22 Reality: The Paradox of Heroism and Villain
I wouldn’t be able to challenge perceptions of my world and the world around me if not for my childhood friends. To Haolan, Nick, Nathan, Corinne, Rachel, and Meena: Although we each lead our own lives and experience our own realities, I know that no matter where we are or where we go, we are united in our memories and our love for one another. Each moment you experience is, in some way, something I experience too. Our realities are not the same, but they are linked, and that link has allowed me to breathe life into the ideas I introduce in my chapter. Thank you, my friends—my family.
Keywords: Understand(ing), Perspective, Unity, Point of View, Real(ness)
In 2005’s Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, the movie’s main antagonist tells his soon-to-be apprentice that “to understand something one must study all its aspects—not just the dull, dogmatic view of the [other side].” While it may feel crass to engage with concepts introduced by a character who goes on to initiate mass genocide, it seems that characters—and more specifically, villainous characters—who’ve come closest to their goals in some of popular culture’s most well-known films have done so not by striving to eliminate those who oppose them, but by first striving to understand those who oppose them. No individual would like to believe that they are a villain. In other words, we all likely identify as the hero within our own story—that is, within our own life. But what if this heroic identification is flawed? We may all be villains, and have no awareness of it. Similar to the way that joy exists because of sadness and success exists because of failure, heroes exist because of villains—because of the absolute other perspective. So, if everyone is the hero in their own life, then are we all heroes due to us all leading our own lives? Or, if I’m the hero in my story but the villain in another individual’s story, whose perspective should be taken as correct? Am I a hero or am I a villain? The answer is that I am at maximum both and at minimum neither, but if I am one, I am the other as well. This aforementioned idea is the basis behind what I am, for the sake of my argument, going to call the paradox of reality—the idea that ‘right’ can be ‘wrong’ and ‘wrong’ can be ‘right’ all at the same time. Different definitions (which would be more accurately described as ‘understandings’) of ‘reality’ are critical to coming to terms with its complexity and why the nuances of it can serve the greater good of humanity.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘reality’ as “real existence; what is real rather than imagined or desired; the aggregate of real things of existences; that which underlies and is the truth of appearances or phenomena.” But the dictionary’s definition is just one perspective on an extremely layered concept. Using the word ‘real’ in tandem with the definition of ‘reality’ is bold—perhaps even questionable—because ‘real’ is a relative adjective. In other words, perspectives on realness can vary based on whoever is engaging with said realness. This idea is built upon by Lampis in their article, “The Theory of Reality,” which claims that “it is becoming evident in psychology that each mind has a unique relationship with its surroundings” (43). If what Lampis claims is true, then no single individual can possibly be a reliable judge of what constitutes reality and what does not because we each have our own minds and, by default, our own unique relationships (or, views) with what happens around us. David Ritchie’s “What is Reality?” article puts this idea into context by suggesting a hypothetical scenario in which, in a room full of six people, one of the people sees a mouse dart across the room while the other five people do not (267). The person who saw the mouse originally had no doubt that a mouse had in fact been in the room, but the accounts by the remaining five people that discredit the first person cause that first person to question their reality. Does one reality outweigh the value of another? The first person had no doubt that they had seen a mouse until the other reality-viewers claimed that they did not. Should the five who did not see the mouse have their reality accepted simply because there are more of them? Is the first person’s account of seeing a mouse a false sense of reality simply because it cannot be validated by another person? Ritchie’s scenario supports the idea that ‘reality’ cannot be rigidly defined in tandem with the word ‘real’ because ‘real’ is relative based on perspective. Drummond defines ‘reality’ as “malleable because it exists only as people define it.” Thus, if all individuals are granted a perspective, then those perspectives will undoubtedly conflict, but no perspective can fully invalidate another perspective since all perspectives are relative to the individual to whom they belong (29).
Learning to value the complexities of ‘reality’ can be a catalyst for compassion and unity. In their article, “Different Realities: What is Reality and What Difference Does it Make?,” Bernstein comments on the binary nature of the modern human mind. Society constructs binaries because categorization breeds organization—and it’s easier to cram everyone into two categories instead of considering that there may be infinite categories. For example, to some people, ‘reality’ means that everyone is either male or female (as assigned at birth). However, this ‘reality’ discredits anyone who does not identify within the gender binary.
The lens of privilege can help us understand why ‘reality’ cannot be defined in tandem with the word ‘real.’ Within the realm of sexual orientation, for heterosexual individuals, their inherent understanding of ‘real’ sexual or romantic love is rooted in attraction to individuals of the opposite gender from their own. However, this ‘reality’ isn’t consistent for all people—no matter how badly someone who’s privileged wants it to be. For homosexual individuals, their inherent understanding of ‘real’ sexual or romantic love is rooted in attraction to individuals of the same gender as their own. The realities of heterosexual individuals and homosexual individuals directly conflict (as do the realities of bisexual, asexual, pansexual, etc. individuals), so neither is more right than the other or more wrong than the other. All of the realities in question are right (as in, true) by their own perspective and wrong (as in, false) by the perspective of others—and because no single individual can have a more correct perspective than another, all of the realities in question ought to be able to co-exist. Compassion and unity can be bred from this specific understanding of ‘reality’ because it suggests a method by which difference and diversity can be understood.
Understanding ‘reality’ as a concept that isn’t just one rigid idea can also be very helpful to people who may be inclined toward negative points of view. Drummond uses the example of a glass being half full or half empty to show how reality can be right and wrong at the same time. To an optimist, a glass that has a liquid in it halfway to the top is viewed as a half-full glass; to a pessimist, the same glass is viewed as a half-empty glass. Neither reality is more right or wrong than the other; they’re entirely based on the perspective of the individual looking at the glass with the liquid in it. Drummond also uses success and failure as representations of different realities. For some students, finishing the semester with a B grade might be a success, while other students who finish the semester with a B grade might be experiencing a failure. Perspective determines reality, but reality cannot be based on a single perspective, so reality might be infinite.
Considering popular culture again, in the eighth episode of Marvel Studios’ Disney Plus original show, Wandavision, the show’s main character, Wanda, reflects on the terrible grief she felt when her brother died. She tells the man who will later become her husband—Vision—that her grief is drowning her, but he responds by saying: “what is grief, if not love persevering?” Vision’s response to Wanda’s grief reframes her reality. To Wanda, grief is pain. But, to Vision, grief is a form of strength—it is the perseverance of love. Neither Wanda nor Vision is more right or wrong than the other in their views on grief because both of their perspectives are valid interpretations of the same thing.
There is an argument to be made for the perspective that reality may in fact not always be fluid or up-to-interpretation. Consider the age-old question: if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, did the tree’s fall make a sound? A courageous thinker might claim that the five human senses define a universal reality, so without a listening ear to hear the tree there is no proof that it made a noise. But science would say otherwise. Science explains that noise occurs with or without humans present. After all, sound is really a vibration, and that vibration—according to science—is going to happen whether or not a human is present to observe it. The ultimate counter to what I’m suggesting in this chapter is that some things may, in fact, be rigid. There may be some things that cannot be disputed—things that are rigidly right (as in, true) or rigidly wrong (as in, false). For example, the scientific law that claims that an object in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by an outside force cannot be disputed because science has proven it so. Similarly, if a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, science tells us that a vibration still occurs so the tree’s fall did make a sound. ‘Reality’ is an interpretive concept, but the limits of its interpretive nature are not limitless (courtesy of science).
The idea that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can exist at the same time regarding the same thing challenges the very cornerstone of modern human nature, which is to organize the world around us into a binary. Reality, however, is not as simple as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ It is complex and layered and the result of an infinite list of perspectives, life stories, and values. Consider again one of modern popular culture’s most successful perpetrators of mass genocide: Thanos, Marvel Studios’ infamous lead villain of Infinity War. Thanos is hellbent on saving humanity from extinction—and he believes the only way to complete his mission is to wipe out half of all human life. In other words, Thanos wants to initiate population control. In an act that is, as Thanos says, “random, dispassionate, fair to rich and poor alike,” he accomplishes his goal and half of humanity ceases to exist. Ultimately, because Thanos is a villain, his work is undone by the movie’s heroes. However, Thanos is a unique case study for my complex view of reality. He doesn’t see himself as a villain; he sees himself as a savior. Thanos embodies Drummond’s idea of the glass half full or half empty concept. One can either view Thanos as a villain that killed half of all human life, or a hero that saved half of all human life. Or one can view Thanos as an individual that did both. So, that brings us to the final question: are you—are we—able to accept ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as united ideas, or do we need them to be separate for society to work?
Avengers: Infinity War. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, Marvel Studios, 2018.
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Drummond, Helga. “Triumph or Disaster: What Is Reality?” Management Decision, vol. 30, no.8, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 1992, p. 92. ProQuest, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00251749210022177.
James, Caryn. “What is Reality? What Does It Matter?” New York Times (1923-Current File), New York Times Company, 2 Sept. 1994, p. C12.
Lampis, Rinaldo. “The Theory of Reality.” International Journal of Humanities and Peace, vol. 20, no. 1, International Journal of Humanities and Peace, 2004, pp. 43-48.
“Previously On.” Wandavision, season 1, episode 8, Marvel Studios, 26 Feb. 2021. Disney+, https://www.disneyplus.com/video/ebaaf404-b012-4a35-a4bd-0d5d4f32ccd0.
“reality, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2020. Web. 21 February 2021.
Ritchie, David G. “What is Reality?” The Philosophical Review, vol. 1, no. 3, [Duke UniversityPress, Philosophical Review], 1892, pp. 265-83. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2175783.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Directed by George Lucas, Lucasfilm Ltd., 2005.
Van Os, Ch. H. “What is Reality?” Synthese, vol. 7, no. 3, Springer, 1948, pp. 213-18.