The National Palace Museum of Taipei holds one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. It is also one of the world’s five most visited museums. In its cool, quiet exhibition rooms one can wander alongside strangers, pondering the meanings of ancient shapes and inspirations. Visitors are Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, European, American, Indian… but in the hallways of the museum we are merely fellow humans enjoying the art.
The National Palace Museum of Taipei is either the result of a rogue looting of Communist Party property, or the result of a noble effort to protect and preserve China’s ancient artifacts. It depends on one’s reading of the history of China after the fall of the last dynasty, whether one sees Taiwan as a state in rebellion, or if the true state in rebellion is the People’s Republic of China governing the mainland. It is a situation where two places with the same origins have two totally different ideas about what the facts of their relationship are. Both truly and honestly believe that their position on the autonomy of Taiwan is the only one based on fact, and that any suggestion to the contrary is insane.
This should not be confused with a “difference of opinion,” by the way. This is an actual disagreement over what is factually true.
Those not familiar with the conflict may think this disagreement over reality to be silly or strange, but they would be wrong. In almost every conflict situation on Earth, people are wrestling with this same struggle every day—a struggle of contesting narratives which do not add up to a coherent truth. In Israel and Palestine, in India and Pakistan, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, in Turkey and Armenia, narratives are split about what things really happened and what did not.
Yet another example is Chinese and Japanese narratives on what really happened during the Nanjing Massacre. “300,000 dead,” read the signs in the museum in Nanjing, China, whereas the Japanese claim it was closer to the 50,000-100,000 range. How can something as concrete as 200,000 human lives become a disputed fact? I’m not sure I understood until America spent a week arguing over what we could all plainly see with our own eyes: whether Obama’s or Trump’s inauguration photo showed more attendees.
For in the wake of the 2016 US election, it has become popular to talk about Americans’ “bubbles.” We grow up in certain neighborhoods, surround ourselves with similar friends, and only read newspapers that confirm our original beliefs, therefore we live in bubbles which need to be popped.
I agree to some extent, but “bubbles” is a bit of a weak word for something that is more like “alternate realities.” And it shouldn’t exactly be treated as something unprecedented. All it proves is that America has joined the “society-in-conflict” party, alongside places like Taiwan and China.
In other words we are not alone, but it is not exactly good company.
Some people like to treat differences in interpretations of reality as though they are differences in interpretations of art. As a dreamer and idealist myself one might think I would count myself among their ranks. And believe me I have tried. During election season I lapped up every single article I saw about the perspectives and characteristics of Trump supporters, hoping to at last find the key that would unlock a comfortable understanding of them. As someone with a relentless desire to understand absolutely everything it filled me with so much frustration when every article seemed to fall just short of enlightening me as to what exactly their reality is constructed of.
Art can be so peaceful because of both its connection to, and separation from, genuine reality. With a friend, you can stand in front of an abstract painting and give your own opinions, considering each other’s viewpoints equally.
“I think it’s a horse,” your friend whispers.
“No, I think it’s a birthday cake,” you whisper back. But you still leave laughing and walking together, no matter how strong your disagreements on the painting.
Why can’t the real world just be like this? I suppose it’s because art may either inspire or depress, but rarely does one leave the halls of a museum totally changed. Rarely therefore does art affect one’s actions in real life… but a person’s view of reality does matter, and it deeply and severely affects real life, especially for those whom that worldview hurts.
Whether the police shot an innocent man or a dangerous criminal is of huge importance; whether a woman was saying yes or no is a matter of serious gravity; whether climate change is genuine or a big coordinated hoax is a matter of the actual survival of our planet.
In these types of situations, it is absolutely imperative that we know the real truth, and cannot leave room for “interpretation.” So yes, reality matters, and reality is a matter of life and death.
The real truth can be hard to come by. As humans with the capacity for logical thought, our instinct is strong to always use facts in our arguments, assuming they are more accurate than emotions. This can be a problem. While most humans agree that emotions are fallible and should always be taken with a grain of salt, we do not exercise the same amount of caution in trusting the facts we see on the Internet or even the ones we hold in our own heads. Facts are seen as iron-clad and argument-ending, while in reality, facts are just as slippery as emotions in that we need lots of context to fully understand where they’ve come from and why they exist. Our understanding of the world will never be objective and uncolored, because we all are susceptible to fallible emotions—and we all are susceptible to fallible logic, too.
I wish I could be more kind and forgiving towards alternative viewpoints on reality, recognizing that all of us struggle with finding the truth at some time or another. And yet reality deserves urgency. A potential genocide is going on in Syria. Am I supposed to nod and listen mildly when someone suggests with “purity of intent” that letting people die there is safer than letting them into the US as refugees?
Am I supposed to be cordial and accepting of the reality that my fellow citizens voted for a man who bragged about sexual assault? Am I supposed to accept that in their realities where the same words were said, somehow those words didn’t reek of the same grotesque meaning, the feeling of being grabbed in a dark bar or catcalled on an empty street? Am I supposed to pretend it’s okay and acceptable to me that so-called “alternate interpretations” exist where either I’m being silly, those words don’t mean what you think they mean, or the worst, the reality where all men just go around saying and doing those things? Is that really something I’m supposed to hear with an open mind, like Trump is not disgusting because all men are absolute pigs, and both men and women are allowed to live in a world where they believe this to be true and unchangeable?
Don’t people want something better?
In a way we all have the power to create the realities we want and then inhabit them. Social media makes it even easier. We can curate our experiences on Instagram and Facebook to make glorified lives for ourselves. In a more tangible sense, the way we act often dictates how others act to us. Those who believe no one can be trusted are generally not trustworthy themselves, and those who believe the world is beautiful seem to find the most beauty.
Those who don’t want to believe their own clothes are on fire can stand there grinning in denial until they die, if they so choose. Those who don’t want to believe Trump is a bad guy can create a reality where everyone else is somehow worse. But honestly, what good is that doing anyone? Shouldn’t the opposite also be true, that if we dream up a reality where the world is peaceful and loving we could live there too?
I still believe we can. I believe in a reality where people first and foremost respect other people. Where we all fight together to understand the absurd complexity of this world. Key emphasis on together, because some of the few things I know to be true are that human beings all want mostly the same things, life is kinda scary, and all of us are super confused.
Look, I wish we could live in a world where looking at reality was like looking at a painting, and we could all see something different and that would be okay. But in real life, if we build the wrong reality people get hurt.
At the very least, can we agree to show ourselves some respect by believing in a reality that’s better than this?