The accusation “you are not living in the real world” is always either ideological, narcissistic, or a poorly phrased attempt to say something else. But it is frequently used. I will explore its meaning here.
Let me first offer some stipulative definitions.
By ideological I mean: complicit in a distortion of the truth that benefits some class of people at the expense of others.
By narcissistic I mean: characterized by an inability to perceive the lives of others as anything other than examples of one’s own idiosyncratic preconceptions.
Political conversations are often rife with ideological usages.
“You’re not living in the real world! Social welfare programs don’t actually help anyone – they just waste money on government bureaucracy and get exploited by lazy people!”
“You’re not living in the real world! Lower taxes for people in the top brackets will not boost the economy – it is just one of the many strategies used by rich racist elites to maintain their hegemony!”
Probably both of these are false or at least not entirely true. In the first case, the accuser is distorting the truth that many social welfare programs provide essential services to people who would not be disqualified even if you accept the precondition that only “hardworking” people deserve such services. To the extent that it succeeds, this distortion benefits those who do not want to pay higher taxes to fund social welfare programs. Its success would come at the expense of people who need such programs.
In the second case, the accuser is distorting the truth that some people who want lower taxes on individuals with wealth and high incomes take this position on the basis of a principled view about how to promote the common good. To the extent that this distortion succeeds, it benefits those who want American politics to be widely perceived as a Manichaean struggle in which “the Left” represents the forces of good and “the Right” represents the forces of evil. The success of this distortion would come at the expense of those principled conservatives who are thereby preemptively branded as evil.
In both cases, “you’re not living in the real world!” functions as an ad hominem preface to a distortion. Particularly nefarious, it turns a conversation that should be about political values into a conversation about one’s credentials as a citizen of “the real world.” Instead, all parties involved should take for granted and readily admit that they are susceptible to false beliefs about history, society, policy, and so forth. They should also confess their predispositions. With these background conditions in place, the conversation ought then to proceed in conditional statements: “If X is true, then Y seems like the right policy for promoting the common good.”
This kind of conditional construction can be a paradigm for non-ideological political discourse. You can use it to regulate your own predispositions and susceptibility to false beliefs. And you can look for it in the rhetoric of others in order to measure the extent to which their political language is ideological. When the conversation is thus framed it is easier to stay focused on questions of value: what is “the common good”? What would our society look like at its best? What is every person entitled to by virtue of being a person? How can we measure the degree of justice in our society? And so on.
The phrase “you are not living in the real world” is also used in less directly political contexts. I have often heard it deployed against “academics in the Ivory Tower,” who, it is suggested, live among abstract theories and speak to each other in insider jargon far away from the everyday concerns and language of “real” people. Going over to the Dark Side, a scholar might level the same accusation against his accusers: professionals, politicians, people muddling through the daily grind cannot perceive their own lives in an historical or comparative context or with any analytic clarity – they are the ones so mired in the contingencies of each passing moment that they are “not living in the real world.”
Secularists and religionists likewise accuse each other of “not living in the real world.” And we can come up with many more examples. All such cases of ideological rhetoric pose the question: who stands to benefit from the distortion? Cui bono?
The quintessential narcissistic usage is the kind addressed by an “adult” to his younger: “You’re not living in the real world! Majoring in Classics with a focus on ancient Greek drama is a waste of time! Your political idealism will mature into cynical self-interest when you grow up! If you get a tattoo no one will ever take you seriously!”
There is a wonderful community of Classics scholars teaching and writing around the world and anyone would be privileged to join it. There are many genuine adults whose political motivations derive from moral ideals rather than cynical self-interest. And tattoos are only taboo in very specific social sectors. In other sectors, a good tattoo will garner respect.
The response to the narcissist prescribed by the Sages is: “Yeah, well, ya know, that’s just like, uh, you’re opinion, man.”
When “you are not living in the real world” is ideological or narcissistic, is it not in fact the case that the one who makes the accusation is the one who, ironically, is not living in the real world?
No. While this irony would undoubtedly satisfy the accused, it is not in fact the case.
Everyone who is living is living in the real world.
At the same time, life generally includes ample distortions and misperceptions of what is true and what false. It includes acts of simple lying, the state that we describe as “in denial,” instances of believing something to be true that you have every reason to believe is true even though it is actually false, and so on.
When “you are not living in the real world” is leveled non-ideologically and non-narcissistically I assume that the intended meaning is usually something like: “you are making a mistake.” The intention is to communicate to the accused that something he takes to be true is actually false or that he is failing to perceive something appropriately.
There is nothing wrong with telling another person that you think he is making this kind of mistake. But there are more and less tactful ways to do so. It is always better to address the mistake directly and to set about clearing it up with further argumentation or verifiable evidence. Telling someone that he or she is naïve is never anything more than gratuitous and insulting.
So the ideological and narcissistic accusers should not be mocked for ironically diagnosing others with a condition that they in fact have. There is no such condition as “not living in the real world”! Such an accusation should be criticized for being ideological or narcissistic. In the other cases, the phrase is just unproductive and rude.