Frames Of Reference


Some people read Moby Dick and think it’s a story about hunting whales.

There are people out there who have read and have loved The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without having ever known that Robert Louis Stevenson had bipolar personality disorder.

There are people who find Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to be powerfully moving despite having absolutely no idea that Wilde was not heterosexual.

There are people who claim to love the works of Franz Kafka. They talk about their love for The Castle or The Trial, but they know almost nothing about German bureaucracy in the decades leading up to the rise of the Nazis. They love The Penal Colony, but they have never read The Bible in depth. They love The Metamorphosis, but they have never witnessed the slow decline of a person suffering from a serious disability or a chronic illness.

A lot of people love Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture despite not knowing what was happening in the year 1812.

There are people who are converted to Islam upon reading The Qu’ran, but who have never read the Old Testament. There are people who read The Bible and are converted to Christianity without having ever read about the competing religions of the period and the area, without having studied the Torah and Talmud.

I have encountered folks who quote Gandhi fondly, even though they’ve never been to a remote Indian village and have no thorough understanding of the lives lead by the lower castes there. Nor have they ever fought for freedom under a genocidal occupying government. And their closest frame of reference is the disadvantaged groups they’ve seen in North America. That’s the kind of thing that they think Gandhi was talking about.

I once met a woman who traveled to remote and poverty-stricken villages in Latin America and then came home to the comfort of her house, her smart phone, her law degree, her steady income, and her habitual drug use, and told me with a straight face, “I really envy their way of life.”

I asked her why. She told me that she thought their lives were simple.

Never before has so much human knowledge been placed in the hands of virtually everyone. The result is that anyone can start learning at any point in the stream. We can hear The 1812 Overture before we learn about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. (Some of us don’t even know that it happened.) We can be assigned to read a story like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without ever having been taught about bipolar personality disorder. We can watch Hollywood films like The War of the Worlds without having to confront its Marxist thematic elements. We can convert to religions in absence of any understanding of their historical contexts or supporting-but-peripheral canon.

We can espouse the political or philosophical beliefs of people from distant times and places without having to bother about understanding how those beliefs, when initially proposed, were influenced by the specific context in which they first arose. We can think and learn anything in absence of context, of a correct frame of reference, because the information is simply everywhere, and readily available on a smart phone.

And, so long as we talk about them theoretically rather than in their original context, we can completely redefine what the intent of those theories was in the first place.

It all depends on our frame of reference.

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