What two examples – one a personal anecdote and the other a horrifying humanitarian crisis – can tell us about the importance of asking questions.
Some years ago, a man visited whom I had known some years previously and had lost touch with. He asked me to come listen to him deliver a lecture at a suburban hotel. I trekked out there and found him in an elegant grey suit, getting ready to speak to a roomful of expectant, excited people.
What I didn’t know was that in the years we had been out of touch, my friend had joined Amway and had risen to become one of its global shining stars. With the multi-level marketing giant now poised to enter India, they had sent him here to persuade people to sign up. To my surprise, everyone in the room had heard of him and was fawning over him. They couldn’t wait to hear his words of wisdom, his mantras for Amway success.
So it was the way he started that gave me a start. “I’m not going to take any questions,” he said firmly, “so just listen to me carefully.” Wait a minute, I wanted to ask, you’re going to tell all these people about setting up an Amway business, you want them to make a sizeable initial investment, and you won’t let them ask questions? But of course, I couldn’t ask even that question, and he launched into an hour or more of what seemed to me at any rate nothing more than lots of hand waving, illogic and bluster. I mean, there was nothing of any substance in what he said and plenty that even a child would find odd, if not downright absurd. Yet amazingly, it brought him a great deal of adoring applause anyway. Was I missing something? How could anyone swallow this ridiculous stuff so É unquestioningly?
But that’s just what happened. When he was done, it struck me that I might have just had a lesson in demagoguery and frippery, and how the faithful Ñ there are always the faithful Ñ lap it up. Because demagogues can’t stand questions.
All right, why should he have allowed questions? There’s a straightforward answer: because joining Amway needs a substantial investment of time and money, and anyone contemplating it deserves full disclosure of everything involved. Closing down questions suggests only that this man and his company have things to hide, or at least that they don’t feel like addressing.
Which of course is the point. And I couldn’t help wondering: had my friend risen high in Amway in spite of his ability to evade questions? Or because of it?
On a more serious note: Perhaps you think it’s not such a big deal with Amway. But asking questions Ñ or, conversely, not asking them Ñ is fundamental to larger themes too. Like democracy, for instance. Democracy works as a way to live when its citizens are able to Ñ even encouraged to Ñ ask questions about all that happens around them. Absent that freedom, other freedoms disappear. Demagogues appear. Profound miseries can ensue. Therefore, ask.
I’m going to hypothesize here, using just one example: what happened in Rwanda in 1994.
There are two major tribes in Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Hutus are in the majority, but Tutsis had usually held power. This meant there was forever a swelling resentment among Hutus, directed against their Tutsi fellow-citizens. As is well-known now, the months and years leading up to April 1994 were filled with plenty of Hutu hate propaganda against Tutsis, politicians referring to them as cockroaches, radio broadcasts urging Hutus to stock up on weapons and get ready to exterminate Tutsis, and more.
The result of all this was a three-month orgy of slaughter in that country: Hutus killed about a million Tutsis. That’s 10,000 murdered every day, seven every single minute: possibly the swiftest, most efficient episode of genocide in history, if anyone’s keeping track. And they were murdered in astonishingly personal, intimate ways. Some Hutus bludgeoned Tutsis with shovels, others locked groups of Tutsis into churches and set them on fire. But most of the killing happened with machetes.
This disturbing Rwandan reality was what a stunned world, unable or unwilling to stop the horrific carnage, also had to grapple with. Previous genocides, like the Jewish Holocaust, or the one in Armenia in 1915-17, were largely carried out by soldiers. But in Rwanda, perfectly ordinary citizens Ñ postmen, housewives, priests Ñ did much of the killing. Consider the title the journalist Philip Gourevitch gave to his 1998 book about the massacre: “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families”. That phrase came from a desperate letter, pleading for help, written to the Hutu pastor of a church by a group of Tutsis who had taken refuge there. The next day, they were indeed killed. Much later, the pastor was convicted for aiding the massacre.
Rwanda’s bloodletting left much of the world bewildered. Why did it happen? Why did none of these ordinary citizens ask questions about the vicious propaganda, about the slaughter? Sure, it needs uncommon courage to stand up against a tsunami of hatred and violence. But even so, why did no Hutus find that courage? What if even one had expressed some reservations, questioned the calls to kill? What if that one managed to catalyse others to do the same? Am I being naïve, or is it at least conceivable that there might have been enough questioning to stop the slaughter Ñ for at least a while, in at least a few pockets? That is, might at least a few Tutsi lives been saved? Maybe more than a few?
No, I don’t think I’m being naïve. In Rwanda in 1994, questioning the indoctrination and carnage would have been subversive and dangerous. Yet I am convinced that if enough people did it, it would have at least given the murderers pause. At least slowed the killing.
That’s what dissent, asking questions, can do.
So this is not just a one-time lesson from an orgy of slaughter, nor even from an Amway pep talk. In the face of such things as demonetization, or building a wall on a border, or allowing vast tracts of rainforests to be burned down, or a rise in lynchings, or much else that goes on in the world, it’s worth wondering: what if we demanded regular, unscripted press conferences from our leaders? What if we refused to rest content with them merely tweeting, or merely taking shouted questions in front of a noisy helicopter?
What if we insisted on what’s just our right and instinct as citizens, as human beings: asking questions? I use that word “instinct” deliberately. In a very scientific, rational sense, I believe asking questions is the hallmark of being human: the essence and reason for our existence and evolution, the fount of our intelligence.
In his 150th year, we might remember Mohandas Gandhi in just that way. As Paro Anand wrote in the Indian Express (Sunday, Sept 29, 2019): “We need to humanise Gandhian principles rather than put him on a pedestal. We have not allowed children to question a man who had the courage to raise uncomfortable questions.”