Living in the Land of Why
What children and judges can teach us about words
Spend a little time with a 2-year-old and you’ll find your conversations often go something like this:
“Why are we stopping?”
“Because there is a stop sign.”
“Why is there a stop sign?”
“So the cars can take turns going through the intersection.”
“Why is there an intersection?”
“Some people want to go this way, and some people want to go that way.”
“Why do some people want to go that way?”
And so you go down a rabbit hole of Lewis Carroll’s fancy.
I’ve been through the experience with three children now. People often shrug it off as a “phase,” a word that implies that this dizzying and sometimes exhausting questioning goes away after a while. I don’t think it ever really goes away; it just becomes less vocal, more internalized, as we age.
What’s curious is that somewhere in those young brains is an intuitive understanding that the world is a rational one. Whether this sense is learned very early on or is inherited isn’t clear. What is clear is that our perception of the world—at least when we start out—is that, however mysteriously, things are connected by reason. Sometimes the path from A to Z is neither linear nor obvious—there might be some turns left and right along the way—but each turn leads inexorably to Z.
To face the unremitting question why—and to just as diligently try to answer those pesky questions—can feel a bit like being trapped in a Beckett play. But, if we really do suppose that we live in a rational world, asking why is our best tool for moving forward in it.
Why is the sky blue?
Because blue light is preferentially scattered by the molecules in the atmosphere.
Why is blue light preferentially scattered?
Because it has the shortest wavelength of the light we can see.
Why does blue light have the shortest wavelength?
Because it has the highest frequency.
Why does it have the highest frequency?
Because the speed of light is constant and equals the product of a wavelength and frequency. Wavelength and frequency are like two ends of a teeter-totter; if wavelength is small, frequency has to be big.
Why is the speed of light constant?
The relentless drilling down to truth that children do intuitively and that adults sometimes have to relearn is our engine for understanding. It forces us to wonder: Why exactly do we do this or that? What do we really believe? What is the right thing to do?
What parents quickly learn from their children is that they had better choose their answers and, more specifically, their words very carefully. Why? Because the actual words you choose lead to the next question. Get careless with your words and before you know it, you’ll find that that rabbit hole leads to pretty philosophical, sometimes awkward questions and inconsistent answers.
I once interviewed Supreme Court Justice Breyer, and he, too, taught me some things about words and the value of asking why. I met him at a pond outside the hotel where he was staying for a conference. He arrived alone, on a bike, in a t-shirt and swimming trunks. Apparently, he had just gone swimming in the river nearby.
We talked for over an hour about a lot of things, but he kept coming back to the importance of words and the value in understanding the “intent and purpose”—the why—behind them.
He characterized his work on the Supreme Court this way:
“The job requires us to look at works on paper, sometimes the Constitution, sometimes statutes. And those words are in front of us, and the question is what do they mean, and how do they apply in the particular case because lower court judges, in similar cases, applying these same words have come to different conclusions.”
But drilling down to a truth does not mean simply looking up words in a dictionary. The answer is not there. For example, he explained, “Usually, the word ‘liberty’ is not a problem; that is, understanding the word. What is a problem is understanding the scope of the phrase that uses the word ‘liberty’ in the 14th Amendment (due process and equal protection of the law) ... So, you look at the history of the phrase, to the tradition, the context, purpose—somebody wrote those words, what was their intention? And consequences as viewed through the lens of their intentions.”
Not everyone subscribes to this emphasis on intent. Breyer noted that his late colleague, Justice Scalia, whom he affectionately called “Nino,” was loathe to consider purpose and intent. His fear was that it would invite subjective interpretations of the Constitution.
Breyer’s retort to Scalia was that if he relied solely on the text—the what and not the why—rulings would be too restrictive. “This is a document that is supposed to affect how people live over a long period of time,” he said. “Really, it’s his (Scalia’s) view that he wants clear rules. And he will work pretty hard to get a clear, general rule. But I’ll say sometimes it’s dangerous to have a rule because situations come up that you never thought of, and it will hit you in the face.”
Ultimately, Breyer said, their difference was in “temperament and degree. He’s more comfortable with rules ... I’m more willing to live with a mess.” The two were on the bench together for 22 years.
That “mess” could be crudely defined as democracy at work. As he put it: “We try out all kinds of things, then we scream at each other, then we try out some more things, maybe in an administrative rule, maybe in a state law, maybe in a federal law, or agreement. Then we change things. It’s a learning process, and we’d like to hope it works toward the better … The Court works best when it comes in at the end of the process to say ... not whether the solution is the best solution, but whether the solution is within the bounds that the Constitution sketches. Because that’s what the Constitution does, it’s a set of boundaries. It doesn’t tell people what to do. It tells them what are the limits on their deciding for themselves of what to do.”
That’s a tall order for a document comprising only 7,591 words—words that, evidently, were chosen very carefully. In 230 years, they have been changed only 17 times. They have, however, been challenged thousands and thousands of times. Generation after generation of children and judges keep probing, asking why, then why again, always seeking the truth in our experience.
All of this reminds me of a math puzzler a teacher posed to our class one day, many many days ago. You are in San Francisco, and you plan to travel to New York. If you travel half the distance to your destination each day, how many days does it take to get there?
The answer is, of course, you never get there. But you do get closer.