A question that defined a life

A consideration of Rodney King’s famous question


Last month, Rodney King died at the age of 47. If you’re looking for an example of what I would call a “beautiful question”—a question that takes on a big and important idea, one that causes people to step back and reassess the way they think—consider King’s famous question, “Can we all get along?”

He said it at a news conference during the 1992 Los Angeles riots; those riots, of course, were touched off by the videotaped beating of King by police officers, and the subsequent acquittal of several of those officers. In its obituary of King on June 18, the Associated Press noted that, “Twenty years later, Rodney King’s simple yet profound question still lingers, from the street where Trayvon Martin died all the way to the White House.”

How Rodney King phrased his beautiful question

In thinking about the famous question, I find King’s wording interesting. One might have expected him to phrase the question as “Can’t we all get along?”—as in, C’mon everybody, what’s wrong with us—can’t we all just get along?” Worded that way, the question could have sounded rhetorical; or it might have come off as scolding. But the way King said it, it sounded like he was truly wondering: Can we get along? Is it possible? The question became a challenge; King was asking, in effect, Are we up to this huge test?

Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson told the AP that King asked “a critical question at a moment of crisis that forged our human bonds with one another.” Asked whether the nation has risen to the challenge in King’s question, Dyson said, “The jury is still out.”

It could be said that King himself didn’t rise up to the opportunity he created for himself when he asked his question. Having gotten the nation’s attention and secured the moral high ground, he might have gone on to do remarkable things as a champion of Civil Rights or civility in general. He might have devoted himself to taking at least small steps toward answering his big question. But King, unfortunately, was grappling with other problems and challenges—his life “was a roller coaster of drug and alcohol abuse, multiple arrests and unwanted celebrity,” the New York Times reported. In an instructive interview earlier this year in the L.A. Times marking the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots, King said,

People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations.”

Did King ask the right question?

I recently came across an interesting take on King’s question on the site Big Think. An article featuring the philosopher Slavoj Zizek suggests that in terms of race relations, when we ask whether we can all just “get along,” we may be asking the wrong question. Zizek notes that such questions seem to focus on tolerance—a “retreat from the ambitious vision” of the Civil rights movement, “which was not simply appealing to liberal magnanimity, but demanding equity.”

It’s an interesting point, but I think King’s question about tolerance was valid, appropriate for those turbulent days—and was expressed simply and beautifully. It had a certain calming effect that was much needed at the time. For that, we owe him our thanks.


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About the Author

Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including his three books about the power of questioning: BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry, THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead, and A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Warren’s writing appears regularly in Psychology Today, Fast CompanyHarvard Business Review, and The New York Times. He lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts.

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