Answering the Right Question

One day, more decades ago than I care to admit, I was stopped on the street by one of those Man On The Street journalists who asked me if anything bothered me about the flu shot that currently was being offered. I’d never given it much thought before, but after a moment’s reflection, I replied that, well, I guessed the only thing might be that many people didn’t know it was available. It was, I thought, a fair enough response under the circumstances.

But the next day, I was a bit taken aback to see the column in the paper with the replies of several citizens including myself. Not because I was misquoted — the citation was flawless. Not because they misspelled my name, which happens sometimes. No, it was also correct. As were my age (a standard bit of information that journalists always feel compelled to include) and my address (another commonly published tidbit, even for photos of children, in that more innocent era). The question, however, was not the same question I had been asked. It was, instead, “Do you intend to take the flu shot?” For which my answer didn’t make sense — or else it seemed like an evasion.

This was probably an honest screw-up by this particular newspaper, but it’s not at all uncommon for pollsters to pull this kind of trick deliberately — i.e., they will ask one question and then twist the responses to indicate something else altogether. They might ask, for instance, whether you disapprove of anything that a particular politician has done. Of course you have; even a politician you greatly admire will have done something, some time, that you didn’t totally approve of. So just about everyone will answer yes. Unscrupulous pollsters could then turn around and claim that a large majority disapprove of that politician in general. The ones who are really malicious might even go for a push poll, which words a question in such a way that it’s just about guaranteed to elicit the desired response. (“Do you think Biden should be impeached for royally screwing up Afghanistan, stealing the election, and sacrificing unbaptized babies in his basement?”)

And politicians quite frequently dodge issues in this manner. In fact, if you’ve ever watched a debate between candidates, it’s probably occurred to you that mostly what they do is use whatever question the moderator asks to simply steer their responses toward prepared soundbites.

In a prior post, we discussed “fools gold logic”, and mentioned that one of the keys to avoiding it is to correctly define the issue being addressed. In other words, to ask the right question. And give the right answer to the right question. Doing this would greatly help in eliminating a great many difficulties.

My wife, for instance, has the annoying habit of mumbling when she talks to me, even though when she talks to anyone else, she is — dare I say — more than adequately audible. When I first brought this to her attention, she became rather defensive, and insisted that it was just because my hearing was bad. I replied that this was quite unlikely, since I didn’t have difficulty understanding anyone else. We were on the verge of a full-blown marital spat until I said, “Stop. What difference does it make who is at fault, or if anyone is at fault? That doesn’t make it any better. Whatever the cause, the solution is for you to speak up. Because I can’t turn up my hearing, but you can turn up your voice.”

If you tune in to it, you’ll find many other problems being ill-defined in this manner, not only in private life, but on a societal level. The issue of abortion is a prime example. All the debate involves such angles as when life begins, or whether abortion is “moral”, or whether a woman has a right to make her own reproductive choices, or states rights, or something, anything, other than the most crucial matter: how to actually prevent abortion. Addressing that question intelligently would help reduce the abortion numbers and help mollify all sides of the issue. Instead, people (meaning mostly people on the Right) get nailed down to prefabricated ideological stances.

This kind of misguided focus results naturally enough on its own steam. But it happens even more often because it’s deliberately engineered. For some reason, I’m reminded of a silly little riddle I heard as a child. The setup involved a hypothetical plane crash on the border of Canada and the U.S. And after throwing in a number of extraneous details, the person posing the problem would then ask, “On which side of the border should they bury the survivors?” I don’t know if anybody ever actually fell for this, but the intent was to get the victim so distracted with irrelevant information that they didn’t notice they were being asked an irrelevant question.

And there are plenty of manipulators out there who want to steer you to the wrong questions. In fact asking the wrong questions and providing the wrong answers to the right questions is one of the primary objectives of right-wing media — and all too often, the mainstream media compliantly follow their lead.

When Sarah Sanders was politely asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia, she and her equally vile father deliberately made a headline story out of it with petty, vindictive social media posts publicizing the name and location of the restaurant, so the MAGA cultists would be inspired to attack and harass the business (and indeed any other business, anywhere in the world, with a similar name). Whereupon Fox “News” did a segment beginning with something like “According to the Golden Rule, we’re supposed to treat others as we’d like to be treated ourselves. But have we lost sight of that? Take for instance..”

Trouble is, they were citing the Golden Rule to criticize the restaurant, rather than Sanders or the rabble she roused. But the precept of doing unto others presupposes comparable conditions. It wouldn’t fly for a cold-blooded killer to say to the police, “Hey, you guys shouldn’t arrest me — after all, I’d never put you in jail.” Likewise, there is no equivalence between a decent, responsible business owner with an interest in keeping undesirables off the premises, and a lying propagandist who ran interference for a sleazy con man, all while snarkishly attacking any journalists trying to do their jobs. There are much better and more appropriate questions that could have been applied here. Such as, why do some people feel so entitled to get anything they want, anytime the want, anywhere they?

We live in a society facing many intense conflicts and many dire threats and crises. Nearly all of them could be ameliorated, and in some cases very greatly so, if everyone simply would ask, and answer, the right questions. Instead, we have a great many people just asking where to bury the survivors.

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