Real talk: you don’t have a better grasp on reality than your political opponent

Our current political discussion recklessly makes assumptions about reality and people using “reality rhetoric” that leads to an anxious, polarized population.

“Reality rhetoric” is a confluence of terms and buzzwords that shut down political discourse by attacking any person making an argument. It comes, seemingly, from all directions.

From 4chan and the alt-right, the terms “redpilled” and “bluepilled” are thrown around casually. In reference to “The Matrix,” those who are “redpilled” are aware of the truth in a way that “bluepilled” folks are not. Which political beliefs actually lie under each “pill” constantly shifts, though it usually follows the political color code, in a nice bit of parallelism: “redpilled” beliefs are generally conservative, while “bluepilled” ones are generally liberal.

It goes deeper than this: these terms analyze the intent behind one’s beliefs. Like in “The Matrix,” “redpilled” folk know the truth, and hold their beliefs because of it.

“To be ‘redpilled’ is to be able to think for one’s self, to recognize and be able to reject the false narratives that we are fed by the progressive-dominated information sources around us,” explains alt-right website The Neo-Ciceronian Times.

Those who believe the “progressive-dominated” information are, conversely, “bluepilled” because they are unaware of the truth, living in a progressive “matrix.”

From said matrix — the Tumblr, social justice warrior crowd — “woke” fills a similar role. “Woke” is used more casually, but it means the same thing: awareness of the truth, usually regarding systemic sexism or racism.

(I am quick to apply the “not all” label to each of the loose political congregations mentioned, since these are hasty generalizations.)

Other commonly used terms across the political spectrum: “truther,” “asleep,” “awake,” “lemmings,” “neurotypical” and the immortal “sheeple,” a portmanteau conflating the mindsets of dissenters with those of sheep.

These terms make assumptions about the nature of reality and where people who do or don’t agree fit. Some of them paint the opposition as mentally ill. Some simply paint the opposition as hopeless, living in the matrix, unable to get out.

It might seem pedantic to dissect the implicit claims of words used in throwaway comments — but pedantry is everything in language. An entire field, sociolinguistics, is dedicated to such over-analysis. There’s a reason why you study connotation in English class.

The assumptions behind “reality rhetoric” are twofold.

First, using “reality rhetoric” implies that everyone shares the exact same beliefs should they be equally of the nature of reality — people disagree because they don’t know. This is a comforting thought, except that it’s impossible to actually be “woke”: not only do our best theories of physics invalidate a shared experience of reality, but numerous psychological studies” have shown that biases and memories of our subconscious actually influence our senses. In the words of Isaac Lidsky, “We construct our reality.”

Second, “reality rhetoric” both judges and analyzes the intent of a person’s beliefs. They are judged and the rationale does not come down to the ideas, but the person — “awake,” or not.

It’s a heady combination of the ad hominem, genetic, and tu quoque logical fallacies. These fallacies attack a person’s credibility instead of their ideas — it’s much easier to call someone delusional and think yourself enlightened than to thoughtfully lay out a counterargument.

Ironically, dismissing opposing arguments is the worst way to stay “woke” — it builds an echo chamber of ideas that you agree with, while you receive constant confirmation that you do know the truth, dismissing all contradictions as fantasy.

The corollary of this is extreme polarization — a 2014 Pew Research study found that political polarization between Republicans and Democrats nearly doubled between 1987 and 2014, a figure which has doubtlessly increased since, considering the surreal state of American politics.

There’s also the obvious example of Congress, which, after the 2010 midterms, became notoriously unproductive because of polarized politics, culminating in a government shutdown in late 2013.

It’s fitting, then, that most “reality rhetoric” actually stems from truly offbeat conspiracy movements (think 9/11 truthers or Holocaust deniers) in weird corners of the internet: people view what they don’t agree with as a conspiracy, and thus there is an ever-increasing feeling of polarization and disconnect.

Listening to other people and letting your ideas grow is the only way to approach the truth, and to make our political discourse better. Ambiguity allows ideas to be improved: that’s how the scientific method works. Politics isn’t science, but that doesn’t mean it can’t allow for new ideas and cooperation in the same way.

Whatever your ideology, try not to think too highly of your awareness. If someone tries to prove you wrong by attacking you or your credibility as someone who can make sense of the world, let them know: Neo took the red pill, but he never actually got out of the Matrix.