The “Why” Is Not, and Cannot Be, Uniform

I was thinking recently about a parasocial interaction online — parasocial because the person does not know me, nor I lim — in which I assisted with an information need. It got me thinking about actions versus reasons and how the two differ.

In that specific case, I helped the person with the question despite disagreeing with the general premise of what le was researching; the topic was too complicated to be boiled down into a binary good/bad answer: not critiquing the subject is wrong, yet critiquing the subject is also fraught because doing so in the wrong way could fuel some of the things that are currently ripping the fabric of society apart.

What do I do when someone has an information need and I don’t know that le will be thorough about seeking all perspectives (even the ones that disagree with the angle le wants to take) in the lit review part because, let’s face it, this is the Internet? Misinformation and hot takes can, and do, cause information harm online. They further division, occasionally in catastrophic ways. If I decide to be helpful, does that person then think that I agree? How often does this happen to me in my information exchanges?

It’s much more straightforward in a workplace context, where I know the ethical framework well and have a slightly better time navigating professional duty, information ethics, and my internal morality. At work, the why disconnect isn’t usually related to information harm, but to assumptions about shared worldview that, to be blunt, have little to no fallout. It’s rare for me to confront actual ethical dilemmas. I can (usually) trust that the researchers I talk to are dotting the i and crossing the t, and if they aren’t, that’s why we have peer review (although the system does have its flaws) and the IRB.

In social and parasocial settings, I do the same thing instinctively — I give information assistance when I think that people need it using my skill background, which is admittedly way better in the sciences than in the non-sciences. Both in person and online, though, I’m never completely certain if the other person understands that I may not agree with lim and that I am extending assistance because it’s natural and practiced for me to do so. The only times when another person can be absolutely certain that I agree with lim is when I say that I do. (Or, you know, the times when I change and uproot the entirety of my after-work enrichment reading because something has altered my paradigm, and like, who is so stubborn that she’d maintain an unchanged reading plan after something like that?)

This got me thinking about two completely different contexts from the one mentioned above, which is why I titled this post the why is not, and cannot be, uniform. (Except I guess maybe this is mostly meaningful in matter if we get technical about it.)

First, the why is not uniform as a problem is a central element in many dystopias, as seen with the neologism “thoughtcrime” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four — despite going through motions and performing well on the outside, someone’s very cognition and sense of self can be made deviant, wrong, and immoral when viewed in a totalitarian scheme that polices thought. In reality, someone might view my assistance even when I disagree with lim as problematic, insidious thought-violence even though outwardly, it has the same beneficent impact as someone who performs the exact same actions but who completely agrees with the person le’s helping.

Sometimes, someone’s why is morally awful, and I think we can all call extreme examples of that to mind without much difficulty; more often, though, it’s just informed by a different worldview and ethical or moral philosophy that is different to outsiders, but not wrong. Yet, we often mistake sameness for ethical/moral correctness because people have a hard time with differentiating toxic difference from benign difference.

Second, I got thinking about philosophy, and this is the part of this post that is less uncomfortable, if still introspective. I have been reading Plato and many of the Neoplatonic commentators; right now, to finish out 2019, I’m trying to get my reading list in a tidy enough place to focus on the Republic, Laws, and Timaeus next year.

One of the things that occasionally makes me uncomfortable is that my background, to be frank, is information science and creative writing. I majored in English literature and minored in astronomy; I have a graduate degree in library/info science. I’ve published poetry, essays, and short stories. The ways I think through theology, philosophy, and mythology are to create fun problems and unpack ideas in science fiction and fantasy settings because I take great delight in doing these things, from the conlangs I write where I have documented how a language uses respect register and definite articles to refer to teachers to the stories where I’ve worked out concepts related to theological questions I have to the poems where I get to play with the sacred and the profane in union. My favorite dialogues are the Symposium, Phaedrus, Cratylus, and Ion.

This background means that I may not see or focus on the same things as someone coming from Classics or philosophy while reading these texts. Most of the people I follow on Twitter (some of whom I now follow in RSS because I’m hiatusing) who talk about Plato and Platonism are from those disciplines because that rowdyserious band of ancient philosophers is a specialized research area. It’s generally fun, and it’s human-seeing-human, until moments when I remember that my background is totally different, that I have made life choices that make my expertise way different and this new stuff very weird to me, and moreover, that said BG means that the questions I want to answer and the ways I want to move forward are not necessarily the same as what I perceive others’ questions to be.

Reading Meisner’s Orphic Tradition and the Birth of the Gods is driving it home in another way, specifically in the discussion of bricoleur and bricolage. I hate that terminology because it reminds me of bric-a-brac, and it is intellectually difficult to not read bricolage as something dismissive and demeaning. (The same mental machinery that gives me so many difficulties here makes me extremely good — or bad, depending on how much you enjoy a good pun — at wordplay jokes.) 

I’m honestly not sure how I got through an entire English major in college (and took an entire upper-level college class on lit crit while I was still in high school) without encountering Claude Lévi-Strauss’ concept of bricolage — or maybe I did and I was somehow successful at purging it from my memory. I mean, my senior seminar focused on Early Modern Women Writers, and if they weren’t writing travel diaries and creepy realfic scifi about the Queen of England (yikes, Cavendish, yikes), they were writing Christian psalm paraphrases and other poetic material that seems to work with their source materials in ways that would fall within the definition of bricolage. Why haven’t I seen this term applied to them?

And yet the other reason reading Meisner is odd (although I am honestly enjoying the book!) is because it’s like being talked about in third person and accidentally overhearing — even though the Orphic poems were composed by people in a very different context, as a poet, I reflexively self-identify with them. As human beings, our motivations and considerations when we make compositions cannot be so different as to be mutually incomprehensible, despite being separated by cultures, centuries, and circumstances, because I am also interested in that oscillating, copper-bitter darkness that produces thoughts and images of Gods and the cosmos and the reasons behind all things — and bringing what that inner stillness sees into view — as long as the poets were similar enough in their motivations, which you don’t really know without knowing someone. 

There are also situations where I have translated things I’m reading in philosophy or science into symbolic, poetic concepts because I understand them better that way — writing poetic lines about the Lord of Time and a cosmic dance help me think through the theological implications of modern cosmological findings about the physical universe and accelerated expansion, and thinking about the intelligible, intellective, &c., transitions with an analogy of dance hall, the pauses between music, the music itself, and the dancers who take up each piece in turn either really helps me understand it or takes me in a weird direction that is less helpful without me realizing it. (I often freak out whenever I encounter anything that I don’t understand instantaneously, though, because I am very extra, so some of that last statement is the residue of a mental panic I literally had.) I also have some questions about constant velocity without a referent (basically, in a physical universe sense, you cannot distinguish between stillness and motion if you are moving at constant velocity and cannot reference anything else that is moving or still) and whether that’s the same thing as some things I’ve read in Platonism about what does not move, what is self-moved, and what is moved. It seems like some of the things about the transition from the first to the latter categories is exactly what would happen if a secondary party were dropped into a reference frame that suddenly changed things so that motion could even be perceived at all.

And then add on top of this that the world today feels like it is ripping itself apart into division and that I see it and it’s really too much. I want to do something about it, and the harmonization and purification that poetry and stories can create feels like one of the only things I can offer, or at least try to offer, while the world bakes like a monster that has been left to putrefy and purify under Hêlios’ watchful eyes, shot down by the God who knows the course of cause and effect and whose utterances enforce what will come, whose rage is as dazzlingly-lit as his grace, giver of plague and of healing.

Well, then. Moving on. As a whole — beyond understanding that the project of theurgy and of self-knowledge and of Gods-knowledge is important and essential to each of us, however we make our way there and however we learn to rest in ceaselessness — the artistic motivations do make a lot of things different. I wonder sometimes if that matters or if it means I should just stick to my own area (where are creators who are philosophically and mythologically motivated even?), and it makes me self-conscious just in case people think that I am doing things for a why that is not the same. I think myself in circles because the next thought is usually, But diversity of the why makes everything better. People think better and have better ideas if they’re not like the people they are talking to, and this has been demonstrated and replicated in peer-reviewed studies. I respect science, and I find peer-reviewed, reproducible studies soothing, so let’s go with that.

So, maybe it’s OK that there are these differences; maybe I just need to get out more, or because I’m only 32, differences mean more in my mind than they will when I am 42 or 52. Alternatively, maybe it’s that American culture now is not comfortable with ambiguity and difference (even when we take people who are politically and socially on the same page as one another; how many once-friends are no longer speaking to each other due to relatively minor differences in the overall scheme of things?), a horror that is getting worse with each passing hour — my discomfort could be a reflection of that. Obviously, some of it is just the fact that I have impostor syndrome and overthink things a lot. Some of it is also a fear of intellectual rejection if what I think and the why of it doesn’t measure up.

Many people may occasionally, or often, feel the same way about any number of things in religion or life in general, which is why I am being so honest.

I can remember so many times when I’ve word vomited at people to explain to them why I am in a place, or why I am in another place, or why, why, why, why, why, as if I’m spinning a prayer wheel to the Gods asking for some definitive answer(s) about where and with whom I belong and how I find a path and how I find this, that, or another community, or when you know that you’re in or out.

Still, the why is not uniform. Maybe a lot of things are already in place, and we — you and I — just need to make peace with that and one another in a way that allows for both difference and coexistence.


PS: BTW I’ve finally made a decision on whether to capitalize God(s) or not, and it’s only taken my entire life. For decades, I have been having a multi-pronged usage argument with myself every time I write the words. Despite my understanding that it is a residual carryover from when we capitalized nouns in English, given the ideological nuances in capitalization of divine things and the existence of monotheistic privilege, it seems like a way to be emphatic about polytheism and plurality, there are clear use cases going back centuries, and since we now occasionally capitalize nouns for emphasis and conceptual-importance reasons in English, it’s hilarious in a way that Hermes might appreciate.

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