In June, a British teacher reprimanded two 13-year-old students, labeling the teenagers “despicable.” Their offense? Asking a simple question.
Following an eighth-grade “life education” class about “identity,” one of the students asked a classmate: “How can you identify as a cat when you’re a girl?” The two students disagreed with the lesson, asserting: “If you have a vagina, you’re a girl and if you have a penis, you’re a boy.” The teacher told the inquiring students they would no longer be welcome at school if they continued to express their opinion.
If only such stories were anomalies. Yet, as Americans know all too well, there is now often a steep price to pay for questioning the zeitgeist when it comes to sexual or racial ideology. Conservative thinkers are maligned and assaulted. In the social sciences and humanities in the United States and United Kingdom, 75 percent of conservative academics say their departments are a hostile environment for their beliefs. Conservative students regularly self-censor, as do federal employees.
As painful as this is, those teenage British girls are onto something. Indeed, they employed a rhetorical strategy as ancient as the very beginnings of our philosophical tradition — that of the great Greek philosopher Socrates, who unveiled the foolishness of his interlocutors not by shouting insults or fist-pounding but by asking honest and penetrating questions. Conservatives cornered in spaces of conformist ideology, be it schools or workplaces, would do well to master this powerful rhetorical weapon.
Socrates Started the Questions
“Is it possible for a person, if he knows a thing, at the same time not to know that which he knows?” The answer, of course, is no. Socrates knew the answer when he queried his rhetorical sparring partner in Plato’s Theaetetus. But by pointedly asking Theaetetus, Socrates pushed him to defend an indefensible position and thus dismantled the relativism of the sophists of his day by forcing them to admit the reality of the law of noncontradiction.
Though many Athenians found Socrates stupid, absurd, and even repulsive, his greatest student Plato understood his genius. “I am ashamed before him and before no one else, for I know in my conscience that I cannot refute him. … Sometimes I wish he were no longer among the living. Yet if that should happen I know I would be even more distraught. I just don’t know what to do with this man!” he explained in the Symposium. The frustrated Athenian leadership did: They eventually tried Socrates, convicted him of impiety and “corrupting the youth” of Athens, and sentenced him to death.
Some political philosophers believe the legitimacy of Socrates’ trial and death and his upending of traditional Athenian public life remains the most important question of Western civilization, as political scholar Glenn Ellmers argues in his new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy. Ellmers cites political thinker Harry Neuman, who succinctly describes the “Socratic question:” “Politics always has been, and always will be, this belligerent determination to empower one’s gods, to ram them down the enemy’s throat by legal enactment enforced by police-military power.”
That seems an apt description of our current political moment, in which students, teachers, and employees are regularly coerced to bow in obeisance to the woke gods of gender, sexual, and racial identity. And woe to those who don’t bow. Many face such severe threats to their professional and personal lives that they keep silent rather than oppose the regime’s gods.
The more our culture is severed from traditional religious faith, which gives us meaning and identity (and teaches love even for one’s enemies), the more secular society will seek to find belonging in what Ellmers calls “a holy community of citizen-believers.” This explains, for example, why the woke faithful are uninterested in charitable debate or persuasion of their opponents but seek only to dominate.
Ask Questions of the Woke
Almost two-and-a-half millennia removed from Socrates, his disinterested approach still carries remarkable rhetorical weight. Consider, for example, the results of simply asking those persuaded of transgenderism’s legitimacy, “What is a woman?” Conservative commentator Matt Walsh certainly confounded quite a few people by asking that simple question.
The same question netted similarly bizarre results when Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., requested that then-Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson “provide a definition of a woman” during her nomination hearing. “I’m not a biologist,” Jackson, the supposedly first black female Supreme Court justice, meekly retorted.
There are many other exemplars of this tactic beyond transgender insanity. Academics Glenn Lowry and John McWhorter, for example, consistently ask unsettling questions about race in America, including, “If America is irredeemably racist, why do so many non-white people immigrate here?” Or, alternatively, “Does suffering confer authority on the sufferer?” In a 2021 speech later adapted into an article for First Things, Lowry asked, “Just how important is race? Is it an objective difference between people, like sex, or is it a social construct?”
These are uncomfortable questions. They are questions that push woke ideologues onto their heels. They require the citizen-believers to shift from fiery, antagonistic rhetoric to an attempt at cogent speech. And, as we often discover, the ideologues professing queer theory and institutional racism find themselves incapable of articulating anything beyond empty platitudes about diversity and inclusion, the patriarchy and white supremacy, or racism and bigotry. Simply ask the question and let your interlocutor stumble incoherently through a non-answer.
Become a Modern-Day Socrates
Making your rhetorical sparring partner look stupid isn’t the point. The objective, as Plato stated in his description of Socrates’ brilliance, is to cut men to their hearts and to gently help them see the irrationality of their opinions. And by asking questions, rather than hammering talking points, we can obscure our own opinions in settings where we may fear professional or personal repercussions. Starting with “I’m trying to understand you, can you explain X?” is a lot less abrasive than “That’s bullsh-t!”
Socrates was not the only one to model this strategy. Several centuries later a Jewish itinerant preacher would demonstrate his own mastery of this approach, asking a generation “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:26). Those questions still convert men and women today.
Both Socrates and Jesus paid the ultimate price for their intellectual honesty and courageous willingness to question the moral norms of their day. Though their questions often hurt and provoked, they asked them with unparalleled clarity of mind and generosity of heart. The continued relevance of their lives and the legacy of their thought and teaching suggests that if we want to save our own generation, we might want to start asking some questions.