It’d been months. Much happened. Obama. Market crashes. The turning of a season, the passing of my father, the discovery of new music, the enduring of far too many job rejections. I’d fallen in love. I’d experienced impenetrable brick walls at every turn. New friends had swelled like a tide into my confused winter. Older friends were drifting away to distant jobs. My geriatric cat, my one physical constant, was dying. Two young teenagers were drawing me into their lives. One wall slowly revealed a tiny crack—an out I’d not considered—and my life looked to be taking an uncharted, unexpected, and even sometimes uncomfortable turn. I was moving north. That alone colored the background of my life’s canvas with a dizzying intensity of activity.
Yet, she said, the reason we didn’t speak any longer was because, as she put it, “everything always” comes down to my being gay.
Huh, I said. I thought it all came down to your being conservative and my being liberal. This seemed more accurate to me, mostly because we each interpreted every situation we spoke about from the filter of our political perspective. And maybe even more accurately, from the filter of our eschatological worldviews. Apocalypse confronting boundless, non-sectarian peace.
No. It’s all about my being gay.
But maybe S is right. Maybe it is all about my being gay. And I suspect I am also right. It’s all about my being liberal. It all comes down to this: I’m a woman, I’m a Gen X-er, I’m a Christian, I’m an American, I’m a scholar, I’m a musician. It all comes down to the core of who I am.
So what is that core? Certain things define us; certain things we define ourselves by—things like nationality, gender, political affiliation, denominational inclination, orientation, avocation, and community. And no one is primary; no one thing can be chosen to the exclusion of the others when considering the identity of any given individual. These are all what all it comes down to.
Each of these elements works as a filter, though which we view and interpret the world.
It’s like those contraptions oculists, ophthalmologists, and optometrists use when determining one’s eyesight. Housed in that gadget through which we squint at the wall beyond, is a large set of possibilities. And the circumstance in which our eyeballs stand determine precisely which filters will be the accurate ones, the ones that make up the set that enable us best to read the reality on the wall before us.
Is it one … or two?
Is it three … or four?
Do that again please?
Is it three … or four?
Uh, four, I think.
Allow me to mangle metaphors. As we journey through our lives, as we confront new experiences, we find ourselves squinting at the wall set before us, attempting to decipher meaning in that given reality. We’re born with a set of spiritual eyes, our divinely-designed hermeneutical system. Immediately, we find the reality of our human condition plunks a contraption before us, into which we must rest our chins, if we are to understand any of the world. Our first filters are determined—gender, language group, birth order, economical status, health. And as we progress, we find more filters added to the first, some chosen by us, some discovered by us, some foisted upon us from externals, others from necessity—sexual orientation, gender identity, education, societal expectation, family reputation, IQ.
But even little things join the filter network, for they, too, become integral to our self-definition, to our history and value set. Is it Girl Scouts or Camp Fire? Is it Harry Potter or Left Behind? Is it the Prodigy or Norah Jones? Is it Chem 101 or Geology? Smoking or Nonsmoking? Sports or RPGs?
Regardless how we travel, our understanding of the world, our ability to interpret the symbols illuminated on the wall before us, is always mediated by our filter set. It’s like we wear that oculist device like a helmet. We are always separated from the immediacy of the world by means of a set of ever-nuancing hermeneutic lenses.
Is it Gilligan’s Island or Lost? The Waltons or The Simpsons? Is it Nietzsche or Dobson? Shakespeare or Grisham? Crossan or LaHaye? Literal or metaphor?
And when we reach certain intersections, we find unhappy choices.
Three … or four?
I don’t know. Try again? Sometimes one sits there at the intersection for some time, trying to determine which way is clearer, which way gives truer vision.
Four, I think.
Once one starts moving again, the choice is made, the filter set. One lives with one’s judgment. And the world looks how it does on account of the way it refracts through the filter. Only, sometimes the judgment was wrong. Sometimes, one hazards a guess, only to find out that the prescription causes more headaches than it solves. Something’s not quite right. The wall isn’t really clear. The symbols start to dance illogically before you. Things appear as they are not—unclear, vague, indecipherable.
Many years ago, I went out to dinner with a couple friends. The end of the meal found two of the three of us too drunk to drive. That designated me. But I’d lost a contact, and had no glasses. My vision is so terrifically poor that wearing only one lens is more detrimental (and migraine causing) than not. But I was the one who had to get us home. Blindly.
The California expressway, fortunately, enabled me, by being marked with reflective, raised lane dividers. I drove by Braille, deliberately riding the left wheels down the line all the twenty-minute journey home.
That car groped its way home while I squinted desperately at each intersection, looking for light changes on the expressway. Things seem vastly larger and more insistent when they are blurry. Thus, each red light would fill the sky in front of me like a little explosion. I couldn’t, that annoying memory of a night, see anything other than the blurry lights, screaming at me to go or to stop.
The world, when blurry, often screams at us in larger-than accurate color schemes. All the lights blur together—streetlights, taillights, headlights, stoplights, hazard lights, and even those little lights that simply illumine some sale at a store just behind the sign and a parking lot. And what overpowers everything else is often the red or the green of the signal.
But adjust your lenses, and you find nuances. You find definition. You find clarity. It isn’t all red light / green light, but a whole dazzling array of meanings and interacting events. Some lights can be ignored, but others need to be interpreted. Is that red light for me or the turn lane? Is that this block or the next?
You see, unless one’s vision is properly accounted for, unless it is correct, one’s interpretation of the world is faulty, misses much. And a correction is dependent upon the eyes of the driver. Your putting on my lenses is absurd, for your vision is colored by your age, choices, gender, orientation, culture. Imagine somebody with farsightedness trying on my glasses, which are designed for a nearsighted astigmatism.
This does not at all imply that everything is relative, that “anything goes.” Rather, it shows the world to be a certain way, but that for it to be seen aright, for it to be interpreted aright, each of us needs to take care to consider our own eyes and what lenses best filter that reality to us. If you have a wrong lens, renew your prescription. The symbols on the wall don’t change. But what it takes for us to see it clearly, for us to then begin to decipher the meaning, might, and often does.
We may have an incorrectly set filter. But this does not mean that we are forever doomed to seeing the world in that headachey mistake. Filters can be changed. They will, in fact, be changed each time we grow. So they’re constantly changing, if we continue to grow (and if one doesn’t, then it seems to me that one might as well find a nice place to lie down beside a marble slab).
Is it five … or six?
That’s the amazing thing. Adding another lens fine-tunes. Corrects.
And the prescription doesn’t come down to a single lens. Each is necessary, but no one is sufficient for perspective. Woman, Gen Xer, Christian, liberal, American, musician, northwesterner, writer, cyclist, sister, gourmet, philosopher, lesbian, bookworm, electronica and fusion lover, aesthetic, introvert, punster, cat owner. Deny any one of these, and the wall is blurred. Deny certain of these, and the perspective is rendered incomprehensible. These filters, these that are necessary to comprehension, these are the core of who I am.
And, as it were, it all boils down to these. I’m a woman. I’m an American. I’m a Gen X-er. I’m a philosopher. And I’m gay. If you deny me any of these filters, I am blind. And though I might be able to drive my life by Braille for a season, such a foray is dangerous, unwise, and profoundly myopic. The same, were I to deny you one of your essential, core filters. There is one world, but we of necessity see it from different perspectives, using different filters. Remove any core filter, and the perspective the viewer has is inaccurate, blurry, and garish.
Every one of us sees through our filter set. Every one of us has a lens for gender identity, for orientation, for birth order, for nationality, for ethnicity, and so on. These are the basic set. They cannot be, with any logic or reason, denied. You may as well demand one whose eyes are gouged out to tell you the color of the wall. We see through these things. We interpret through these things. It is, as Sartre might put it, the human condition. And because I am not you and you not me, because we are necessarily distinct from each other, our perspectives will be different. There cannot be, Nietzsche wisely noted, a ‘universal’ perspective. Sure, the wall is what it is, the world is a certain way and not other ways, but we cannot ever ‘get at’ it without our unique perspectives.
The tragedy, then, is when people like S demand that our lenses should all be the same. The tragedy comes when people forbid us to wear the lenses that would indeed aid us in seeing the world as it really is, forcing us to drive by Braille down bewilderingly illuminated and tracer-ridden nightscapes. The tragedy comes when, upon one’s finally taking upon oneself the lens that helps one best to see, those around sniff their disapproval, and that one who so briefly saw, throws away her glasses and consents to wearing a pair that, though causing more blindness than it defrays, is sanctioned as ‘correct.’
Ultimately, then, the problem is reductionism. It is this notion that everything can boil down to a single nonnegotiable hermeneutical item. It is this notion that there are no filters, akin to what in epistemological discussions philosophers call ‘naive realism.’
The term applies to a theory of perceptual knowledge—that is, a theory about how we can justify our claims about what we can know about those things we perceive via our senses. Direct Realism (or naive realism) holds that what we see just is what there is out there. They’re identical. And what’s handy is that there’s this law of logic, called “Leibniz’s Law,” which holds that (now this gets a little technical, but bear with me) for any two things x and y, if x and y are identical, than x and y have all the same properties. That means, simply, that if x = y, then if x is round, y is round. If x weighs 5# then y weighs 5#. There is no way for x = y if y has some aspect of it different than x.
Now naive realism says that Leibniz’s law justifies their knowledge claims. What you see is what you get. Easy enough.
The theory is mind-bendingly wrong. If x = y then x and y should have all the same properties. I once saw a B52 up close, on a tarmac. It was huge. Later that day, I saw the very same B52 fly overhead. It was a lot smaller. Now the claim is that what I see is what is supposed to be identical to what there is. But I saw a big plane, then a small plane. So the plane must be, for this theory to be correct, both big and small. Or maybe it shrunk. But clearly that’s not true. It’s either big, or it’s small, or my theory is all wrong.
Maybe a skeptic will find this (ridiculously quick treatment of an) example unconvincing. Fine. Consider a baseball game, where you’re sitting by center field. Or consider the night sky, gazing upon my favorite constellation, Orion. You see the batter swing, and, just as he rounds first, you hear the crack of the bat. If the thing you perceive is identical to the perception itself (the sound), then that ball really was hit at the precise moment you heard it. But you saw him hit it seconds before. We all know light travels faster than sound. So the laws of physics deny the truth of naive realism. Orion is light-years away. For all we know, every star composing it might have imploded three seconds ago. But no one would be able to perceive that for millennia. What you see need not be, in fact often isn’t, identical to what there is.
So it goes. Anyone who claims to understand reality “simply as it is” without any filter set is ascribing to the same absurdity as Direct Realism, holding fast to a sort of hermeneutical naive realism. But we are wrong sometimes. And we change our views.
If what we ‘see’ isn’t identical to reality itself, then there must be some sort of medium through which we get at reality. Something that enables interpretation. And whatever this is, it will have to take into account each of us and our differences. S doesn’t see things as I do. It doesn’t all boil down to one thing that all can access directly and identically. It can’t. There is no one ‘correct’ filter. There can’t be.
In fact, in God’s vast creativity, a variety beyond comprehension emerges to boggle the mind. I have no idea how many filters aid my vision, but every experience that I own as definitive is included. And you have just as many. As does that person driving behind you on the interstate. And the one to the left. And the one in the turn lane. And that other guy, who cut you off a quarter mile ago. It is so much more than the reductionist envisions. It doesn’t all come down to anything. And when we realize that not only is reality bewilderingly multiplex, but that each individual’s interpretation is aided by an amazingly complex system of filters, we find the question of what it all boils down to absurd, profoundly sad, and blind.