My job on television is to ask questions of people in the middle of conflicts. Their fights often teach me something—sometimes about how vicious and craven people can be or alternatively, how generous and open. Asking the right questions can help uncover where on that pole the fight exists. In fact, asking the right questions is often the key to uncovering the truth of any particular situation, “truth” being a good bulwark against being held hostage by another’s lies, or bigotries, or their respective flights of fancy—a dangerous and perilous way to live.
Whether the undesirable situation is an interpersonal one or instead lives on a broader scale, asking better questions is crucial if you want to find a way out of it. What have I done to deserve this? is different from What can I do to stop it? They lead to different conclusions (maybe I did do something to deserve this instead of this is an unnecessary and intolerable situation and I will find a way to stop it). Different answers lead to different courses of action—different follow up plans. If a bad situation contains an opportunity to create something better as a result of it, you’ll only find that opportunity if you question it in a ways that leave room for an answer.
I recently had the chance to screen Invisible Warriors, written, directed and produced by Professor Gregory Cooke. It’s a powerful and compelling documentary about African-American women who took advantage of new opportunities offered to women during World War II and in the course of doing so, helped America win. Often assigned to some of the worst and most hazardous jobs because they were African-American or otherwise treated as easy targets for sexual harassment and abuse, they nonetheless used the moment to redefine their roles in the workforce and the country.
For that moment in time, America decided to introduce new questions into its domestic conversation: how do I make sure that I retain the upper hand against people who don’t look like me? had to share space with how do we make the best use of all of our national talent to defeat an enemy? (As to the question about who our “enemies” were: while Hitler and fascism had many American defenders, the country eventually reconciled itself to the position that his brand of demagoguery and murder were unacceptable.)
Of course, the former question—about how to maintain segregated social structures—still drove the bus. African-American service people who served their country still were subject to the indignities and inhumanity of Jim Crow. The women who joined the workforce at home endured treatment that belied the notion that their fellow country people saw them as equals joined in a common fight. When the war was over, the dominant social structures urged everyone to go back to “business as usual.” But it was too late. New questions had come to the fore and people weren’t going to stop asking them.
So here is to asking better questions and not contenting ourselves with the dialogues and debates of the past. Here is to finding new ways of solving problems and to learning more of what we don’t know. Here is to our New Year; our New Decade; and to all the opportunities we have to take something messy or uncomfortable or just plain wrong, and try to make something better out of it.
Happy New Year everyone.