In Defense of Idealism
August 23, 2013
We live in an age that punishes those who believe that change is not only possible, but reachable. A time when those who insist that good can be wrought from the nature of humanity are derided and treated as naive. When we are told not to read the comments, not to expect better of our leaders, not to fight hard because we shall never win. We live in an age when those who wish to save the world from the excesses of pain, of frustration, and injustice are overwhelmingly punished for the simple crime of compassion. Those who care are systemically disavowed of their notions of sympathy and affection, told that there is no functional way to achieve positive action in the world around them because people are simply too jaded, too broken to make any meaningful action. The world is the way it is, and the world shall never be any different. This, however, this acceptance of the inevitability of injustice and pain, is the first step toward defeat. Accepting that change is impossible is acquiescing to the unjust structures already in existence. Victory, in anything, requires the idealistic notion that victory is first possible, even in the remotest sense, before it can be achieved.
I am an idealist. It is why I am a feminist, it is why I am an author, it is why I am a hedonist, and it is why I am an atheist. I have a fundamental understanding that humanity is basically compassionate, basically social, and basically just. The breakdown occurs in culture, where we’re trained (not taught, but trained) to see others as non-people, to see humans outside of our prescribed tribal groups as somehow antagonistic even in the most innocent of actions. These systems are taught to those in power, and those outside of the power structure are not told about the secret methods that this training entails. People of color do not learn what white parents tell their children. Girls do not learn what men tell to little boys. Those born disabled are not told the whispered admonitions given to those born able-bodied. The poor do not hear the rules given to the rich by their parents and peers. Even groups that bloom after this training begins, such as gender and sexual minorities, are not told of the fear and indoctrination that those outside of their groups are subject to. Even now, as a pansexual man, I am frequently read as straight and the same calls and dogwhistles I heard growing up, asking me for solidarity against “The Gays”, are directed at me as if I were part and parcel with the institution of oppression that these phrases represent. However, the oppressed know the training happens. The oppressors use the same words, the same actions, the same visual cues, the same looks. Oppression is an expression of a community, not an individual.
Sometimes these systems can be reverse-engineered (such as Feminism, the academic discipline of sociology, deconstructing patriarchal systems and Critical Race Theory deconstructing institutional racism and white supremacy), but those who are oppressed are never given the full training regimen of the young oppressors. The fight against deconstructing these systems relies on a certain kind of idealism – a belief in inherent justice, in a fairness that does not rely on the narratives of the powerful and oppressive aspects of our shared culture. An idealism that rests on creating new narratives, new ideas, and new stories that are inherent in their justice and balance, inherent in their fairness and compassion. Every social movement has relied on similar idealism, whether this was a new religion, a new social order, a new economic order, or a change in leadership. Wars require idealism, no matter the kind of war they are, and new ventures require idealism. Someone who guides the new idea has to burn with the passion of change, of possibility, of ideals. Someone has to push everyone in the right direction to accomplish that change, and someone must give a story to everyone else. “When we topple the empire, we will be free.” “When we restructure the economy, all will be able to eat heartily and regularly.” “When we buy the land and build the store, people will come.” “When we make these changes, all of us will benefit.”
This is still idealism. In retrospect, we can call it vision or wisdom, potential or genius, but it does not change that, in the moment, it was a single ideal held with enough passion to inspire others to follow it as well. In our world where we are told not to read the comments and that oppression is a necessary state of the world, that all we can do is learn to adapt and deal with the aggressions against us (from micro- to major), it is important to remember that everything from new businesses to the first empire started as an ideal. It is important to remember that alone, we may feel like we are weak and powerless in the face of the status quo but together we can rewrite our personal stories, our social stories, and even the narrative of our culture as a whole. We can move mountains, we can change orders, and we can overthrow any power that can be arrayed against us. Idealism is the heart of all social change, and without idealism we will always flounder and stop before the work is done. Do not stop being practical, do not stop being realistic, but also do not stop dreaming. Do not stop looking forward in time and seeing a powerful, just, and ethical future. A future founded on what are just ideals now, but ideals strong enough to carry the world.