The Art of Fair Questions

I was cleaning up some dishes at work last week when a guest stopped me with a question. “Do you have salt and pepper?”

“Yes, absolutely!” I said, and walked away.


Okay, that’s not the end of the story. I did bring them one shaker of each. But the point is that do you have salt and pepper is not quite the right question. In order to answer correctly, it has to be interpreted in the way the person asking meant for it to be.

We were at a restaurant and I wait tables, so this one is pretty easy to figure out. But in politics, the questions are often not as straightforward. That’s because these questions aren’t just accidentally unclear. They are unclear on purpose, as they are designed to be divisive. These questions are purposefully unfair.

How do you make a bad question? Start with a simple one, and then add assumptions. For example consider:

What is freedom?
vs.
Why does the other party hate freedom so much?

Fair questions can seem silly about every day topics. Wondering why is the sky blue doesn’t seem to be improved by saying why does the sky appear blue to me. But compare these:

Less FairMore Fair
Why are poor people so lazy?Is there a connection between poverty and work ethic?
Why don’t billionaires pay their share of taxes?How much do extremely wealthy people pay in taxes?
Which party raided the social security trust fund?How does the social security trust fund work, and has that changed since it started?

Fair questions sometimes take a minute to say. That’s because acknowledging bias requires effort.

Which is one more way you know you’re not in a civil discussion. The more we’re talking in soundbites, the less we’re talking in detail.

Politics needs good ideas in response to hard questions. And that, my friends, takes time.

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