Whose Reality? is one of four contexts that students may study within the “creating and presenting” section of the VCAA English Study Design. There are four texts for Whose Reality?, of which schools choose two:
The context of Whose Reality? is broad and can be approached in a number of ways. This article covers some of the “big ideas” that students will need to understand to respond effectively to prompts.
This context invites students to question what is real and what is not, and what it means for something to be real. Furthermore, the phrasing of the context topic as a question indicates that we should explore not only the concept of reality, but how it can be shaped by the individuals who experience it. The notion of subjectivity in an individual’s understanding of reality leads to many questions for consideration: What causes individuals to form different ideas about their situation? What makes one person’s reality different from another’s? What are the effects of conflicting realities?
One of the biggest questions we could ask of life is that of objectivity versus subjectivity. There are two main possibilities for our realities: either there is an objective reality out there, but we are prevented from experiencing it because of all of the subjective factors that shape our perception, or there was no objective reality to begin with and the notion of objectivity is unattainable.
The first scenario takes into consideration how and why humans see the world differently. The second scenario is a deeply philosophical consideration, one which considers that each of us has no way of knowing of the existence of anything outside of ourselves. Fundamentally, unless greater answers are offered by death, each of us has no way of knowing whether or not we are all experiencing a virtual reality rather than the world we know.
Whose Reality? is not asking you to answer this question, merely to consider it.
There are many factors that can influence an individual’s view of reality. Consider how the following factors influence one person’s observation of their reality:
These factors (as well as many others) contribute to the way we perceive and interpret reality- resulting in different world views between individuals.
As well as an individual’s background, there are a range of factors that can influence one’s reality:
If you have previously experienced an event, or have prior knowledge of a person’s character, you may act differently towards them than you would otherwise. In this way, our memories of the past change how we see the reality of our present, and therefore it is often what we recall that influences us more than the actual facts of the event. Subsequently, as different individuals store and focus on different memories, this leads to differences in their present realities. It is not only past experiences that shape our reality, but the way we recall these experiences from our memory.
Importantly, memory is a notoriously limited storage of information. As time passes, our memories are distorted and altered by time and, again, our subjective feelings about the content of that memory.
Our emotional landscape can often have a great influence on how we see ourselves, others and situations. Consider your own reality in regards to tackling VCE – this will be coloured by a range of feelings, possibly including stress, pride or enthusiasm. In conjunction with memory, our feelings of past events can sometimes influence us more than our understanding of them from a logical standpoint. This factor is key in shaping reality as we rely on this interpretation when making decisions about our behaviour in the present and into the future.
Sometimes humans refuse to accept the reality they are faced with, instead, twisting it to suit their needs. All of us do this on a daily basis in small ways; lying to ourselves in small ways to make the world more palatable. But sometimes the scope of these created realities can be much greater (and have larger consequences) than those daily lies.
There are many reasons why a person may create a false reality, but most relate back to the idea of escapism. This word describes a process of escaping an unpleasant reality through the creation of fantasy or the seeking of distractions. When life places great pressure upon an individual, they might opt for a world other than the one they live in which is too stressful to be comfortable.
Although evasion of reality can often be a conscious decision, sometimes one’s subconscious can lead them to reject the truth. Consider the placebo effect – the improvement in one’s medical results once they believe they are receiving treatment for their problem, regardless of whether they actually are getting effective medical assistance. Although the person may wish to feel better, they are unable to consciously have an effect on their health. However, once they believe that they are being treated in a certain way, their symptoms can improve. This demonstrates how one’s subconscious can construct beneficial scenarios.
If a reality is totally constructed from one’s imagination, it is much more likely to clash with the realities experienced by other people. Conversely, living a life with only a slight level of fantasy is less likely to lead to conflicts with others. Because of this, the stability of constructed realities is questionable.
Consider an individual who lives completely in their own world and would be considered mentally insane by society – if they constantly came into contact with evidence that contradicts their idea of the truth, this could lead to great internal conflict. The two polar outcomes of this therefore are receiving a jolt back into reality or continue spiralling into deeper levels of delusion.
Although we have discussed how an individual can delude themselves that a fantasy is truth, other people can have a great influence on this process either through leading an individual into a mode of escapism, or by forcing them into a world of delusion for their own personal gain. For example, if one individual tells a lie to another, and the second person then bases their actions on that lie, they are (at least partially) experiencing a deluded sense of reality.
Having now considered the detail of how and why an individual may construct an alternative world, we must question whether their reality is “wrong” or “crazy”, simply because it differs to that of others. To quote George Orwell in his seminal fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘a lunatic is just a minority of one.’ If someone truly believes that the world they have imagined is reality, what is to stop it from being so? Simply because it differs from the reality that the majority of people face, to the one individual it may still seem completely real, and if reality is subjective, whether something seems real is much more important than if it actually is.
Harry: ‘Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?’
Dumbledore: ‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’
– Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Some groups and individuals hold significant power over the reality that most people experience on a daily basis. Our sources of information, and those that control the way society operates, have power to change the way we live and experience the world. The following groups (among others) hold significant power over how we see the world:
This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but when that power is abused, it can lead to negative outcomes. It must also be considered that this power is held overwhelmingly by a limited group of people from a very privileged position within society, and might further entrench that group’s power if left unchecked.
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