9 Questions That Will Make You Uncomfortable

On April 19, 2021, the American Humanist Association (AHA) withdrew its humanist of the year award from Richard Dawkins. Their trigger? This tweet:

In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.

In addition to this extremely brutal tweet, the AHA cited Dawkins’s repeated attempts to “use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups” in its impressive 3-paragraph justification.

Let me start by pointing out the obvious hypocrisy: it didn’t bother AHA in the slightest when Dawkins offended the sensibilities of billions of religious people (if they ever listened to him or read his books) when he called into question the very foundation of their worldview. The humanists only got tilted when he dared raised a question regarding their dogma.

Questions are supposed to illuminate, not exacerbate the darkness already around us. Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

What happened was, of course, not an isolated incident. Terms like cancel culture, social justice warriors, and culture war have become parts of the contemporary vernacular for a reason.

What really triggered me was Dawkins’ ostracism for asking a question. Oppressing opinions is one thing, but oppressing questions is truly the next level.

On a second thought, perhaps I shouldn’t have been suprised. Each belief system (religion or political dogma) has some underlying core tenet one is not supposed to question. Just think about where a question like ‘Was Lenin really so great?’ or ‘Is Communism truly the best form of government?’ would have landed you in the Eastern Block during the Cold War.

In case you need convincing, I will shortly argue that oppressing questions is never the way to go.

But first, please review the hereinbelow enclosed brief list of such inquiries, designed to maximize the chance of making you very uncomfortable.

  • Were the Nazis really that bad?
  • Is God real? If yes, what is he/she/it like?
  • Did Mary conceive Jesus without having sex with a human male?
  • Was Muhammad really the prophet of God?
  • Are white people more intelligent than black people?
  • Do men make better leaders than women?
  • Is the Earth flat?
  • Is homosexuality completely genetic/biological or do people have a choice in the matter?
  • Is it acceptable for a 40-year-old man to have sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl?

Did some of these questions trigger you? I hope so, otherwise the exercise was pointless.

Now please think back to the ones that did and answer two follow-up questions. Did you have the answer ready before giving it any real conscious consideration? Did your answer, if you deigned to construct one, start with ‘of course’?

If so, you may be indoctrinated. I do not mean that as an insult. I was, too, and in many ways still am. But I’m trying, Ringo, I’m trying real hard to be a little freer in my thinking every day.

Now I’m not saying that all questions are created equal. Not by far. They differ wildly in terms of importance and interest. But one thing is certain; the worst of the lot are leading questions. Think ‘Why is American Democracy the best form of government?’ and you get the idea.

Leading questions do, however, come in different shapes and sizes, some more subtle than others.

In the last item of the list above, I deliberately chose ‘girl’ instead of ‘woman’ to abide by the social consensus that views 14-year-olds as children. If I’d written ‘woman’ instead, I’d have used a form of manipulation.

As most of my fellow social scientists (professionals and otherwise), I do abhor leading questions. Nevertheless, I included this example to show that in some cases it’s inevitable to lead one way or another. Sometimes the formulation of a question inescapably contains some manipulation and the best you can do is be as neutral and transparent about it as possible.

What I view as a much bigger problem is when a non-leading question is misconstrued as a leading one. In the absence of a more explicit argument by AHA I have to assume this is what happened. They assumed that Dawkins meant to insult or disparage transgender people when he merely and quite literally called for a discussion.

And I presume when you read some of the questions above you supposed I was suggesting something. I wasn’t. I was merely asking questions.

So please don’t be like the AHA. By all means, do employ your full critical thinking arsenal to analyze every question, but never to kill one. Or take an award away because someone dared to ask one.

What I suggest instead is that identify the questions that trigger you the most and start by identifying why that’s the case. Why are you emotionally invested? How could someone use that energy to manipulate you? Does your judgment stem from your arguments or did you make up your mind first and then collect arguments to support the stance you’d already decided was right?

On a different but very much related note, what do you think I should do if my daughter asks me one day, “Daddy, were the Nazis bad?” Should I shut her down? Tell her it’s not a question one can ask? Shrug it off with a simple ‘Yes, little love, they were horrible’?

I don’t believe in any such solution for one simple reason. What keeps Nazism from recurring is not the absence of discussion.

What keeps Nazism away, among many other positive changes in the world, is the explanation I give my 6-year-old for why the Nazis and their system were bad. And I can’t do that without acknowledging their existence, just like we can’t have an illuminating dialogue about transgender rights or racial issues if you shut down the very idea of a discussion.

Let’s do better. Discuss.

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Balazs Feher-Gavra

Balazs Feher-Gavra

A political scientist (Ph.D.) and social psychologist (MA) fighting for a better world the only way I know how: on the battlefield of idea(l)s.