Monday, August 27, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            I’m glad I have not been accosted by this term very often recently. It became too much of a cliché to be used by thinking people. But when it reigned it was a tyrant.

            The term was “The Real World” and it was usually found in such aggressive questions as “Why don’t you join the real world?” or “It’s not like that in the real world, is it?

            The context was usually an argument, disagreement or discussion over employment, the value of academic degrees, political ideals, the economy or religious beliefs.

            The question was thrown out as a challenge, suggesting that whoever had just spoken was unrealistically idealistic, detached from the hard facts of money, a fantasist, or somehow evading obvious truths. It found its way sometimes into the soi-disant lucubrations of editorialists and columnists.

            Now there are times when fantasy has to be challenged, when people have to see how much society depends on economic structures, and when idealists have to be (metaphorically) shaken by the throat. Like a fist in the face, the phrase “the real world” could sometimes serve a real purpose.

            But nine times out of ten, alas, it was a signal that the questioner was not doing any thinking.

            I am not going to go all Platonic (or Buddhist) upon the question of reality, and ask whether we can really know what reality is (though that is a good question). Nor am I going to do the postmodernist rain dance of claiming that there is no reality – only ten billion individual perceptions and therefore nothing objective.

            Allow me, for the purposes of argument, to beg a whole lot of questions and assume that there really is an objective and measurable reality.

            Given this, I have always found the aggressive use of the phrase “The Real World” to be a problem.

            Which part of “The Real World” am I being asked to join? The real world of parents trying to do the best by their children? The real world of the research scientist with her flashes of insight built on solid study, experiment and research? The real world of the artist working on inspiration, talent and the materials at hand? The real world of the lawyer or police officer having to deal with variable human material and enforceable laws? The real world of the philosopher or theologian grappling with both abstract concepts and canonical texts?

            These real worlds do not cancel one another out and are simply matters of perception. They all exist. (I am not a postmodernist).

            But I don’t think I was ever challenged to join these parts of the objective and measurable real world.

            Instead, whenever I heard the aggressive question “Why don’t you join the real world?”, I knew I was being given a reductionist concept of reality. For whoever used the term “the real world” meant some pragmatic concept of trusting nobody, assuming that nobody was concerned in anything other than self-interest and a profit, seeing life as a struggle with winners and losers, and disregarding any moral obligation to care for others.

            “The Real World” was, in fine, reality as conceived by neo-liberal marketeers. Joining the real world meant ignoring ideals, finer feelings, social obligations and morality in order to pursue profit. After all, assumed the aggressive questioner, everybody else is doing just that. So get real. Join the real world.

            I admit this conception is part of the real world. But it is not the whole of the real world any more than sexual desire is the whole of love.

            I have learnt to resist rhetorical appeals to “the real world”. Partly because I know I am in the real world and such appeals are appeals to a very limited part of it.


  1. I was a bit perturbed when my father suggested that a job in the real world was in a bank or insurance company, instead of at a school, teaching. I was perturbed because I'd rather feed both arms into a meat grinder than work in a bank for the rest of my life. (He did)

  2. Good thoughts. Your next column should be about "Get a life!"