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The Time is Ripe for Impertinent Questions

Most serious questions about the world never receive serious answers. The ways that exist to dodge questions are legion. To break the dodgers’ stranglehold on truth, there is a need to ask, not the usual “serious” questions but the impertinent ones designed to provoke, upset and embarrass.

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As Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres holds a prestigious title that allows his voice to be heard in the media. Alas, his title is more impressive than the power he wields. His job consists essentially of monitoring trends affecting the globe and dutifully relaying that information to the international community. Guterres is little more than a teacher, drawing reasonable conclusions about what the trends mean and standing up from time to time to call the multiple political and economic influencers in the world to attention. Since the nations of the world – and more particularly the powerful nations – are in most cases undisciplined pupils, he spends much of his time taking them to task for their failure to act in the common interest of humanity.

Climate change is one of those trends, which most people now agree constitutes the biggest general threat to the future of humanity. They also acknowledge that various approaches to solving the problem have been suggested and, though little has been accomplished, at very high levels of political authority commitments have been made. The passive formulation – “commitments have been made” –reflects the culpable passivity of the actors in question.

Alongside climate change – and contributing directly to its aggravation – is another very general problem related specifically to human institutions: wealth and income inequality. No one can ignore this question either, but, unlike the climate crisis to which every human being is equally exposed, those who are on the good side of inequality may feel less urgency about solving it, since it would inevitably imply reducing what they tend to believe are their “hard-earned” privileges. This has produced a specific quandary to the degree that literally every person exercising political power in every corner of the world happens to find themselves on the “good side” of inequality (i.e. even the most modest among them are members of the wealthy class).

The Secretary General exercised his privilege as the world’s teacher this past week when he described the state of play in terms of global economics. “Inequalities,” he reminded the world, “are still growing inside countries, but they are now growing in a morally unacceptable way between north and south and this is creating a divide which can be very dangerous from the point of view of peace and security.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, he got more specific. “That is why it is so concerning that the war in Ukraine has to a large extent kept out the focus on climate action. We need to do everything we can to bring again the climate issue as the most important issue in our collective agenda. It’s more than the planet, it is the human species that is also at risk.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Collective agenda:

A list of things to do that, in a global culture dominated by the notion of competition, will never be done by any nation unless every other nation acts first.

Contextual note

The above definition explains a well-known phenomenon usually referred to as “dragging one’s feet.” Guterres is very familiar with the pattern. It consistently plays out with every issue of major importance, from nuclear disarmament to climate change, clean water, wealth inequality, and the list goes on.

By focusing on the Ukraine war, the teacher now appears to go beyond the usual generalities.. With a tone of tragic disappointment, Guterres timidly expresses a suspicion that the Ukraine war is distracting the world’s attention from a far more pressing global crisis: climate change. With a slight change of tone, and a willingness to challenge the powers that be, the secretary general’s remark might be perceived as an impertinent question.

Impertinent questions rarely receive pertinent answers. The authorities thus challenged have multiple strategies for dodging their consequences. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask them. Even if no pertinent answer can ever be expected, formulating such questions accomplishes two goals. The first is personal. It focuses the questioner’s attention  by raising a moral issue. The second goal is public. It signifies that the observers may be becoming wise to strategies designed to reduce them to silence. There is however a risk. Once those who refuse to answer the question understand that they are finally being challenged, they will most likely double down in their attempt to dodge the truth. This may go beyond mere “fake news” to include censorship and even persecution.

Anyone who doubts that that could happen in a democracy need simply meditate on the example of Julian Assange. He was guilty of asking a single impertinent question. After publishing a series of undeniable facts contained in official documents, he implicitly asked the question, without needing to formulate it out loud: “What does this mean?” That was the height of impertinence.

If Guterres is right about the current state of the world, the time is ripe for all of us to start shouting out impertinent questions. The legacy media will do its damnedest to keep out of print and off the airwaves, but if the voices of the world begin speaking up, they will eventually be heard. 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.

To get the ball rolling, here is the long version of the first in our rubric of “Impertinent Questions.”

Given the link António Guterres has established between the dangerously deepening crises related to climate and inequality, could it be that one significant but unacknowledged factor in the motivation that led to triggering and now prolonging a cruel war in Eastern Europe is that it removes the pressure to act on the most serious issues politicians in the West should be focusing on?

Now we can reduce it to its essentials as we highlight the question to make sure no one sees it merely as a random, isolated thought in the middle of this column.

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?

Historical note

Impertinent questions are traditionally dismissed as stupid questions, ones that don’t even deserve to be asked or even thought about. Everyone is already supposed to know the answer.

Three and a half centuries ago, Isaac Newton asked the impertinent question: “If the apple falls, does the moon also fall?” Any wise person at the time would unhesitatingly answer: “No, it doesn’t.” Because it is empirically true that the moon doesn’t fall, Newton should have shut up and lived with the answer. He didn’t and the rest, as they say, is history!

Historians have the duty to go beyond the superficial in their quest to understand the dramatic events of the past. For example: Did Brutus plot to kill Julius Caesar simply to prevent, as he claimed, a tyrannical quest for absolute power? Some historians who have asked themselves that question concluded that “Brutus, in fact, acted in defense of his own class and a system which was already dying.” Both explanations may be true. But asking the question may reveal that Brutus was even more interested in preserving the privileges of the corrupt oligarchy he identified with.

Many people have asked a similar impertinent question about British Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher’s reasons for going to war with Argentina in the Falklands. The act sealed her popularity, strengthening her image as “The Iron Lady.” Reviewing the events of the time, Simon Jenkins pointed out in a 2013 article in The Guardian that her government had been “on the brink of collapse.” He noted that although “Thatcher could hardly be held directly responsible for the Argentinian invasion, it was certainly the result of her style of rule and one-track approach to policy.” At the time, patriotism quelled any serious contradictory debate. Once she had achieved victory, people began noticing that it resembled a textbook illustration of the art of wagging the dog.

To some, Thatcher’s “style of rule and one-track approach to policy” may seem eerily similar to that of US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken with regard to Ukraine. Like Thatcher, they cannot “be held directly responsible for the…invasion.” But ever since Caesar’s time, those who wish to know the truth have been asking the most obvious impertinent question: Cui bono? (Who profits?).

If, as Guterres suggests, the Ukraine war is distracting the world’s attention from the urgency of addressing climate change, shouldn’t that merit our asking the same question? 

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

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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