On “Realism” vs. “Idealism”

August 31, 2009

Before the Iraq War started, I was at a protest, and a man on the street started yelling at us, totally enraged. I walked up to him and asked, “Why are you so angry?” He was a little shocked that I would approach him calmly instead of yelling back, but he answered that he had been in New York when 9/11 went down. I told him that I was in the city on 9/11 too, and he was even more taken aback. He paused for a second, and then, gently now, told me that I was naive. I was too young to understand. I needed to be “realistic.” There would always be war.

It’s an argument I’ve heard all my life, from all kinds of people, whenever I express disagreement with the status quo. It seems that according to many people, making no effort to reduce the suffering in the world is what constitutes “realism.”

And it’s such a load of bullshit.

The claim that people trying to change something are lacking a sense of “realism” is nothing more than an attempt to shut them down without substantively engaging their arguments, or the changes they are suggesting.

The world changes. People change it. Slavery isn’t legal anymore. There is such a thing as a weekend. I can own property and vote. People fought and bled and died for these things, and it is spitting on the graves of our ancestors and spitting in the faces of our elders to claim that nothing ever changes.

Just as saying that human nature is all evil and dark gives people a handy excuse to act like assholes, saying that change is impossible lets people who are actually being lazy and uncaring pretend that their motivation for apathy is a noble understanding of the “real” truth.

No. If you are not doing something to make the world better, it is not because you’re smarter and more perceptive than all of us poor deluded souls trying to make a difference. It’s because you have chosen not to, despite the fact that things do change. You are responsible for your choice. Do not disown it.

I’ve heard many a hipster tell me that they don’t get involved in anything other than self-indulgent performance art (or building robots, or kickball, or whatever) because signing a petition isn’t going to solve the problem with the environment anyway. And it’s not like anything they do is going to end racism in our lifetimes, anyway. And voting doesn’t matter, anyway.

In other words, if they can’t find one activity that will instantly and completely rid the world of every single bad thing ever, it makes much more sense to spend all of their time on self-involved bullshit.

This lovely little bit of illogic is what writer Paul Loeb has dubbed the “perfect standard,” a common cause of paralysis for people who would otherwise try to improve things in some way. The perfect standard dictates that unless social action is determined to be both lacking in any flaws and perfectly effective in solving the world’s problems, it isn’t worth doing.

So, for example, ANY ATTEMPT TO CHANGE ANYTHING, EVER, is a total waste of time.

The perfect standard’s apathy has a counterpart in an unwillingness to limit activities that harm others, for example by recycling or boycotting businesses known to be socially irresponsible. People will argue that they shouldn’t bother with those things, since harming others is inevitable. I call this the “we might as well eat some babies” approach to life. In other words, if we can’t live without doing ANY harm, we should cause MAXIMUM harm.

Christ on a cracker. Think about the implications of that approach to ethics for two seconds. It makes no more sense than eating delicious babies.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have fun. Have fun! Fun is good! And I do understand that trying to make our little corner of the world better can be exhausting and heartbreaking, and it’s scary to take the risk and believe that you have the power to change things. Because then if you try and you fail… Well, that sucks. But thinking that you have to succeed totally and immediately is just the perfect standard doing its work. The kind of changes progressive people believe in are not going to happen all at once, and they often require a lot of “failed” attempts, which teach the next wave of activists what not to do. You do your best. You let it go. Sometimes the victory is won years after your death. You may never see the results of what you do. But someone, someday is going to be very grateful that you did that work.

And that’s just realistic.

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