The word reality has many uses in fictional, technical, philosophical and pseudo-philosophical contexts, where it can distinguish between different kinds of “reality” or show contrast with what is imaginary, ideal, dreamt or otherwise “unreal”. Typical uses are: fantasy versus reality, virtual reality, consensus reality, phenomenological reality.
Even in these contexts, its meaning is generally mutable and sometimes contentious. Such is “reality”: it is not a homogeneous collective experience, the mere mention of which connotes a unanimously understood truth.
Nonetheless, the term is very popular in rhetorical clichés, especially in spoken English:
The reality is that…
The reality on the ground is that…
Let’s deal with (the) reality here.
We have to face the reality of…
These stock phrases, like the bottom line and the much-reviled at the end of the day, are hackneyed and all but meaningless. And although an expedient in fact can sharpen a good point, the term fact(s) is often used more dubiously:
Let’s face facts.
We can’t ignore the facts.
The fact of the matter is…
The facts speak for themselves.
This kind of verbiage is beloved of talking heads, who use it to lead in to their point. But referring to “reality” in this throwaway manner does not foster constructive dialogue, since everyone’s “reality” is unique, subjective and always changing. Wheeling it out only raises the questions: Which reality? Whose reality? What information are you leaving out, and why? Can you get to the point?
Vladimir Nabokov wrote that reality is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes”. It’s a good point but a severe one, since the word’s meaning in certain contexts is clear and justifiable. But if it prefaces an opinion without supporting or illuminating it, as in the examples above, it may instead depreciate the point and delay it unnecessarily. This is far more likely to occur in spoken than written English, but habits in the former can become habits in the latter, so it’s one to watch out for.
Footnote: “All affirmations are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense.” This is according to the Principia Discordia, a playfully satirical faux-religious text (or a work of guerrilla ontology, according to Robert Anton Wilson). The implication, of course, is that this statement itself is true in some sense, false in some sense, etc. Most germane is its inclusion of uncertainty in any interpretation of reality and the facts.
Words are just symbols, and cannot map directly onto the things they signify, any more than Magritte’s painting of a pipe can be smoked. In the battleground of public debate, however, uncertainty is anathema. And in reality, the fact of the matter is that I’m now well off the point, so I’ll stop here.