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I have long been interested in the question, "Why do people ask 'Why?' so much?" How much of it is a need to know? Is some of it idle chatter? Are people who incessantly ask 'Why?' insecure? Or are they intrusive? What are the intentions and motivations of people who ask 'Why?'?

Recently, in NCrissieB's series on information, she posted an important diaryabout the difference among Stenographers, Sages, and Seekers in the media. Crissie points out that the Seekers are the ones to get to the bottom of 'Why?'. Seekers search the facts, question experts, and do due diligence. True Seekers in the media often don't have the time nor the financial resources to get beyond the factual answers to 'Who, What, When and Where.'

The watered-down corporatist media cannot and will not answer the most important 'Why?' questions. In my opinion, we, as informed citizens, need to spend our valuable time rooting out the most urgent and relevant 'Why's'. It's human nature, I think, to ask non-productive 'Why?' questions. But we can become conscious as to which of our 'Why?' questions are just fluff, and which are the ones to which we truly seek answers.

Because I Said So

For you parents in Kulaland, if you're like me, you've broken the Parenting 101 rule, and answered, "Because I said so." Children from age two to five are curious and they ask a lot of important, answerable questions. This is the period of development when they learn more about how the world works than at any other time in their little lives. And we are patient. This work is important.

"Why is the sky blue?" (We dutifully research, buy picture books, and explain to the best of their understanding.) "Why is it raining?" "Why is there water?" Same thing: We research, buy books and assuage their growing little brains. Then, at some point, we sense manipulation: "Why can't I play outside after dark?" (Explain safety reasons....) "Why is Aunt Lois' hair orange?" "Why do I have to be polite?" and the dreaded (in the grocery cart facing backwards in the checkout line), "Why is that man so FAT?" (very loud and very close to the man's face.)

It becomes a game and kids enjoy it. They sense our frustration and rather than really wanting to know 'Why?' they are seeking affection and attention from us. Unfortunately, we occasionally have to employ the same method with adults ("Because I said so.") "Why do you like chocolate ice cream?" Sometimes you have to just say, "Because I just do."

Because I'm Nosy

"Why is your hair blond when the rest of your family has dark hair?" "Why are you so tall?" "Why do you seem uncomfortable when I ask you questions?" Well, yuck, because you are nosy and the answers are none of your business. If you are anything like me, it's hard to say, "It's none of your business." I've practiced the phrase, but when the question comes, I don't seem to be able to say the words. Similarly, we all know from Dear Abby that another appropriate response is, "Why do you ask?" That one is even difficult for me and I wonder if Abby has ever really answered, "Why do you ask?". It sounds easy, but it isn't. When I'm put in the intrusive question line-up, I usually ignore the question, adamantly.

Frivolous 'Why's'

Does the 'Why?' matter? Do we really even want to know? Are we just making idle conversation? If the question can be rephrased as "I wonder why....?" then it's probably frivolous (not that there's anything wrong with frivolity, but we need to know the difference between fluffy questions and real queries.) Since I've been thinking about this 'Why?' diary, I've asked my good friend Kerrie to call me out every time I ask a frivolous 'Why?' question. Oh my goodness....  The other day I was riding in Kerrie's car and a passenger in an adjacent car threw one shoe out the back window. I asked, "Why would that guy throw his shoe out the window?" Kerrie got me, only because the same question was already on her lips. I've gotten her and she's gotten me on several occasions just within the past week. Try it. Ask a friend or S.O. to focus on your 'Why?' questions. It can be a whole lot of nonjudgmental fun, and you will become more conscious of the nature of the 'Why?'s you ask.

Frivolous 'Why?' questions are rampant if you listen for them. I've heard many recently: "Why do avocados taste so good?" "Why would Mike Soscia  leave the injured pitcher in and let him give up two runs?" "Why did you do that?" (See also nosy questions.) "Why am I awake?" "Why would I apply for a commission-only job when this economy pays no commissions?" "Why do Frito's smell like dirty feet but they taste so great?" Etc., etc.

Because I Want to Argue With You

I hear the pundits do it all the time. They look for confrontation by asking 'Why?'. Does the asker really want or expect a logical answer from the answerer? Are they acting as journalistic Seekers? Usually not. The pundit baits the other pundit and puts him/her on the defensive. The question is not asked for the sake of Seeking, but for the sake of one-upmanship. Here's a snip of Rachel Maddow sparring with Mike Murphy on last Sunday's Meet the Press, regarding Sarah Palin's ghost writer(s). Notice she asks him 'Why?' three times!

MS. MADDOW:  But why would you--you can pick anybody to be your ghost writer.

MR. MURPHY:  Sarah Palin's a lot of things, but she's not a white supremacist.  And...

MS. MADDOW:  You could--no, I don't think she is.  But when you can pick anybody, why would she pick somebody who's associated with the League of the South, who said that Americans are revolted by the idea of having a black sister-in-law.  I mean, she--this is who she picked to write her book.

MR. MURPHY:  Yeah, but there's...

MS. MADDOW:  Why do you do that?

(I love Rachel. The argumentative questions more often come from the other side. This is just the most recent example I could remember.)

Because I Know the Answer

Sometimes people ask me 'Why?' because they think I know the answer. And sometimes I do. I've played golf all my life, so if someone asks me, "Why was that a two stroke penalty?", I know the answer.

While playing the "expert" is flattering, it is sometimes frustrating because often I don't know the full answer and would rather that they find out their best answer for themselves. A friend asked last week, "Why can the Angels score a run on a fly ball when there's one out, but they can't run in and score on a fly when there's two outs?" Well, I'm a lifelong baseball fan, so I know the answer, which is just a simple rule of baseball. Because it's the rule. I'd rather my friend had researched it on his own so he would remember the rule. (He has asked the same question before.)

Similarly, I get all sorts of 'Why?' legal questions wherever I go. I don't like to answer them, because even though I haven't been retained as their attorney, I can still be held liable for any answers I give them.  After demurring, I sometimes get the question, "Why won't you answer my question?" (Please see above section, "Because I said so.")

It's important to directly ask experts 'Why?'. But, as Seekers, we must know we are Seeking the best sources. There are lots of answers to 'Why?' and many may be accurate and further exploratory; others, not so much.  It's imperative to dig into several resources. Friend "experts" are valuable, but so is independent digging. (Google and its subsequent links are your friends.)

In my life, I've often been surprised by the accessibility of experts I've discovered on the internet, books, and research articles. They're often happy to discuss their views and posits. I've found direct contact with experts to be invaluable in seeking out answers to my 'Why?' questions.

Getting Distracted With the 'Why?' Question (The Rabbit Hole)

As Caractacus, in the comments of his fine diary last week (Sept. 29) discussed, there is such a thing as over-asking 'Why?'. If a Seeker gets off on a tangent that turns out not to be a part of his/her original assumption/premise, s/he may be digging (or over-digging) down the "rabbit hole" of never-ending research, never to find the answer to the original 'Why?' question:

...there are those who take the position that this only makes it harder to interrogate the assumptions that lie beneath those assumptions, creating a kind of rabbit-hole of assumption interrogation from which one might never recover a chance to consider the matter of substance being discussed in the first place.

We must ponder when digging into the "rabbit hole" is important and when it is idle digging, distracted digging, or competitive digging that has lost sight of the original desired result (the 'Why?').  

Why We Need to Ask the Real 'Why's'

If we as citizens, progressives, Kossacks, and MFers don't ask 'Why?', nobody else will. The media can't/won't. The right wing continues to ask the childish, intrusive questions discussed above. Often, the depth of their Seeking leads to the answer, "Because God (the Bible, Jesus) says so."

Super-intellectuals often dig into "rabbit holes" that turn up superfluous or irrelevant answers. Pundits argue, not really wanting to ask 'Why?'. We often ask frivolous 'Why?'s', like "Why are there always missing socks when they come out of the dryer?"

We need to choose our imperative 'Why?' questions carefully. We need to dispel questions that are unnecessary, intrusive, argumentative, and time-wasting. We need to do our research carefully, but expeditiously. We need to be confident enough to seek out experts in person with our further queries. We have the responsibility to root out the truest and best answers because we are the Seekers of society.


Originally posted to kktlaw on Wed Oct 07, 2009 at 04:06 AM PDT.

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