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.

j j j


So this month, a few things happened:

The SCOTUS effectively legalized gay marriage nationwide. The response from the religious right has been predictable, with Christians dragging their tails and moping around, with cries that they are “deeply saddened”, perhaps not realizing that everyone knows that “deeply saddened” and “hate the sin, love the sinner” are code phrases for “we vehemently hate homosexual people”.

Also, a man opened fire in a church in Charleston, South Carolina – a bastion of support for civil rights, as you know – and killed nine people. Photos surfaced of him posing with the flag of the Confederate States of America, at which point gun lurvin’ redneck good ol’ boys made sure that sales of the flag shot through the roof. Because that symbol of racism and oppression should fly proudly o’er every home in the south.

And I am really struggling with some thoughts here. Obviously, there are two different ways one can respond to events like this. As someone who considers himself a Bernie Sanders / Elizabeth Warren progressive, I obviously disagree with the way many people are reacting to these events, and many of these people are in my life in some significant way. And the choice is to either continue to engage with people who hold views that I consider abhorrent, backward, and – frankly – evil, or I can stand alone in my tower of moral superiority, cut off contact with people who I think are dead wrong, and make new contacts in my life.

What is the right thing to do? Should I try to change minds, or should I accept that that happens with such infrequency that to imagine that I could actually have an effect would be foolish…at best?

I don’t know. Obviously Girlbert has her opinions, and I have mine. I think there’s a point at which someone’s ideology becomes so repulsive, so offensive, that I can’t associate with them anymore. But I don’t know where that line is. I suppose I just have to decide.

Exit, stage left.

j j j