You’re not a damn “realist”

You know what really grinds my gears? Someone asks that old chestnut “Are you an optimist, or a pessimist?” and someone just has to pipe up to say “I’m a realist”.

No you’re not. You haven’t even thought through what that might actually mean. This is a question about bias.

What they really mean when they say this – usually with an undercurrent of extreme smugness – “I see the world for what it is, unlike the rest of you poor saps who stumble around blinded by your ideologies. I’m level-headed and logical. You’re naive.”

To put it impolitely, these people are engaging in intellectual masturbation.

First off, I think those who ask the question realize that most people probably have both tendencies on a range of different topics, but the question is really about which direction a person skews overall, and most people do skew overall one way or the other. Second, and this is the crux of the matter: nobody has access to objective reality. Humans have nothing but a facsimile created by our brains a few milliseconds behind what’s “really” happening, through imperfect senses.

And the constructed nature of reality isn’t even that important, because it’s probably generally accurate. What is important is that every single person who has ever existed was the sum of their life experiences, their disappointments, their pleasant surprises, their parents, their friends, situations that have happened in their lives, their political leanings, the world and local events that have happened around them, a whole slew of moments cascading one after the other that were totally different from everyone else’s. And biases both perceptual and cognitive have shaped and molded all that gray and pink goo between their ears just like everyone else and to claim even jokingly that one is a tabula rasa, perfectly free and clear from bias and irrationality and experience that has shaped their worldview is laughable. To claim it seriously is the height of arrogance and glib superiority.

Second, when people say they’re an optimist or a pessimist, they’re describing their own bias, they don’t think that having a bias somehow alters reality. I think of myself as an optimist, but I don’t think that makes the stack of bills on my counter magically vanish, or will reverse global warming. Reality is full of things that aren’t clear-cut, that require interpretation, and we all interpret events every moment of every day because we have to, we don’t have access to objective unfiltered reality.

Of course you have biases. We all do. At least have the balls (or ovaries) to admit it.

I’m just being a realist.

Exit, stage left.

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