“What is Truth,” Timothy Snyder asks in his concise 2018 book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.”
It’s a fantastic little book, 126 pages in all. I’m not going to lie; I’d like more. Snyder, an expert on Holocaust, explains how democracy can fall to tyranny with more ease than we’re likely comfortable with. He gives us 20 brief ways to combat it. They can be simple things like subscribing to print publications and remembering our professional ethics. Or they can be complex: Like asking our military and police forces to be reflective in how they use violence.
His 11th chapter is “Investigate.” It drives home the lesson I most try to teach my students: Question everything.
Snyder answers his his question this way.
Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that make you and individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is the potential tyrant.
As I said, I tell my students – high school, middle school and college – they must question everything. And their first question should always be “Why am I questioning this?”
I used to say that because I thought it kept you from wasting time. More importantly, it keeps you from a wasteful cynicism.