In search of meaning, Nigerian-American writing professor and novelist Chris Abani told us he always asks his writing students the question why. While we may want final answers, that come along with what, how, where, and when questions, there are questions which can not be so exactly answered, and this is where the why comes in. Unlike how the question why demands we know the purpose and reason behind something, the heart of the matter. This will always leads to more questions before any sort of answer. Asking why is a sign of deeper consciousness. It is where we go when we do not know but we want to know if it is possible for such a thing to really be true.
How does the sun come up? In a curved line in the sky (one of many ways to answer this question). Why does the sun come up? Now we are getting to the heart of the matter of the universe’s existence.
How do you like your tea? Slightly sweetened with honey and a little less than boiling hot. Why do you like your tea this way? Now you’re asking me who I am, and how I have come to be this way.
How does this skyscraper work? This is a question of architecture. I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine who studied architecture for four years before deciding to become a writer. He describes the architecture of a building as a matter of functionality. By this reasoning, whatever is most functional determines the structure and look of the building, how many windows there are, the curve of the walls, the location of the elevators, maybe escalators, the material used, and many more minute and large decisions which go into the construction of a large space such as a 30+ story building. In considering all these elements one might assume there is a general agreement on how to measure functionality. But how are we choosing this measure? Or more appropriately, why?
Say you have a building that lets a certain number of office workers move through the space fluidly, here the measure of functionality would be their ability to move quickly and save more time getting in or out of work. Here we are using a measure of functionality based on the concept of efficiency most likely based on the concept of profit, net profit, and making money. Of course what if we decided that the office workers were not very happy because moving quickly made them feel like they were in a factory line, and their mental health deteriorated, then we might want to build bigger windows to let more light into the space they are moving through. Then we could say we are including mental health in our measure of functionality. What happens, though, if mental health and net profit conflict? What ultimately decides what is most functional? By deciding what we consider most important. How do we decide what is most important? By determining what our beliefs about life are.
My reasoning is that even in answering a question of functionality you inevitably end up asking a why question. The point being, even in someone deciding to use a measure of functionality for the architecture of a building, it is not devoid of the subjectivity of the human experience, of opinion, of bias, of ideology, of belief of what is most important. This is important, because we usually conflate functionality with a sense of objectivity. Yet, we can see even the concept of functionality here is imbued with ethical considerations, and sometimes ideological answers, when faced with a why question.
How does the U.S. government work? You might begin to answer this by explaining the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, democracy, and maybe even get into explaining how democracy is compromised due to heavy interference by large corporations on the stimulation of the economy. Okay, now, why does the U.S. government work this way?
We might not bother to think often about why the government works the way it does. It’s trouble enough keeping up with the damn how. However, in not asking why, we are accepting that there is some inevitability to the way things are. That there is a natural course to “organized” society which we have unavoidably fallen into. Despite the fact that there are 100’s to 1000’s of people everyday making decisions that make things the way they are, and these people are often asking why questions- consciously or subconsciously- in order to make these decisions, we still imagine that the answer to why is “just because” or “that’s just the way things are.”
To really answer why, you would have to go back to the origins of free market ideology, manifest destiny, and colonialism. A combination of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin. Eventually it becomes evident that the story of why reflects more of an ideology and politics than a natural course. There is nothing deterministic at all about the way that the government works. It is the result of a very strong ideology and belief in capitalism and the free market, self-determinism and individualism, racism and sexism, greed, and manifest destiny. To answer the question “why does the government work this way”, you would come across the horror that is the subjectivity with which our lives, i.e. political and economic, are governed and dictated. The social constructs and concepts which shape our lives come from an ideology and a fervent belief in that ideology to accompany it. Once again, certain concepts fall apart in the face of a why question.
So, it is also easy to see how rapidly the need for some sort of belief, be it religion or ideology, is necessary for a human to live our ultimately subjective lives. How else would we organize our life and experiences, make decisions for ourselves, make decisions for other people? As neuroscientist Beau Lotto mentions in a TED Talk “perception is grounded in our experience, the brain takes meaningless information and makes meaning out of it, meaning we never see what’s really there, we only ever see what was useful to us in the past, and perception underpins everything we think, we know, we believe, our hopes, our dreams, everything begins with perception,” describing the reality of our subjective lives.
The idea is that we are all products of our environment and that our perspectives shape how we see the world, we are never neutral or objective. The word objective is an insidious concept which is used to validate the experiences of some by co-opting the idea of “normal”, “natural” or “rational” and making others’ feel marginalized in their “abnormal” or “subjective” experiences. In sociology this can be considered a hegemony or when a dominant culture uses its cultural ideas to establish a mass domination of center and way of being. As black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins puts it, “those who control the schools, the media, and other cultural institutions are generally skilled in establishing their view of reality as superior to alternative interpretations.” (words of fire p. 340).
Then imagine that our entire world is being run by subjective decisions based similarly. We come across the idea that this society (American) is not as static and rational as western culture likes to claim, the culture that has heralded objectivity and rationality as its emblem. In saying that we are objective, we are saying that we are making a decision based on the ultimate truth. How convenient if that ultimate truth is one we already believe in and experience. Understanding the subjective nature of our reality might then begin with asking the question why. In some spaces, this is widely accepted, especially for example, amongst women and femmes, we usually speak from a subjective perspective and explain our decisions based on why we feel they are justified.
This reminds me of a piece I saw on the internet by Grada Kilomba:
“When they speak, it is scientific;
when we speak, it is unscientific.
When they speak, it is universal;
when we speak, it is specific.
When they speak, it is objective;
when we speak, it is subjective.
When they speak, it is neutral;
when we speak, it is personal.
When they speak, it is rational;
when we speak, it is emotional.
When they speak, it is impartial;
when we speak, it is partial.
They have facts, we have opinions.
They have knowledges, we have experiences.
We are not dealing here with a ‘peaceful coexistence of
words,’ but rather with a violent hierarchy, which
defines Who Can Speak and Who Can Produce Knowledge.”
– Grada Kilomba, in “Decolonizing Knowledge” (2016)
Politics is where the battle of the subjective experience is played out. At least one of the many ways. Thus in this way political is referring to the ways in which we act in accordance with the interest of a certain group or ideology. We must recognize that in this way we live inherently political lives. To claim to not participate or be interested is way of claiming one’s experience as objective and void of subjective experience and ideologically-influenced decisions. Most likely that kind experience is more validated by the hegemony and thus gives the appearance of being “objective”.
The question why requires honesty and courage. It requires honesty to admit that you can only answer this question through your own subjective experience. It requires courage. Everything has a why and we must delve into it wholeheartedly.
Why delve into the why? Because why reveals the heart of the matter, the paintbrush movements behind the painting, a soft echo reminder that to exist is more of an art than a science. Even when we want it to be a science, we find that science has its own art. So why reveals the art of being, in the decision made based off of the whim of that moment, the inclination, or the mood, the ideology, the strong belief, the hope of why it makes sense to you. We need to know that our world is constructed out of people’s why’s and their answers to these why’s. If “democracy lies in the expression of the effort, made by every person, to understand and be understood by everyone else,” as Cuban-Spanish artist Michelangelo Pistoletto says, then asking why is the beginning of this understanding. Thus my attempt at finding this ideal of democracy and equality or the destruction of it, in the answer to why.
Now in that same spirit I am going to explain why I believe it is so important to our human experience, political, emotional, spiritual, and social. Well for the very fact that solutions to some of the bigger human issues have been found by asking the questions why. We can begin to solve some of the bigger human problems we face today through this question. It begins with understanding the human forces, i.e. beliefs and ideologies, which shape our reality and society. That behind every condition in society is a decision and it does not occur independent of human will and consent. Answering the question why is easily political because we are led to the political motivations behind things. If we begin to ask the question why about every decision we make, we come across their very political influence.
If we already think with a set perspective, how can we ever think differently? To me, by asking the question why. Giving space to the why is what this place is about. Accepting uncertainty and dipping into the pool of the unknown why. That is what this space is about. If you asked me what heaven is, I would say it’s the answer to every why question I’ve ever had. For now I’ll accept asking the question.