Questions Are Neutral. Answers, Not So Much


Questions Are Neutral.

Answers, Not So Much

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to

Socrates with his mouth open: Asking a question, no doubt.

Asking questions: It’s a method of teaching that goes back to earlier than 399 B.C. and Socrates, the seminal thinker who laid the foundation for much subsequent Western thought.

Hence, the Socratic Method.

The idea is that a question, in itself, is neutral; at worst – or best? – a provocation to think. It’s the resulting answers to the question that aren’t neutral. The hope is that, tested by argumentation, open debate will lead to the best consensus.

So it’s with some surprise that the Poll, begun in February with the question, “Do you want marijuana stores operating in Otsego County?” has become controversial. There’s a Facebook component for further debate.

Sure, some of the questions deal with edgy topics, but we’re living in an edgy time:

• Does the massacre of 50 people at a mosque in New Zealand require more regulation of the internet?

• Should allegations that Joe Biden touched a female Nevada legislator inappropriately cause him to end his prospective presidential campaign?

• A federal commission is studying whether all women should be required to register for the draft, as are men. Should they?

• The state Legislature in Albany is considering allowing illegal aliens to obtain driver’s licenses. Do you support that legislation?

• With Congressional hearings underway, do you agree descendants of American slaves should receive reparations?

The idea was that the poll, and Facebook adjunct, would give local readers a chance to participate in what currently is a rich and hard-argued national debate on multiple issues.

No one can say it hasn’t.

That same impetus brought former DEC commissioner Mike Zagata of West Davenport, from the right, and Sustainable Otsego moderator Adrian Kuzminski, from the left, to our editorial pages.

Zagata and Kuzminski have enriched our opinion pages, generated fresh thinking, and prompted a steady stream of letters to the editor. (Incidentally, both men are PhDs.)

Particularly given that has developed into Otsego County’s Daily Newspaper/ONLINE, with world and national news, comics, Dear Abby and a crossword – as well the most, and most timely, local news – more muscular opinion seemed like a logical addition.

But from early on, some local leaders have complained the questions in themselves – not the ensuing debate – were “divisive.” In particular, but not exclusively, the county Democratic chair Aimee Swan and county Rep. Andrew Stammel, D-Town of Oneonta, have struck this note repeatedly.

With Democratic control in Albany, that party has ownership of many of the controversial laws coming out of this year’s session, “Green Light” legislation and marijuana legalization among them. It’s the downside
of success: Embrace it!

President Trump and his prospective impeachment – for now, in abeyance, it seems – has divided the country and the county as well. Does asking about it split opinions beyond what they already are?

More problematic to me is the use of expletives and profanity, which we – me and Managing Editor Libby Cudmore, mostly – remove as soon as we become aware of them. Disagreement’s OK, but let’s be polite about it.

Coming up with questions that speak to whatever the issue of the day happens to be isn’t as easy as it may seem.

For instance, take the latest hot-potato: Are Democrats trying to provoke a recession to sink President Trump’s reelection prospects?

We didn’t just make it up.

That issue was hotly debated the other morning on C-Span Radio; you may have heard it during the Oneonta-Cooperstown/Cooperstown-Oneonta commute. Plus, Bill Maher called for such on his “Real Time” show and, when challenged, doubled down.

Still, the cries arose again. Stammel called the question “ridiculous and divisive.” Chad McEvoy, who ran for Assembly last year against Brian Miller, R-New Hartford, called it “dumb” and “basically irresponsible.”

But those who went beyond that had some interesting things to say. Theresa Gorman: “If we go into a recession, the buck stops with the leadership. Always has, always will.” Janet Rigby posted an Axios headline: “Stocks plunge after Trump’s trade tweets.” And Mike McWherter: “At least he has the guts to challenge a country that sells us junk and laughs at us while doing it.”

This is news we can use – opinions, rather – to help us come to our own conclusions.

The poll is going to continue. I don’t say this defiantly. I think it’s an important forum – and opportunity – for local discussion.

I’m not saying we always get it right. If you don’t like the questions, suggest one yourself. (Email
But let’s stop blaming a question if we don’t like one set of the answers.

Socrates would disapprove.

Jim Kevlin is editor/publisher of, Hometown Oneonta and The Freeman’s Journal.

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