the middle east. A new generation is just now coming to this realization as the United States swings back the pendulum to, whatever this is. This is their Iraq War moment and they are just now coming to terms with their own powerlessness, whether it was the loss of Bernie Sanders or the election of Donald Trump as the leader of the world.
Powerless does not mean hopeless. Donald Trump won because he saw and understood things differently from how urban liberals do, myself included. The institutions that we established to understand and manage the world are disintegrating, the founding premises forgotten and challenged. Donald Trump is the wind that knocks down the sheds, scattering tools, debris and seed across the farm in the aftermath of a political tornado.
If protest doesn’t work and political engagement doesn’t work, what is left?
Let me take you back to a similar time – the 5th Century BCE in Athens. Athens was an amazing city and had successfully defeated the armies of Persia with the help of other Greek city states, such as Sparta. However, after the successful defense against Persia, Athens was defeated by Sparta, leading to significant political upheaval. Not to give away any spoilers for those of you who haven’t read Plato, but there is this guy named Socrates and he asks a lot of questions. Ultimately, in the end, Socrates starts a movement and ends up being brought on trial for “corrupting the city’s youth” with his teachings. He is condemned to death, which turns him into a martyr and modern philosophy, knowledge and, eventually, science is born. One could draw parallels between the Peloponnesian War and the cold war; the defeat of Athens by Sparta to the War on Terror.
Where am I going with this? My point is that the best challenge to our current period of facts, alternative facts and fake news is to ask questions. It is really easy to declare something wrong, whip up a bunch of emotion and move on, but the real trick isn’t convincing yourself or your disciples that you are right. You need to convince your opponent. In order to do that, you need to embark on the premise that your opponent believes what they say. Next, draw them out with questions. Break things down to smaller pieces or take the factoid on a journey and see if you arrive at similar conclusions. Ask the why, what, who and how.
In reading Plato, you discover that Socrates uses his question as a tool. He doesn’t just say, “You’re wrong,” but asks, “What do you mean by that? Is that like this other thing?” and so forth. You can guide your questions to a conclusion. Leading questions. Direct examination questions. Cross-examination questions. True or false questions. This forces all involved to look closer at what is going on and arrive at better knowledge. So spend more time asking questions once you get tired of protesting and advocating.
As an aside: When I first read Plato, I didn’t like Socrates. I thought he was a jerk. He just kept destroying people and they things they believed in. Nevertheless, Socrates definitely opened my eyes to the power of his tool – the question.