Reality is overrated.
Not that I have anything against reality. All things considered, it’s a pretty good place to build your house.
I do, however, have a problem with people who claim personal ownership of the joint.
“You have to face reality,” is a dangerous phrase. It lays claim to knowledge about the nature of the universe that’s somehow superior to what the rest of us enjoy. Just as “frankly” usually warns of an imminent lapse of basic good manners, “face reality” signals the approach of ethically questionable advice.
Third-world dictators use the phrase to point out the naivete of Americans who don’t recognize the need for minor unpleasantries like torture, not to mention the dictatorial form of government itself.
Some Americans believe them, too, perhaps to avoid being branded as naifs. I’ve been told more than once in my lifetime that I should face reality and understand that sometimes, while unpleasant, it’s necessary. My response — that when you torture a person, he or she will generally tell you what you want to hear, not what’s really going on — hasn’t yet persuaded any of reality’s owners to reconsider.
The need for dictatorship also requires reality for its justification: “The reality is that these people just aren’t ready for democracy,” the dictator is likely to explain in a patronizing tone. Nobody ever asks these characters what their plans are to prepare “these people” for democracy, probably because they’d be tortured if they did.
I use these examples neither to stir the political pot nor to take sides (if I were to explore examples from current events, I’d stray into the realm of political commentary which is outside the scope of this column) but to illustrate a point — that reality and evidence are, for some reason, mutually exclusive — with examples I trust all readers are able to recognize, and consider clear and unambiguous. That’s been my experience, at least: Those who tell us to face reality do so instead of providing facts and logic rather than doing so as a preamble to providing them.
While I’ve worked in business environments that were sheer torture, they were only metaphorically so. Still, the magic phrase “you have to face reality” is as popular in business circles as in geopolitics. And the actions the phrase is used to justify are, if more banal, just as ethically questionable.
Facing business realities can mean paying executives bloated salaries so they can lead a business to failure. Reality then justifies paying the same executive a golden parachute to go away.
Reality, and the facing thereof, have also been used to justify the wreaking of environmental havoc, unnecessary layoffs, draconian human resource policies, and AT&T’s decision to absent itself from the consumer long-distance market. If these consequences are what happen when you face reality, it makes facing the bizarro dimension instead sound downright attractive.
I mention this for two reasons. The first is purely selfish. This trend — for disagreeable people to preemptively assert sole possession of reality — makes me crabby, and this column is what I do to combat crabbiness, instead of taking mood-altering (let alone reality-altering) pharmaceuticals.
The second is to provide ammunition to the other side. Many people have no idea how to respond when a business antagonist claims ownership of reality. After someone tells me I have to face reality, how am I supposed to respond? “No I don’t!” seems a bit weak.
The whole point of this rhetorical technique is to put you in a box whose only exit is agreement. There are, however, a few other exits you can make use of. Which to choose depends on the circumstances and your business culture.
If you work in a highly sarcastic environment your options are more varied than otherwise. I offer, as an example, “That may be reality on your planet, pal, but here on Earth reality looks a bit different.”
There’s also the ever-popular, “Who died and made you God?” which is very effective in sarcasto-theistic organizations.
In a more businesslike environment, sarcasm just lowers you below the realist’s level — a bad place to be. You need to achieve the opposite, crafting a response that positions you above the fray. To achieve this you need something less combative.
So the next time someone says, in a patronizing tone, “You have to face reality,” just relax, smile, and chuckle.
Then say, “Huh. I guess we have to decide whether to face reality or face facts, because so far as I know the evidence suggests otherwise.”