On Demanding Idealism

Many a young and idealistic college student has set out to change the world. They’ll end war, eliminate poverty, save the environment, or bring true justice to every race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or age.

Many a cynical older person has condemned such idealism as hopeless tomfoolery. You cannot end war, eliminate poverty, save the environment, or bring true justice to every race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or age.

It’s easy to switch from one of these categories to the other. I know, I’ve been in both before. Blind idealism quickly turns to cynicism when it experiences the first of many inevitable challenges.

And though it’s easy to condemn both the idealistic and the cynical for being too absolute in their understandings of the world, neither of them is wholly wrong. A singe person cannot do any of the things that most young idealists hope to do. But nor is the world so resistant to change that progress isn’t possible.

I’m not intending condemnation in writing this. Instead my goal is to discourage people–especially the young and idealistic kind–from switching so easily to the other side of this false dichotomy when they experience their first setback. To recognize that they are not the only ones hoping for better.

There is a large middle ground between these two extremes, but many idealists dismiss the middle ground. Many communicate this by saying “if you’re not with us you’re against us,” others use more subtle equivalents. But this idea is prone to be false.

I’m convinced that most people would love to see more peace, justice, and equality in the world. But they’d also love to know that they’ve got a healthy family, comfortable finances, and a relatively stress-free life. These quotidian concerns often overcome the concern one has for greater idealistic struggles.

But those in the middle are probably doing the best they can to assure that there is greater equality, justice, and kindness in the world. Maybe all they manage most days is a smile to those they pass or a few cents offered to a beggar. Maybe they can only find the time to volunteer a few times a year. Maybe they can only offer money to charities that undo some of the bad things they have to do on a day-to-day basis.

Could most people manage to do a little more to make the world a better place? I absolutely believe they–and I–could. Does that mean we should be chastised and derided for our failings? I should hope not.

Demanding more than people can give–then condemning them for not giving it–is the fastest way to convince them to dislike you, call you a fool, and give up entirely on your cause of greater peace, justice, and equality.

Though demanding idealism is often the fastest way for progress to occur, it can also be the best way to guarantee a violent and undesired reaction. Idealism can be a great good, but demanding too much support for that idealism–and too fast–is not.

So I have a simple request: a little less demanding, please?

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3 responses to “On Demanding Idealism”

  1. Nicely said.

    The middle ground is the key, and for another reason – it is actually much more effective in terms of creating the change we’d all like to see.

    In order for people to be persuaded to change, the message must be clear, logical and in a format they will understand. Working within the popular framework is essential, as is planning for a long term project. To demand an insta-solution to a problem on this scale is insane. Social injustices such as racism, as an example, develop over generations and become institutionalized. The eradication will take longer.

    Activism has its merits, but it must appeal to a broad audience, which is why tactless demands are generally not only annoying and angering, but also ineffective. I still love to rant, though.