Fair Observer’s New Rubric: Impertinent Questions

In an edition earlier this month of our Fair Observer’s Devil’s Dictionary (FODD), we made the following announcement:

At Fair Observer we are inviting the public to participate in the salutary exercise of formulating impertinent questions. We will be initiating a campaign for all our readers and followers to submit impertinent questions.

With the active participation of the entire Fair Observer community — its readers and its more than 2,500 authors — we are launching Impertinent Questions. This will be a new feature that will appear regularly on our website and our app. Impertinent Questions aims to stimulate creative exchange and draw on the vast pool of resources our community represents as we seek collectively to refine our shared understanding of the issues.

We invite everyone. Participation isn’t limited to submitting questions. Good questions require percussive answers. We welcome readers who feel they can respond to the questions by weighing in with their insight or testimony. Our editorial team will publish the results and manage the exchanges as they evolve.

We will reward participants with regular and pertinent questions and responses with a complimentary membership of Fair Observer.

What kind of impertinent questions are we looking for?

Questions are impertinent when they challenge a shibboleth, an idée reçue (widely shared but ill-founded idea). They call into question any assertion that can be suspected of obscuring some important truth. Typically such ideas are associated with the orthodoxy or party line promoted by various public institutions or voices of authority.

But impertinence alone is not enough. When Christopher Roper Schell asks and exclaims at the same time in these columns, “This is Biden’s Inflation Plan‽”, he expresses his impertinence by challenging the pretension of Biden’s claim. This kind of question is designed as an effective means of inciting the reader to dive into the article. But it is a purely rhetorical question whose expected answer – “Hell no!” – represents only the first basic level of impertinence. It rebuts a contrary position. 

A true impertinent question invites the community to explore the potential subtleties of an issue. It may anticipate but it doesn’t predict or prejudge the answer. Neither does it force a univocal conclusion to be considered as definitive. 

A true and valid impertinent question serves to open the  discussion by framing the issue under consideration in a way that leads neither to simple acceptance or rejection but rather to shared, often ironic reflection. Ironic because of the factors that establish ambiguity. It invites participants in the discussion to present further evidence to help redirect our shared reflection. It serves to open avenues capable of deepening understanding of the problem evoked. Even when implicitly mocking a fact or a stance, it refuses to be constrained within the boundaries of the common accusatory discourse associated with the choosing of camps. Rather than seeking to judge, it disturbs and unsettles.

We can use the initial impertinent question we recently proposed to understand how an impertinent question can function. It was a question that directly challenges the dominant presentation of the logic and consequences of the war in Ukraine.

“Has the United States nurtured the conditions that triggered a war and is now prolonging it in order to avoid being held to account for failing to address the issues the world most needs to resolve?”

There is no obvious or simple answer to this question. The question itself is a reformulation of the observations of United Nations Secretary General António Guterres who worried aloud about the effects of a prolonged war. These include inequalities that “are now growing in a morally unacceptable way between north and south“ and his concern “that the war in Ukraine has to a large extent kept out the focus on climate action.” 

None of this was news. But it was something that needed to be said. Guterres was simply fulfilling his mission as Secretary General by commenting lucidly on the state of the world in a way that seldom appears in the media. As an international diplomat with no specific national loyalties, he stopped short of turning it into an impertinent question that would have challenged all those involved in the war either to take remedial action or, at the very least, explain why they were not doing so. 

Instead, he pointed to a link between the cost of pursuing the war and the fate of humanity. It’s a link neither Russia nor the US and NATO want to acknowledge. By stopping short of asking an impertinent question, Guterres invited but didn’t go so far as challenging all parties concerned to elucidate that link.

Why do we need impertinent questions?

Impertinent questions are ones that most people simply don’t ask, either out of politeness or some conditioned sense of timidity. It can sometimes be dangerous to challenge the authoritative voices that define public policy. Not necessarily existentially dangerous, but it can have professional or economic consequences. Numerous whistleblowers can attest to that fact. Not all discourse is welcome everywhere and, sadly, a growing amount of serious discourse is now being censored and censured by the media. That is why at Fair Observer we want to open up the field of public debate and at the very least entertain and play with the impertinent questions many dare not raise or consider.

Some impertinent questions are ones we never ask because we understand that they have been excluded from the conversation in polite society. The kind of question Christopher Schell asked falls into the category of standard political talking points. It may not sound particularly polite, but it belongs to a recognizable area of publicly accepted debate.

A truly impertinent question goes beyond mere critique. It seeks to stimulate understanding rather than expressing indignation, disappointment or insult. Typically, it points to neglected factors, forgotten relationships and carefully hidden motivations that have somehow been excluded from the conversation. The question we formulated on the basis of Guterres’s observations implies that any valid  answer to it will address multiple levels of a complex problem. Any honest response will seek to correlate several strands of reflection. Above all, it will avoid producing any simple answer.

Effective impertinent questions are ones that broach topics absent from public debate, usually because they have been excluded, not just by political authorities but also by a complicit media. Commercial media outlets in particular, whatever their particular bias, have good reasons to please authorities and limite debate, even when they dare to critique specific people or decisions. More fundamentally, they don’t want to be bothered by complexity that might befuddle its audience.

Answering the UN Secretary General’s implied question

Our question about the expressed intention of the US to provide the means to prolong the war in Ukraine is the kind that would be seen as potentially befuddling. It points to even more fundamental questions that must be raised in any honest attempt to answer it. They are questions that should concern every democracy. Why, for example, have the most powerful leaders in the world given priority to another nation’s political decisions rather than to much more monumental questions affecting its own citizens? What does this say about how leaders establish their priorities? What does it tell us about how politicians handle the perception of their own accountability?

There are many ways of responding to this question. The one illegitimate way is to answer simply “yes” or “no.” And “no” is even less legitimate than “yes,” because it implies simple denial, or the absence of thought. Any satisfying answer will develop threads of reflection that throw contrasting light on various dimensions of the question. It might focus on how politicians weigh their priorities.  It should entail reflecting on what hidden interests may be at play and how they influence decision-making. A thorough answer would delve into the history of each of the three issues: inequality, the climate crisis and an escalating war (potentially nuclear). It would seek to establish possible strategic relationships between issues that politicians and the media habitually compartmentalize, deliberately ignoring their systemic connections.

Agreement or disagreement is not the aim. Instead, an impertinent question should trigger a dynamic of clarification through exchange and continued reflection. In response to the question we asked, it would be legitimate to respond, “no,” and assert the US has not used the war in Ukraine as a distraction from its inability to act on more consequential problems. Such a response would inevitably appeal to a comparison of value systems that are at play in establishing political priorities. A simple denial would be perceived as illegitimate, a refusal not only to debate but to engage in any kind of civilized reflection.

Any serious attempt to answer such an impertinent question would require acknowledging the possible entirely logical link. It would also admit that the suspicions of those who believe the answer is “yes,” are worth exploring. This kind of reflection leads to nuance and perspective. 

A new impertinent question

The New York Times this week quotes Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, whom NYT describes as “a close ally of Mr. Biden’s who attended the NATO summit meeting in Madrid last week.” He is also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In other words, Coons is a man “in the know.” Expressing his concern with growing war fatigue by members of the Western alliance, he made this statement: “Exactly how long this will go, exactly what the trajectory will be, we don’t know right now. But we know if we don’t continue to support Ukraine, the outcome for the U.S. will be much worse.”

In the following paragraphs, the article describes the possible “worse” consequences for Ukraine. But no legacy journalist in the US would even think of asking what it means to evoke an “outcome for the U.S.” that would be “much worse.” That would require explaining what the stakes are for the US in Ukraine. Officially, they are nothing more than assisting Ukraine exercise its sovereignty.

In the spirit of our new rubric Impertinent Questions, it thus behooves us to ask a new one:

Apart from the vague idea of welcoming Ukraine into a military alliance dominated by the United States, what conditions would be “worse” for the US if Ukraine were to lose the war?

Anyone attempting to answer this question should bear in mind two things. The first is that Ukraine did function unambiguously as a sovereign nation until February 2014, in which case that date, rather than February 2022, should be the starting point of any reasoning about loss of sovereignty. The second is that Ukraine is 8,000 km (5,500 miles) from the US.

To our readers, authors and supporters

Fair Observer is a platform for all the community that follows us. Readers are invited to engage with us. Publishing an article is one way of engaging. We hope that this commitment can evolve into engaging in a public debate. Under the theme and rubric Impertinent Questions we invite our readers to propose their own response to the questions we publish. But even more important for all our readers is the opportunity to submit your own “impertinent questions.” We will select and publish those that avoid pure polemics and invite the kind of reflection that tends to be absent from traditional media.

Here is a reminder of the two questions we have already raised.

·   Has the United States nurtured the conditions that triggered a war and is now prolonging it in order to avoid being held to account for failing to address the issues the world most needs to resolve?

·   Apart from the vague idea of welcoming Ukraine into a military alliance dominated by the United States, what conditions would be “worse” for the US if Ukraine were to lose the war?

We welcome submissions of articles, or even shorter messages responding to these questions. But we also welcome your impertinent questions, which we will invite our readers to respond to.Please send your impertinent questions to [email protected] or tweet to them to @myfairobserver.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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