I’ve been thinking about the word “reality.” It derives from the Latin word res, which simply means “thing.” (The word republic, for instance, comes from res + publica—the thing of the people). Etymologically speaking, reality means something like “thinginess.” A real thing is a thingish thing (which suggests that the phrase “real thing” is redundant).
What, then, is a thing? I don’t quite know what to say to that, except that I know a thing when I see one, and so do you. You can look up thing in the dictionary, but I don’t think you’ll find it very helpful.
In the absence of a good definition of a thing, allow me to highlight one important facet of thinginess: A thing must exist outside the human mind (and outside of language) in order to qualify as a thing. Consider this utterance: “Pumpkin-spice bacon frappuccino donut—is that even a thing?” The speaker is asking, “Does this concoction exist in the physical world where you and I live, or is it just a string of words, or a figment of your imagination?”
A thing’s existence is also independent of one’s feelings or beliefs or judgment, or even one’s perception. Here in Nashville, rentable scooters are a thing. Roving gangs of bridesmaids mount these scooters to terrorize pedestrians and snarl traffic. The bridesmaids who don’t get hit by cars usually abandon their scooters athwart the sidewalks to impede foot traffic while they go inside the honky-tonks and boutiques. I do not approve of rentable scooters. I wish they didn’t exist. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine a simpler, more innocent Nashville before rentable scooters. But when I open my eyes, they are still there. They are a thing.
According to one definition, reality is that which continues to exist whether you believe in it or not. This is a helpful reminder in a culture that seems determined to convince us that we create our own reality. We don’t. As James K.A. Smith put it, “…we find ourselves in a world not of our own making—which is why all our attempts to remake it as we want (as if we ourselves could be little creators) are not only doomed to failure, they are also doomed to exacerbate human suffering.”
I bring all this up as a challenge to persuasive writers. Persuasion is one way to attempt to remake the world as you want it to be. You have your notions of how the world ought to be, and you try to convince other people to want the same thing in order to marshal their support in your cause. That’s fine as far as it goes. The problem is when “the way the world ought to be” gets conflated with “what I think would be best for me and people like me.”
Self-interest is the great enemy of truth. Josef Pieper, the philosopher and Aquinas scholar, wrote, “The egocentric interests of man must be silenced in order that he may perceive the truth of real things, and so that reality itself may guide him to the proper means for realizing his goal.”
Writers, your calling is to give an account of reality. This takes commitment and quite a bit of self-awareness. You always have the option to present a distorted account of reality—a picture of what you wish reality looked like, or a version of reality that tips the scales in your team’s direction.
Reason, according to Thomas Aquinas, is a regard for and an openness to reality. That is to say, reason isn’t just something that happens between your ears. It requires that you face outward, onto a reality that you did not make.
But if reality extends beyond the human mind, it also exists beyond the status quo. Embracing reality means quite a bit more than saying “What you see is what you get” or “That’s just the way things are,” or “Rentable scooters are just a thing we’ll all have to get used to.” And this, I believe, is where the honest, responsible persuasive writer finds her calling—in awakening the reader to something that is truer and better than the status quo.
In our political discourse we seem to have reached a point where very few people care about reality—the thinginess of real things—but only about manipulating the levers of power. I don’t suppose this is a new thing in political discourse. The problem is that we now seem to think that all discourse is political discourse. When I first read Derrida and other deconstructionists in college and graduate school, I was SHOCKED at the idea that words might not have any real connection to actual reality, but are just a function of power relations—the idea that the people in power use language to define reality. These days, you are liable to hear your grandma express this very idea.
If indeed language is indeed only a matter of power relations, a contest to see who gets to define reality, then every conversation is a conflict. We can do better.
I realize that we don’t all agree about the nature of reality. Fine. Let’s talk about that. I’m just asking that we care about actual, non-linguistic reality and talk about THAT rather than thinking of persuasion as simply a way to tip the power dynamics in one direction or another.