When Did Asking Questions Become a Crime?

Throne, Altar, Liberty

The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

When Did Asking Questions Become a Crime?

 Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher and mathematician who taught at various institutions beginning with his alma mater, Trinity College at the University of Cambridge and ending with Harvard University at the other academic Cambridge, said a lot of things over his long career, most of them being forgettable, lamentable, or pure rot.   He did, however, produce one gem when he characterized the entire Western philosophical tradition as being “a series of footnotes to Plato”.   There would have been no Plato, however, had there not been a Socrates.   It was Socrates, the legendary teacher of Plato and Xenophon as well as a number of individuals who are otherwise most famous for the various ways in which they disgraced themselves in the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, who laid the foundation for Platonic and all subsequent Western philosophy.  He did so by asking questions.   To this day the didactic trick of getting someone to assert something and then picking away at it with questions is known as the Socratic Method.

The best account of that method remains that which Plato placed in the mouth of Socrates himself in his Apology.   The title of this dialogue is the source of our English word apology although it had nothing to do with apologizing in the sense of saying that you are sorry for something.   Apologetics, which in Christian theology is the art of making arguments for the faith against the objections of unbelievers (and originally against those in the state who thought the faith ought to be illegal), is much closer to the original meaning of the word which was “defence” and more specifically the legal defence of the accused at a trial.    When Athenian democracy was restored after the short-lived rule of the hundred tyrants following the Spartan victory that brought the Peloponnesian War to an end, Socrates was charged with a number of offences such as corrupting the youth of Athens and put on trial before the Athenian assembly.   Plato’s Apology purports to be an account of the speech Socrates gave in his defence on that occasion and indeed, the full title is Ἀπολογία Σωκράτους (“The Defence of Socrates”).  

Early in the dialogue Socrates gives an account of how he came have the reputation that landed him on trial.   He discusses Chaerophon, who had been a friend of his since his youth and who also, not incidentally, was a friend of the Athenian democrats, i.e., Socrates’ accusers,  and one who had shared in their recent misfortunes.   Chaerophon had gone to Delphi and asked the Pythian priestess of Apollo whether there was anyone σοφώτερος (wiser) than Socrates and had received the answer μηδένα σοφώτερον εἶναι (there is no one wiser).   Socrates, when he had heard this, had thought to himself:

‘τί ποτε λέγει ὁ θεός, καὶ τί ποτε αἰνίττεται; ἐγὼ γὰρ δὴ οὔτε μέγα οὔτε σμικρὸν σύνοιδα ἐμαυτῷ σοφὸς ὤν: τί οὖν ποτε λέγει φάσκων ἐμὲ σοφώτατον εἶναι; οὐ γὰρ δήπου ψεύδεταί γε: οὐ γὰρ θέμις αὐτῷ.’

(“Whatever is the god saying and why ever does he speak in riddles?  For truly I know myself to have wisdom neither great nor small and so whatever is he saying in asserting me to be the wisest?  For surely he is not lying, at any rate, since that is not his custom.”)

This launched Socrates on his quest to find someone wiser than himself so as to rebut the oracle.   He began by going to a politician with a reputation for wisdom.   After having a dialogue with him he concluded:  

ἔδοξέ μοι οὗτος  ἀνὴρ δοκεῖν μὲν εἶναι σοφὸς ἄλλοις τε πολλοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ μάλιστα ἑαυτῷ, εἶναι δ᾽ οὔ:

(this man seemed to me to seem to be wise to others and to many men and most especially to himself but not to actually be so)

He promptly shared this conclusion with the man in question and so earned his enmity and hatred.   As he left the man he thought to himself:

τούτου μὲν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐγὼ σοφώτερός εἰμι: κινδυνεύει μὲν γὰρ ἡμῶν οὐδέτερος οὐδὲν καλὸν κἀγαθὸν εἰδέναι, ἀλλ᾽ οὗτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴομαι: ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι.

(I am wiser than this man, for indeed it is likely that neither of the two of us knows even one good and beautiful thing, but whereas this man thinks that he knows something he does not know, I, on the other hand, as I do not know, neither do I think I know.   I seem, at least then, in this little thing at any rate, to be wiser than him, that what things I do not know, neither do I think that I know.)

He repeated this procedure with others reputed to be wise with the same result every time.   Later in the dialogue – apart from this it would more properly be called a monologue – he provides a demonstration when he cross-examines his accuser Meletus.  

The Apology presents to us the two major failures of Socrates.   The obvious one is his failure to persuade the assembly, which resulted in him losing his case, being convicted, and then largely because of his own flippant attitude when asked to propose an alternative sentence, condemned to death.   The other is his failure in his self-appointed task of rebutting the oracle of Delphi.   In failing to find someone wiser than himself and demonstrating that those reputed to be wise lacked both knowledge and an awareness of their own ignorance Socrates confirmed the oracle’s judgement – Socrates’ awareness of his own ignorance, a self-awareness that his interlocutors lacked, made him indeed, the wisest man of his day.   This awareness of a lack of knowledge, willingness to acknowledge it openly, and to seek out knowledge by asking questions, became the starting point and foundation of the long philosophical tradition of Western Civilization.

Is it not then perverse that in academe, that is, the collective of institutions of higher learning which takes its name from the olive grove outside of the walls of Athens dedicated to that city’s patron goddess where Socrates’ greatest disciple Plato taught his own pupils, this spirit of acknowledging one’s ignorance, asking questions and being willing to learn is no longer welcome?

In the academe of today the idea is almost ubiquitous that the campus ought to be a “safe space” for groups which in progressive ideology deserve special rights and protections now because of past wrongs done to them, real and imagined.   What this means in practice is that such groups are to be protected on campus from acts and, more importantly, words, that, in their opinion at least, are hostile or offensive to themselves.   This translates into all criticism of these groups or even of individual members of these groups being forbidden because any such criticism could be and often is taken by these groups as being hostile or offensive.   This in turn means that members of these groups cannot be questioned when sharing their “lived experience” (the progressive term for a member of a designated victim group talking about having experienced discrimination, marginalization, and whichever of the growing list of forbidden isms or phobias happens to apply) or “their truth” (when the word truth is modified by a possessive pronoun this is an progressive euphemism for claims made about one’s – usually sexual or gender – identity that are backed only by one’s experience and interpretation of such and not by conformity with objective reality), because such questioning is taken as criticism which is taken as hostility.

This is only one of many ways in which asking questions, at least if they are questions pertaining to progressive sacred cows, is discouraged, frowned upon, or outright forbidden on academic campuses.  

Asking questions is fundamental not only to the philosophical tradition that began with Socrates and Plato but to something that if it were properly regarded would be considered but one branch of that tradition.   That something is what we call science today.   It would be better if we still called it natural philosophy.   The term science is the Anglicized spelling of the Latin word for “knowledge” and its limitation, as in most contemporary English usage, to natural philosophy, its methodology, and its discoveries, has materialistic connotations.   Science or natural philosophy, is that branch of knowledge-seeking that has as its subject matter the physical or natural world and how it works.    It has greater utility than many other branches of philosophy which is why Modern man whose thinking is permeated by liberalism which places an exaggerated value on utility tends to think of science as something other than and superior to philosophy rather than one of its branches.   It would have no utility whatsoever, however, were it not for asking questions and/or activities that are the equivalent of question asking.   From Thales, Pythagoras and Aristotle in the Ancient world to Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Francis Crick, et al. in the Modern, none of these would have discovered anything had they not asked questions and especially questions about what was already being taught as science.

For the past three years we have had to listen to politicians, government bureaucrats, the majority of media commentators and even many clergy speak of “the science” as something to be “believed” and “followed”.   Questioning “the science” was declared to be “misinformation” and “disinformation” and “conspiracy theory” by these same people and treated as such by the censorious tech companies who operate the major social media platforms.   The vile and odious twit whom we have been saddled with as Prime Minister here in Canada since 2015, around the time of last year’s Dominion Election equated people who according to him “don’t believe in science” with “racists” and “misogynists” said that their views were “unacceptable” and that we ought to be asking ourselves whether we should continue to tolerate such people in our midst.   All of this pertained to the “scientific” arguments that were being claimed in support of draconian government measures such as the enforced closing of schools, churches, businesses etc. that came to be known as “lockdowns”, mandatory masking, and ultimately compelled vaccination introduced in the panic over the bat flu.   Anybody who has dared to question the doomsday predictions coming from Green activists masquerading as climatologists over the last three decades or so will have already been familiar with this sort of talk long before the pandemic.   Regardless, however, of whether this talk about how we are under some sort of moral imperative to “believe” and “follow” “the science” and how those who do not are evil “deniers” comes up in the context of pandemic policy or climate policy it betrays the speaker as being thoroughly unscientific in the way he views science.   Real scientists who make real discoveries that benefit mankind in real ways do not place a definite article before science and treat it as an object of unquestioning faith and obedience.   Those who do speak about “the science” this way are speaking about something that is not really science.    It is interesting, is it not, that what those who spoke this way in the pandemic and those who speak this way about “climate change” have in common, is that they all want more powers for the government, more limitations on personal rights and freedoms, and for the ordinary middle class people in Western countries to accept a severe reduction in their standard of living?

Asking questions is fundamental to yet another important discipline, that of history.   Indeed, the very name of the discipline refers to the process of asking questions.  Herodotus, who was about fourteen years older than Socrates, was born in Halicarnassus, a Greek city in Anatolia or Asia Minor, which at the time was part of the Persian Empire.   A man of means, he travelled much throughout the Mediterranean world and about five years before he died, at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and her allies and Sparta and her allies, wrote a ten book account of the peoples, customs, and past events of the region, concentrating on the Greco-Persian Wars fought in the first half of the fifth century BC, i.e., the century in which he lived.   He introduced the first book and the entire work with the words “Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε” which mean simply “This is the publication of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus”.   The word which means “inquiry” or “investigation” here is ἱστορίης which put in Latin characters is histories.  It has ever since served not only as the title of Herodotus’ magnus opus but  as the name of the entire field of looking into the events of the past to determine what happened and why of which Herodotus is quite properly remembered as the father. 

The remainder of the opening sentence provides us with the subject and purpose of Herodotus’ investigation:

ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται, τά τε ἄλλα καὶ δι᾽ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι.

This means: “so that the things done by men do not become forgotten with time, nor the works both great and marvelous, some performed by Greeks others by foreigners, become inglorious, and with these other things also the reason for which they went to war with each other.”

To this day the historical discipline remains summed up well in this introduction. The methodology of historical inquiry is most comparable to that of the courtroom and this, of course, means asking plenty of questions of first hand witnesses to events if available and of others who have relevant knowledge.  For Herodotus this meant asking the λόγιοι (learned men) of the various countries he visited for their accounts of their own customs, past events, and of various local natural, geographical, and architectural phenomenon.     As an example, the very first thing that follows the opening sentence given above is his record of the account given by the Persian λόγιοι of that matter emphasized at the very end of his introduction, i.e., the cause of the Greco-Persian Wars.   According to him the Persians traced the ultimate cause to the Phoenicians, who in the abduction of Io, princess of Argos, started a series of reciprocal abductions of women of rank (Europa, Medea, Helen) that culminated in the Greek onslaught of Troy, which event, judged to be gross overreaction by the Asians, was the immediate cause of the hatred and enmity of the Asians for the Greeks.  

It has been suggested by subsequent historians, including his own contemporary Thucydides that Herodotus was less critical than he ought to have been towards his sources.   Evidence, however, continues to accumulate to this very day that he was far more accurate than he has often been given credit for.   For example, until very recently the prime example pointed to by his critics of his utterly credulity was his account  in Book III of his History of a region in India where furry, fox-sized, ants, dig up gold dust which is then harvested by the locals, long ridiculed as outlandish and absurd.  It was essentially confirmed by a French ethnologist four decades ago when he published his findings about a species of marmot (big squirrels who live in burrows rather than trees) in a particularly difficult to reach part of the Karakoram mountains on the side of the range belonging to Pakistan that does exactly what Herodotus said these “ants” do with the locals, the Minaro or Brokpas, continuing to harvest the gold.   The Persians called these marmots “mountain ants”, presumably because of the similar habit of digging and making mounds, a rather more obvious basis of comparison that that which the person who gave the same species the alternative name “Tibetan snow pig” had in mind, although whatever that happened to have been was apparently also evident to whoever was the first to call the creature’s North American cousin the “groundhog”.   The relevance of this to our point regarding history is simply this – it was by asking questions, first by those who questioned Herodotus’ account where it contained elements that seemed fanciful and for which they could find no other evidence and then by those who dug deeper, questioned the original questioners, and found evidence supporting his claims, that his work has been vindicated as being far more accurate than had been previously thought.

History then, like Socratic philosophy and empirical science – real empirical science, which never takes a definite article, is never settled, is not an object of faith to be believed or a leader to be followed – has truth as its end, and asking and seeking as its means and method.   It is therefore rather disturbing or comical or both that our Parliamentarians seem to have adopted the attitude that historical truth is not something that is out there to be discovered by those who seek it but rather something to be declared and decided by their own authoritative fiat.

Earlier this year, in a shameless attempt to deflect public attention away from their own fascist behavior in declaring the equivalent of martial law in order to brutally crush a peaceful protest against their cruel vaccine mandates and other draconian health measures – this description has been borne out completely by the testimony in the inquiry over the last month or so – the evil Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet of knuckle-dragging, simian, louts and thugs declared their intention to make “Holocaust denial” into a crime in Canada.   Since in the progressive lexicon asking a valid and important question about something progressives have declared to be a sacred cow constitutes “denial” this meant in effect that asking tough, challenging, questions about the Holocaust was to be criminalized.    As a sleight of hand it was rather impressive.  “Yes, I just suspended everyone’s civil rights and freedoms in order to crush people who were embarrassing me” the Prime Minister was essentially saying “but it’s these other people who are Hitler, not me, therefore I am going to make it so that they go to prison for saying things and asking questions that I don’t like, just like in Germany.”

More recently, the member of the official socialist party (the ones propping up the current government) who represents Winnipeg Centre in the House of Commons introduced a motion calling upon the government to recognize the Indian Residential Schools as a “genocide”.   The motion passed unanimously.   Now, a motion of this nature does not by itself actually do anything except send a message about who in the House has signed on to an asserted narrative.   This is bad enough, however, because a) we elect Members to represent us in the House to look out for our interests on matters pertaining to the taxes we pay, the laws we live under, the wars, heaven forbid, that we fight, and the like and not to affirm or deny some narrative or another, b) the truth or falseness of such narratives is something that cannot possibly be affected by government pronouncements one way or another – to assert otherwise is to attribute to government a power closely akin to that which those who believe in magic spells attribute to spell-casting, to alter reality by uttering words – and c) the truth or falseness of these narratives is something that can only be discovered through open and honest inquiry and government proclamations of this nature, while they don’t actually forbid such, tend to discourage it.     It is much worse that this motion passed unanimously, that not a single Member of Parliament could be found with the courage to challenge it.   What makes this even worse is that the narrative in question is a claim which a) even apart from the evidence seems palpably absurd on the face of it, i.e., that the cooperative efforts of Canada’s government and churches to provide the education requested by the Indian bands and agreed to in the treaties, whatever might have gone wrong with them in practice, amounted to something that is categorically identical to or comparable with what the Hutus did to the Tutsis in 1994 Rwanda, b) has had its evidentiary basis crumble into nothing under scrutiny (see the essay “Kamloops Update: Still Not One Body” by Jacques Rouillard, Professor Emeritus in History at the Université de Montréal, in Dorchester Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2022, pp.27-36, and the article “Canada’s ‘Genocide’ – Case Closed?” by Michael Melanson and Nina Green posted on the same journal’s website on October 27, 2022), and c) has been heavy-handedly protected by those asserting it against the very sort of questioning which it would need to withstand to establish its truth-claims from the very beginning.   The firing, last December, of Mount Royal University’s tenured Frances Widdowson for questioning woke ideology in general, and the Residential Schools narrative in particular, is but one example that could be given of the latter point.   It is unlikely to have escaped your attention if you have remained with us this far that in each of these cases where a cold, hostile, forbidding attitude towards those who ask questions has taken over an intellectual institution or disciple that had been built upon a foundation of seeking and asking the culprit has been the same each time, at least in terms of it being the same way of thinking (or avoiding thought) although often the same individuals have been involved as well.   Progressivism has never been as tolerant towards differing viewpoints as it professed to be under its liberal guise but what we are seeing in this latest incarnation of progressivism is the most illiberal face it has ever shown outside of regimes such as Cromwell’s, the French Reign of Terror, and the People’s Republics of Communism.    The new progressivism is exemplified by our idiot Prime Minister who likes to sanctimoniously lecture people in the first person plural about the need to listen to others who disagree with us even though everyone who hears him knows that he ought to be using the second person because he has no intention of ever listening to anyone who disagrees with him and that what he really means is that everyone who disagrees with him needs to listen to what he has to say and change their views accordingly.   This man frequently makes false affirmations of his belief in “free speech” and the need to defend such but never does so without including a qualifying provision that completely negates the affirmation and he has made it abundantly clear that he thinks the public need to be protected from speech that might “harm” which he calls by such terms as “hate”, “misinformation” and “disinformation” all of which merely mean speech that he disagrees with.    His attitude towards questioning is what is most relevant, however, and it is quite instructive.   Towards the end of the first term of his premiership, as his government was rocked by scandal, he bought off most of the private media companies in Canada with a $600 million bailout.   To further ensure that he never faces questions tougher than what colour of socks he is wearing he has repeatedly sought to ban reporters representing the handful of independent media companies that had refused his money from his press conferences.   Having gone to such lengths to ensure that he is only asked friendly questions, he never actually answers any of them, but instead only replies with pre-written remarks which may or may not have something to do with what he was asked.   If the reporter recognizes that he has not gotten an answer and repeats the question, the Prime Minister merely repeats his initial response, usually almost verbatim as he lacks the intelligence required to reword it on the spot.    The academic progressive thinks that members of designated victim groups should be protected from having “their truth” and their “lived experience” questioned, lockdown enthusiasts and Green activists think that “the science” should not be questioned but blindly believed and followed, and many, including members of our Parliament, think that certain historical assertions ought not to be questioned.  In a Prime Minister who avoids questions that he has not approved in advance like the plague and who sidesteps answering those that are put to him these foes of what is most basic and foundational to any genuine intellectual pursuit have found their champion.   Gerry T. Neal