Most people try being murderously angry during adolescence. I’m saving myself for marriage.
Look, there’s only so much anger one can feel. Most of us these days are tapped out over politics or some personal affront we invent to give meaning to the pathetic emptiness of our blessed existence. But I’m a thrifty spender. I save up my anger. I’m not spilling that reservoir for some orangutan’s treason or the flaws I insist on seeing in G-d’s creation.
But the BuzzFeed-style lists push me beyond the limits of my own substantial and world-renowned self-control.
My struggle against the BuzzFeed list is like Jacob’s struggle with the angel except BuzzFeed lists cannot find the sciatic nerve in my substantial thigh and I am not ennobled by the fight but doomed forever to scribble my angry manifestoes in obscurity as they continue to make millions of dollars from cats.
The BuzzFeed list is a vestigial remnant of an old and meaningful tradition. Ibn Paquda lists ten ways in which trust in G-d is better than alchemy. He does not mean, “Ten is a round number that sounds good in a headline or chapter heading.” That is a way to treat the fifteen things only kids from the 90s will understand. He does not mean, “Ten is where I decided to stop thinking or researching or writing so ten it is.” That is more suited to seventeen times corgis blew our world.
Ibn Paquda actually means there are ten ways trust is G-d is better than being able to turn lead into gold. He looked at the two concepts, grasped the nature of each, compared them, and saw ten advantages, not nine and not eleven. He knew not just the nature of what he knew but the nature of knowing, the rules of thought, a logical calculus that limited the breadth, depth, and application of a notion. And with that clarity, he was able to compare and to count.
BuzzFeed is not a Medieval scholar but a modern thought leader. The Middle Ages are known for torture, for fitting things in small spaces, knowing how far they stretch and at what point they will break. Our time is known for its incredible elasticity. The list of cats does not have to be all cats (why not throw in a dog for a kicker?) and “doing cute things with lawn ornaments” is not exhausted completely by eighteen examples; it only exhausts men whose bravery is venturing into the second page of the image search.
The BuzzFeed (or BuzzFeed-style; anything so successful spawns imitators at the speed of thought) list is completely arbitrary; it is defined only by what the author decided to include for no reason. If we read enough of them, we forget that any sort of logically exhaustive list can exist. Then, when we grow up and actually ask a question we think is new (but is really so old that no one sexy writes about it anymore), we may discover Aristotle’s four causes, and we may not think to ask why there are not three or five. The Ikkarim fights tooth and nail with Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith and shows how those thirteen can be reduced to more general categories. Why does the Rambam not reduce them? BuzzFeed has no answer.
Worse, BuzzFeed does not remind us that there could be an answer. And this, in turn, might threaten to strip us of our personhood. If man is a rational animal, a being of emotions bound by intellect, then surely the insistence that all categories are arbitrary is an attack on our minds and therefore who we are.
If a dog does not have four legs or we’re never compelled to ask what makes the cat cute, we become estranged from the most miraculous part of us, the intellect that connects a mystery soul to a shared world. We forfeit the torturous work of understanding for the pot of lentils that is the brute fact. We will say that a woman is an arrangement of cells in a certain pattern, or that a woman is any soul that wishes to call themselves a woman, but the vast area in between in which the arbitrary gives way to the meaningful and there is a category, normative or otherwise, that contains women in a certain context bound within a larger system – this is terrifying, and old, and difficult.
When we opt for brute fact we ultimately abandon more than intellect; we make a moral forfeit as well. It is specifically when we start thinking in terms of arbitrary realities that we exchange the personal moral struggle for “pragmatic” solutions, in which we “make the world a better place” through the rearrangement of matter or the manipulation of feelings into a more positive configuration. If we can only think of the human condition as a physical or metaphysical engineering problem, we can only ever provide “solutions.” But if the human condition is a poetic, mysterious, and possibly eternal struggle to turn toward the better angels of our nature, those “solutions” will only ever be a distraction from an inescapable reality.
That’s what those stupid lists represent and how they make me angry. That’s why they’re addictive – they are, like all addictions, a desperate desire to control and feed a void inside that aches for something higher.