There’s no such thing as a ‘realist’

Has this ever happened to you? You’re having a conversation, or maybe an argument, with someone who is opposed to your point of view. You feel you’re making some good points. You’re supporting them with evidence and some carefully-considered lines of thought. Then your interlocutor gives you a pitying look, says, “Well, I guess I’m just a realist,” and walks away.

This is about the biggest intellectual cop-out there is. It’s also one of the most common. And it’s completely ridiculous.

Here’s what someone is really saying to you when they say they’re a realist. What they’re saying is, your point of view is not grounded in reality. What you believe isn’t real. Meanwhile, their understanding of things is rooted in experience. They see how things really are. They understand the world. They get it. You, you poor, deluded fool, just don’t.

Here’s why you shouldn’t let them get away with that: because ‘a realist’ is what lazy thinkers call other people who think the same way they do. It denies the possibility that there is more than one way of seeing the world. It asserts that there is only one true reality, while all other points of view are incorrect. It’s about the most narrow-minded thing a person can say to someone. And when taken to extremes, it’s very dangerous.

Just about every philosopher I’ve ever come across has admitted this key truth: there are as many different ways of seeing the world as there are people.

Sure, it’s possible for a person to be factually incorrect about something. It’s also possible for someone with very little experience to be totally full of it, while someone with vast experience simply knows more about a given subject. But that’s not what we’re actually talking about here. What we’re talking about is the notion that one person’s experience is more valid than another person’s experience, and that is completely untenable–philosophically, logically, and ethically. There is no such thing as a superior experience.

This doesn’t mean you’re always right. One of the hallmarks of an intelligent person is the ability to admit it when he or she is wrong. But this can be pretty hard to do when the person you’re talking with is just waiting for a chink to appear in your armor, so they can pounce and try to make you look stupid.

It also doesn’t mean that every argument is equally valid. Some arguments are simply wrong. The anti-vaccine movement, the climate change deniers, the Obama birthers… all wrong.

You might even be tempted to say that these people are wrong because they’re not realists. But their wrongness actually has nothing to do with reality. It’s because they are blinded by their own prejudices, and hamstrung by their unwillingness to listen to dissenting opinions. They are unconscious. They don’t realize how much their fears might be influencing their feelings about science, or a scary future of big storms, or a black President. Little minds are easily frightened.

Maybe they’re even delusional. In that case, you might be forgiven for thinking that they aren’t realists, and you are.

Don’t fall into that trap. The word ‘reality’ encompasses everything that ever was or is. (Unless you went to St. John’s College, in which case it’s a three-day party the likes of which you have probably never seen before.) It’s a rather large concept. There’s room for everyone. And you can prove these people wrong without resorting to cheap shots. Just rely on the facts. If they won’t listen to you, if they won’t engage in respectful dialogue, then they’re not worth talking to.