- Author’s note: Since our move to the northwest, I have been busy setting up the new household. Our lives have been full yet relaxing. We haven’t quite completely immersed in the local community, but that’s just a matter of time. Neither have I resumed my painting, but that too, will be part of my daily routine in due course. In the meantime, I have had the urge to comment on some aspects of the development of our society, which intertwines closely with organizational life.
A child asks mom, “what is that man doing?” Mom says, “He’s entertaining.” Child, “No, what is he doing?” Mom, “He’s performing.” Child gasped, “But what is he doing?” Mom tries again, “He’s making people smile.” Child continues, “But what is he doing?” Mom finally adopts the conventional definition, “He’s juggling.” Child responds, “But what is juggling?” and on we go.
Which version of the mother’s responses is real is beyond debate. All versions are real, depending on where you are, how you see things, and what occupies your mind at the moment. If Mom happens to be fresh out of work, she might answer, “He’s making a living.” Of course, there is also the issue of the “audience.” So, the child’s curiosity may finally be addressed by another different response, “He’s having fun!”
The above example is an illustration of socially constructed reality. The fact is: A man is tossing balls, or juggling pins, or cones, in the air, catching a few before tossing them up again, while catching the other few. There are also the facts that a child is asking a question, and the mother is trying to ascertain how to answer the child satisfactorily. The truth is that an engaging parent would utilize interactions with his child to offer answers, lessons, ideas, etc. But at no point will the parent ever engage in offering “alternative fact,” which is a lie. No parents, with sane minds, would deliberately tell their child that the juggler is fishing or farming, nor that a dog is a “pig,” the sun a “lollipop” or a stone is “bread.”
When I first heard the term “alternative fact,” I gasped. Granted all politicians prevaricate and “spin,” but to engage in downright lies, to espouse random accusations without a shred of fact, or to formulate policy based on an opinion pulled out of thin air, it makes me wonder, “Might this be what living in the days of [one of the most seditious Roman emperors] Caligula felt like?” Good God. I heard of one apologist’s defense of “alternative fact,” that it is used as a means to stay defiant. Defiant against what? Establishment? Do facts now only exist in the “establishment”? Or, using facts is now considered “elite”?
Then, I began to question myself about one of the fundamental pillars of my being a social scientist: socially constructed reality. I asked myself: How do I make it clear to others who aren’t familiar with this term, the difference between socially constructed reality and lies? We recognize there are multiple realities, which could be called alternative realities, per the opening example and explored further below, but by definition there can be no “alternative facts,” not even as euphemism.
We go through our daily lives, taking “reality” for granted. We don’t even think about our mutually agreed norms, rituals, salutations…etc. We drive on the right side of the road in this country; we apologize when we accidentally bump into each other; we discuss topics using tacitly agreed rules and norms. (Well, we used to.) The socially constructed reality is a perspective for social scientists in their pursuit of generating knowledge. As a social scientist, it is my professional interest as well as responsibility to observe the different realities that people bring into their work, organizational life, and various social situations. And I try to ascertain the core from which different perspectives emanate.
Nuclear physicists and engineers rely on detailed facts to build nuclear facilities. How nuclear energy should be used would be in the realm of socially constructed reality. It may be to the chagrin of the scientists and engineers, having spent lifetimes figuring out how nuclear energy can be used, but that’s our social reality, partly because scientists are also human beings with all human foibles and emotions in making judgment, with which utilization of scientific discoveries happens – or doesn’t. Architects and contractors build hospitals, but when, where and for how much, and how the space is designed and used, often get politicized, i.e. socially constructed reality. Issues such as, who gets the corner office, which wings should house the patients (but somehow admin always gets the nicest wing), or where the bathrooms be located (read “Fix the woman” for the quarrels about access to bathroom; here & here) get decided and resolved through social interactions.
A manager’s view of an employee’s “being late” is different from the said employee’s own reality. The employee arriving late at work might be due to a car accident on the way to work. Or, her child woke up with a fever and she had to make a last-minute arrangement. It is within the manager’s right to say, “She still has to perform work professionally and diligently.” However, a little understanding can go a long way toward building trust, understanding, and workforce morale. Yes, the quality of the employee’s work could become delinquent and shoddy, but is one day’s work performance determinant of the employee’s worth?
If we normalize the use of “alternative fact,” it will eventually trickle down into the fabric of society, including corporations and organizations. I can imagine scenarios where a manager can easily tell a direct report, “Sorry, Joan, I cannot give you any promotion or raise this year because your recent work for project Y was sloppy. I have an alternative fact; I’m declaring that Mary actually saved the project.” Even though Joan had been working overdrive to push for project Y to be done on time. (Perhaps Mary and the manager have been besties for months?) If Joan complains to senior managers, she’s unlikely to be heard objectively since Joan’s manager couldn’t have carried out such “alternative fact” approach without the collusion of higher management. Chances are the higher the managerial ladder reaches, the more often the managers are tempted to use the “alternative facts.” It’s a perfect tool to seize and abuse power.
I used to think “true fact” is a silly redundant expression…well, it still is.
One of my favorite quotes is from the Robert Bolt play “A Man for All Seasons,” about the life of Thomas More under Henry VIII, in which Thomas More said, “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?”[*] In today’s world, sadly, people in power and their minions are declaring alternative facts and millions of supporters cannot make the distinction. Those of us who can need to keep the lights on.
Who knew? My signature mantra seems to be even more pertinent these days,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
[*] Taken from the text of the play, available via Amazon. Even more poignant is this quote from Bolt’s Preface to the text of the play (Bolt, 1960):
“A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, and when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee… Of course, it is much less effective now … we would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than themselves. We feel – we know – the self to be an equivocal commodity…”
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