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Armor-Piercing Question

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The injury is imaginary,
but the pain is very real.

Galloway: So let me ask, if we ultimately conclude that our national security is best served by denying you further asylum on our planet, will you leave peacefully?
Optimus Prime: Freedom is your right. If you make that request, we will honor it. But before your president decides, please ask him this: What if we leave and you're wrong?
Lennox: (to Galloway) That's a good question.

Ever since Socrates, the power of the question to provoke insight has been well acknowledged. Sometimes a single question, well phrased and well timed, can collapse a person's mental defenses and throw their entire worldview into doubt.

Whether it's The Mentor trying to force their student to learn a vital lesson, or a villain trying to reduce a hero to a wreck, or a hero trying to show a villain how wrong they've been all this time, or somebody desperately trying to force the kid on the sidelines to realize they are meant to do something... more, a good Armor Piercing Question either cuts directly to the heart of a person's worldview, obsession, or psyche, or else forces the listener to confront unpleasant truths that they either didn't want to face or didn't even consider.

This sometimes translates into people using a continued line of questioning to upset or enlighten other characters. Among the most powerful forms of this is finding a single question and formulating it so the answer forces your target to face something difficult to admit, and keep pounding it. In this variant, the key is to find a question with an answer that cuts close to the bone and not let up.


May involve, but is not necessarily related to, Armor-Piercing Slap.

The Constantly Curious often comes up with an Armor-Piercing Question in total innocence, being, like many children, Too Dumb to Fool.

This is a real technique used in psychotherapy, education, religious groups, and debates; the Socratic method taken to its extreme, it's occasionally known as the "Synanon Game". Note that it's usually not as effective as it is in fiction, especially when pointing out doublethink; one common reaction is to verbally attack the person causing the cognitive dissonance. Or the person may simply leave the discussion, or rationalize away the point, etc.

Subtrope of The Power of Language. Compare Break Them by Talking, Hannibal Lecture, What Is Evil?, The Only Way They Will Learn, Figure It Out Yourself, Koan, Cryptic Conversation, Wham Line.


Super-Trope to And Then What?, which is about a specific subset of armor-piercing question to make the target think about life beyond their plan.

Compare and contrast Armor-Piercing Response, when it's a response (instead of a question) that brings the other guy to a shock. It can be used to answer an Armor-Piercing Question, but it's just as likely to be used against an entirely innocent remark.


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    Comic Strips 
  • In one Bloom County strip, Oliver Wendell Jones takes Binkley and Opus on a Mind Screw journey contemplating the nature of the universe, all the while asking "Why?" As the trip gets more and more out of control and Oliver keeps asking why everything is the way it is, Opus gets fed up and asks "Well, WHY NOT!?" which metaphorically brings Oliver back down to Earth.
  • In one strip of Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin asks his father, "Dad, how do soldiers killing each other solve the world's problems?" His father has no answer for him.
    • Two from the arc where Calvin and Hobbes go to Mars to escape Earth's pollution: "Is that your candy wrapper over there?" and "Would you welcome a dog that wasn't house-trained?", both asked by Hobbes after Calvin litters on Mars. Calvin realizes he's part of the problem and he and Hobbes go home so as not to ruin things for the Martians, and partly out of the realization that as human habits cause pollution, it's not right to go to another planet to escape the mess they've caused on Earth.
  • In Doonesbury a soldier asks her friend what she'll say if she's asked "Was it worth it?", to which her friend says that joining the army was greatnote  for her. Her friend responds that they'll be asking if the war was worth it; her friend's response is "what do you think I'm avoiding answering?"
  • Linus does this in one Peanuts strip when he asks a doomsday prophet who has been terrorizing (or boring) the camp kids for a week: "Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?".
    • Another strip has Charlie Brown getting ready for a baseball game and explaining to Sally that he has to put his left sock on first.
      Sally: What would happen if you didn't?
      Charlie: Well, we'd probably lose the game.
      Sally: Have you ever won?
  • Argentinian cartoonist Quino made a strip about a man showing to his grandson his collection of books:
    Man: I've dedicated my life to reading all these books. I have learned who were the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Incas, Mayas...
    Boy: Wow! And us, grandpa? Who are we?
    Man: ...
    (a moment later)
    Mom: Where's your grandpa?
    Boy: In the library, crying.
    • In his comic strip Mafalda, Felipe is celebrating the end of the school year and the start of summer vacation. After cheering, he suddenly flops on the sidewalk and asks:
      Felipe: My God, what are we going to do with all this freedom from now on?
    • In another Mafalda strip:
      Manolito: Today the teacher congratulated me for my high marks in arithmetic, she praised my natural ability with numbers.
      Mafalda: That's great Manolito! And what about the other subjects?
      Manolito: (beat) the teacher congratulated me for my high marks in arithmetic, she praised my natural ability with numbers...
  • In B.C. by Johnny Hart, Thor is attempting to explain the game of golf to the Cute Chick.
    Cute Chick: Let's see if I get this right. The less you hit the ball, the better your score?
    Thor: That's right.
    Cute Chick: Then why hit it at all?
    shift to nighttime; Thor standing by the tee holding his club
    Thor: Why ... do ... it ... at ... all?

  • Bo Burnham's "Repeat Stuff" has a form of this in the bridge, in which it is stated that parents will always cater to the corporately-engineered celebrity crushes of their children without hesitation or consideration of their actions out of a desire to not question their children's "love", before this perception is called into question. The music video illustrates this by showing a mother happily giving her daughter money after being shown a tabloid magazine, but having her mood quickly change from one of cheer to one of stark reflection after her daughter leaves the scene and the question is asked.
    And your parents will always come along
    Because their little girl is in love
    And how can love be wrong?
    How can love be wrong?
  • Death Cab for Cutie's "What Sarah Said": "So who's gonna watch you die?"
  • "What Would You Do?" by City High, where the viewpoint character gets put in is place when he asks a girl he went to school with why she's stripping for money.
    What would you do if your son was at home, crying all alone on the bedroom floor,
    Cause he's hungry and the only way to feed him is to sleep with a man for a little bit of money?
    And his daddy's gone in and out of lock down, I ain't got a job now, He's just smokin' rock now,
    So for you this is just a good time
    But for me this is what I call life
  • In the music video of Beyoncé's "Pretty Hurts", the question "what is your aspiration in life?" makes the pageant contestant pause and it clearly rattles her.
  • In "Downstream" by the Rainmakers, the singer asks Harry Truman "What about the Bomb, are you sorry that you did it?", to which the president answers, "Pass me that bottle, and mind your own business."
  • Sean Combs' song "Coming Home" lists a few during the first verse:
    What am I s'posed to do when the club lights come on?
    It's easy to be Puff but it's harder to be Sean
    What if my twins ask why I ain't marry their mom?
    Damn... how do I respond?
    What if my son stares with a face like my own
    And says he wants to be like me when he's grown?
    Shit... but I ain't finished growing!
  • "What Would You Do (If Jesus Came To Your House)," a country gospel standard popularized by singers Porter Wagoner and Red Sovine. The armor-piercer is indeed the titular question: Christians who do not uphold their stated principles in private life are asked what they would do if they learned Jesus Christ was making an unexpected visit, and what would they do to prepare, such as having to hurriedly get rid of ill-reputable materials and be unable to carry on the normal household conversation ... and treat him like an honored guest instead of someone they were uncomfortable with having around. The song also asks listeners whether they would uphold their values only when Jesus were around before reverting to a less-than-Christian lifestyle after he had left, or if they would practice Christianity all of the time.
  • Sabaton: "What's the price of a mile?" Secondary, "What is the purpose of it all?"
  • Joan Osborn asks "What if God was one of us?" in her 1995 song of the same name.
  • Mega Man pulls this on Proto Man in "I Refuse (To Believe)", by The Megas:
    Brother, if we walk the program, then what system do you serve?
    Is your song just lines of code, or something that you heard?


    Professional Wrestling 
  • During their 2010 feud in DGUSA, Jimmy Jacobs (at the time an atoning for his past sins) confronted Jon Moxley and tried laying one of these on him combined with Not So Different: "When I look at you, I just see myself in the mirror... Whole life's a struggle, isn't it? Keep fighting. Keep fighting, then what? Then what?"
  • On the July 11th, 2011 edition of Raw, John Cena delivers one to CM Punk. Punk had spent the entire promo Moving The Goal Posts while talking over his contract to renew with the WWE and trying to win over the audience in the process. Cena comes out and hits Punk with a Kirk Summation, pointing out how big of a Hypocrite Punk is before asking him this question; if you love the WWE universe so much, why are you trying to leave the WWE? Punk gets furious and tries to lay the blame on Cena, but the fact he'd just been offered the very things he'd been complaining about Cena having and more but still hadn't gotten enough to stay in WWE renders him unable to effectively answer this. Punk would then piss off Cena, by deriding his claim of being the underdog. He stated that Cena, like his hometown of Boston, has long since become a dynasty, comparable to the New York Yankees. Cena, unable to argue against that claim and angered over the comparison, promptly decked him in the face.
  • John Cena has been on the receiving end of armor-piercing questions as well. Such as on the March 2, 2015 edition of Raw, when Stephanie McMahon — after raking him over the coals for demanding a spot in the André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania XXXI without (in her view) doing anything notable to earn it — makes a bone-chilling, soul shaking comment: "It's not where would WWE be without John Cena. It's where would John Cena be without WWE!" (Which Cena, of course, successfully sells.)

  • This idea, applied reflexively, is the idea behind Zen koans. The teacher, when asked a question by the student, provides an answer which is supposed to prompt the student to ask the right question to pierce their own ignorance.
  • Often used by Jesus in The Four Gospels to challenge His disciples, or to confound and remonstrate the Pharisees for being Holier Than Thou.
    • The Pharisees frequently tried to do this to Jesus, usually by asking questions about secular traditions that seemingly contradicted religious mandate. Jesus's answers inevitably pointed out and defied the false dichotomy.
      • A good example of this trope is Luke 20:1-8. The Pharisees demanded Jesus tell them by what authority he was performing miracles, so he asked them whether John's baptisms were of heaven or men. If the Pharisees said heaven they knew Jesus would call them out on condemning John; if they said men, the people would hate them because the people believed John was a real prophet. They tried to Take a Third Option and say 'We don't know', to which Jesus replied 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things', meaning he won either way.
  • The Book of Job features a famous example from God Himself. The premise of the book: Satan is having a chat with God in Heaven after the former has been out and about in the human world. God points out Job, His faithful servant, and Satan argues that Job is only faithful because God has blessed him with wealth, health, and many children; if he lost all of that, he would surely turn against the Divine. God accepts the challenge and tells Satan that he's free to hurt Job however he likes, as long as he doesn't murder him. Soon after, Job's sons and daughters are killed, he loses everything he has, and he's struck with festering boils and illness. At the end of the book, Job, who's been The Stoic throughout, finally asks God why he's being punished. God replies as such: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" In other words, These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, and God is so beyond mortal comprehension that humans can't even begin to grasp His workings. Job repents, acknowledges God's mastery, and admits his own limited wisdom; this pleases God, who rewards Job with more prosperity and children.
  • The Book of Jonah actually ends with one (which theoretically doesn't count, since we don't learn Jonah's reaction). Jonah is stubbornly waiting for God to destroy the sinful city of Nineveh, despite the fact that its people have now atoned and been forgiven. As he waits, God creates a plant called a kikayon to shade him from the harsh sunlight. The next day, however, God kills the plant, and Jonah, burning up in the sun, cries out in despair. God's response:
    "You took pity on the kikayonnote , for which you did not toil nor did you make it grow, which one night came into being and the next night perished. Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?"

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Dark Champions villain known as Dr. Enigma has a similar power called The Unanswerable Question that can leave a person in a helpless daze. He touches the victim with a chemical and then asks a bizarre question such as "Why must two and two make five?" or "What color is Tuesday?"
  • Mage: The Awakening invokes this with the spell called "The Inescapable Question", which causes any question to cause the hearer to stop and ponder its meaning and answer (it is noted that particularly savvy mages can get the effect by simply asking "Why?"). In effect, the spell adds a distracting veneer of profundity to a question that can be a completely inane Ice-Cream Koan.
    • Hunter: The Vigil: vampires around the world will crap their pants upon receiving a piece of paper, or an SMS, or an email, or a phone call, that asks "Who is Cain?" This isn't necessarily because of the significance of Cain; it's because it means the Cainite Heresy is coming for them.
    • In Hunter: The Reckoning the redeemers have this power. They can ask a question, although what exactly the question is and if the monster answers, is not of much relevance. As long as the hunter appeals to the humane side of the target they bring it forward and the creature is overcome with possibly forgotten feelings and emotions of being alive and mortal. The book states that a common question is "Do you remember?"
  • In the backstory of Warhammer 40,000, the primarch of the Night Lords, Konrad Curze, subdued the Wretched Hive of a planet he landed on as a child through brutal and uncompromising murder of anyone who broke the law. When down the line this method of governing causes extreme problems for both the planet (when Curze is gone, the place slips back into its old ways without fear of him keeping people in line) and the Astartes recruited from it (they're a bunch of sadistic, murderous psychopaths), Curze's second in command calls him out for using such brutal methods, leading to this exchange:
    Curze: There was no other way.
    Sevetar: No? What other ways did you try?

  • 1776: When Adams and Jefferson speak out in support of the anti-slavery clause in the Declaration, Jefferson describes it as an infamous practice that wounds human nature. Rutledge immediately points out Jefferson's and Massachusetts' hypocrisy:
    "Then see to your own wounds, Mr. Jefferson, for you are a—practitioner, are you not?"
    "[singing] Who sails the ships out of Boston?"
  • The Andersonville Trial: During a recess in the trial, Baker confronts Chipman with the possibility of his being a puppet of a higher mortal power, not very much unlike Wirz. Chipman does not take it well.
  • There are multiple in Bare: A Pop Opera, most coming from Peter.
    • The first happens during Birthday, Bitch! as Jason rejects Peter's attempts to be more open about their relationship
      PETER: Don't go.
      JASON: Peter, stop.
      PETER: God, but the rave—
      JASON: Was different. We don't live at a rave. Look, you have to stop acting like this.
      PETER: Like what? Your boyfriend?
    • The final and most impactful one is near the end of the show, after Jason dies, where Peter confronts the priest about his actions towards Jason.
      PRIEST: People come to the church in times like these for answers, but I have none... Most words seem to fall empty, but I'll try. It's a horrible thing that no one should have to go through, losing...a friend, at such a young age. You know, or you should know, that he's in a better place. We'll always ask ourselves if there was something more that could've been done, that's natural.
      PETER: Do you ask yourself that, Father?
  • In Company (Sondheim), Bobby, with a little help from Joanne, manages to give one to himself:
    Joanne: I'll take care of you.
    Bobby: But who will I take care of?
    Joanne (a big smile): Well, did you hear yourself? Did you hear what you just said, kiddo?
  • The Crucible: "Is Your Husband a Lecher?" Repeated a few times.
  • "Now tell me, how do you take religion?" Asked by Gretchen to Faust, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's version. Having made a Deal with the Devil, he has a hard time answering it. Became so influential that "Gretchenfrage" entered the German vocabulary.
  • Dear Evan Hansen has several, but "How did you break your arm?" and, in the same scene, "Did you fall? Or did you let go?" is by far the most shocking.
  • In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye gets angry when his daughter Tzeitel begs him not to force her to marry the town butcher.
    Tevye: We made an agreement! Between us, an agreement is an agreement!
    Tzeitel: Is that more important than I am, Papa?
  • In Hadestown, several delivered by Orpheus to Hades in his song appealing to the love Hades held in the past.
    Orpheus: And what has become of the heart of that man
    Now that the man is King?
    What has become of the heart of that man,
    Now that he has everything?
    • Then, slightly later:
      Orpheus: Where is the treasure inside of your chest?
      Where is your pleasure, where is your youth?
      Where is the man, with his hat in his hands,
      Who stands in the garden, with nothing to lose?
  • Hamilton:
    • In "Aaron Burr, Sir", Hamilton asks "if you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?". It takes Burr half the play to find what he wants: he wants to be in the room where it happens.
    • To Hamilton, in "Non-Stop", Burr asks "How do you write like you're running out of time? Are you running out of time?"
  • Heathers: When Veronica tries to justify hurting Martha when she comes a bit too close to finding out the truth about Ram and Kurt's deaths, Heather Chandler shoots back with:
    Heather: Or he'll kill her? Is that what you're worried about?
  • Into the Woods has "Last Midnight," a song sung in the second act by the Witch. The whole first verse consists of simple questions delivered to the Baker, Jack, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood: "Told a little lie... stole a little gold... broke a little vow, did you?" Those questions force the heroes to admit that their shortsighted, self-centered wishes and "small" wrongdoings have had major consequences for everyone.
  • In Knickerbocker Holiday, Brom gives one to the council as they prepare to hang him (again):
    Brom: Gentlemen, I used to think there was something wrong with me because I couldn't take orders—but now I know it was a virtue—and one you'd better learn if you want to live!
    Stuyvesant: Cut that speech short! Cut that speech short!
    Brom: I'm sentenced for saying that your government was better than his, and now if you don't want him to hang you all, one by one, you'll throw down that rope and speak up to him!
    Stuyvesant: Take in the slack! Up with him! No hesitation!
    Tienhoven: Ve petter pull! Come on!
    Brom: Does he do your thinking for you, or have you minds of your own!
    (There is a pause.)
    Roosevelt: No, ve vouldn't pull! (Drops rope)
    Stuyvesant: What?
    Roosevelt: Ve vouldn't pull! My name's Roosevelt and ven I get a idea it sticks! Ve vouldn't pull!
    Stuyvesant: Will you let him outwit you again?
    The Council: (Sings "No, Ve Vouldn't Gonto Do It")
  • Love In Hate Nation: When Kitty is consoling Susannah in the conversation leading into "Masochist".
    Susannah: I should've taken the blame. I was afraid... of my dad finding out.
    Kitty: Finding out what?
  • In Six, Catherine of Aragon spends most of "No Way" giving Henry a thorough tongue-lashing for trying to divorce her for Anne Boleyn, when she's spent years biting her tongue about his many affairs. Towards, the end, she calms down and sincerely asks him, does he have a good reason for not wanting her around anymore?
    Catherine: I've swallowed my pride all along. If you could just explain a single thing I've done to cause you pain... I'll go. [Beat.] No? You've got nothing to say?

    Visual Novels 
  • One could argue that finding these is pretty much the entire point of gameplay in the Ace Attorney series, since you're trying to peel away lies to uncover truths in the courtroom. Appropriately, the people being asked often react as if they've been physically pierced by the questions.
    • In Ace Attorney Investigations 2, the new "Logic Chess" system involves having a verbal battle of wits to draw a secret out of someone by way of Dialogue Trees rather than presenting evidence and pressing statements. Hits hardest with the final opponent, Yumihiko Ichiyanagi (Sebastian Debeste), when the point of the final round turns out not to be acquiring any case-relevant information, but to help find a cause that's enough for a completely broken individual to go on living for.
    • The player is actually treated to a pair of interrelated questions at the end of the second Phoenix Wright game:
      • Is it right for a murderer to get off scot-free, in order to protect the life of a completely innocent bystander? This wouldn't be too hard to answer on its own, as most justice systems have an answer built in: protect the innocent, no matter what.
      • It's the second question that makes it more complicated: Is it still right if another completely innocent person gets convicted in the guilty party's place if the latter walks free? (In context, this also amounts to "what is justice?" and "what does it really mean to be a lawyer?") As one player put it, "I have never been so paralyzed by a simple yes-or-no question in a video game."
    • Earlier that case, an exchange like this happens between Phoenix and Edgeworth, when Phoenix, having realized that Engarde is indeed guilty, begins to question what being a lawyer means.
      Edgeworth: It doesn't matter who, every person deserves a proper defense and a fair trial. Isn't that the basis of our judicial system?
      Phoenix: "Proper defense"? But what exactly is that? Is it where a lawyer forcibly and blindly gets an acquittal through shouting and trickery?
      Edgeworth: ...*sigh* Ironic that you of all people should say such a thing. Isn't that exactly how you have fought for your clients up until now?
  • Katawa Shoujo:
    • In Rin's route, as Nomiya is angry about Rin walking away from the exhibit and Hisao questions whether the commitment is worthwhile, Nomiya asks Hisao if he has anything comparable to Rin's passion for Art. Hisao, who may or may not have left the club by this point, based on player decisions, silently concedes that the answer is no.
    • Also, asking one of these of Rin is the key to getting her good ending. Rin laments that what she really wants is for someone to understand her well enough to not have to ask her questions; Hisao asks, "But if you found someone like that, then what?"
    • Jigoro, in response to Hisao suggesting that he visit his daughter Shizune at Yamaku, ends up asking Hisao when the last time he's called his parents. Hisao is forced to concede that he hasn't done a very good job of keeping in touch with them; other routes show minimal, and usually off-screen contact with them.
  • A Profile's second route has Miku as the heroine, who is prone to asking Masayuki questions he really doesn't want to answer about his study habits and how he quit track. The answer that he doesn't want to admit is that he really misses being on the track field. Before this, people were too afraid to mention it in front of him.
  • Youhei, of all people, gets one of these in Kyou's route in CLANNAD, when he forces Tomoya to confront the fact that the Fujibayashi sister he is dating is not the one he actually cares for.
  • Much like the Ace Attorney example mentioned above, these questions are the entire point of Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher, which draws heavy inspiration from that series AND is about philosophy and debate.

  • There's an urban legend of a group of college students who miss a final exam (in most variations, the students had gotten piss drunk the night before, feeling overconvident and deciding to throw a party instead of studying, and overslept thanks to a hangover) and then go to their instructor after the final and lie to the instructor that they got a flat tire trying to drive to the exam together. The instructor offers them another chance — or rather, appears to — by having them take a make-up final, on the caveat that they all take it in separate rooms to prevent any collaborative cheating. The students go into their assigned rooms, complete a pretty routine question that's worth 5 points, but when they turn the page, they're faced with the following question:

Alternative Title(s): Armour Piercing Question


Ducktales (2017)

"Which triplet am I?"

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