One of the surest ways, in this world, to lose friends and fail to influence anybody, is to be an idealist. Idealists are treated like lepers once were. They’re socially excluded. Nobody wants to engage in debate with them. Their minds are already made up, after all and so, entertaining the thoughts that the idealist espouses is rather bothersome. It’s boring. It’s something best avoided.
Idealists are regarded as delusional cranks, at best, or as just plain stupid. “Utopian” has come to be a pejorative term, in modern parlance. To most people, it means “hopelessly doomed to be utterly unworkable in practice”. In the popular imagination, “quixotic” has taken on the mantle of describing those that are barking mad and somewhat pathetic. Idealists are said to be utopian, quixotic and therefore wholly unrealistic.
But what do they mean by “unrealistic”? Is it that they are tacitly asserting human kind is too fearful, cynical or stupid to make changes for the better? Are people so craven, self-interested and ignorant that they cannot recognise a more satisfactory settlement for all? Do they not see it as worthwhile? Do they really lack the courage, brotherly love, empathy and common sense to act to make changes that take us all closer to a utopian existence?
Not the critics, charging idealists with being unrealistic, of course. They have all the courage, wisdom, open-mindedness and insight necessary. It’s everybody else, isn’t it?
The other common reaction to idealism is that group of people quick to dismiss the idealist as “negative” and his critiques of the way things are, compared to how they could be, as just so much “negativity”. I don’t know about you, but I am so weary of people that use a charge of negativity as a cloak for stubbornly persisting in their own ignorance. It’s a fraudulent use of the word. Not only that, it attacks the character of the idealist, not the idealist’s arguments. It’s an accusation which fails to address the substance of the idealists’ propositions completely.
Anyway, since when was an ideal world more negative than the real world? Or do these people truly believe that we already live in Utopia? If so, why aren’t they charged with believing in the unrealistic?
An idealist’s life is a terribly lonely and isolating one. They are widely misunderstood, shunned and their motives suspected. Nobody thinks they’re right in the head. Idealists are frequently friendless, or rather find themselves alone, without anybody else that shares their ideals and idealism. It requires a great deal of fortitude, resilience, integrity and character to remain idealistic, in the face of universal exclusion.
If you want to be instantly shunned or “mansplained” (before you accuse me of sexism, don’t worry; women do this too), say something even vaguely idealistic on social media. The unfollows and trolls will suddenly bloom, like weeds. People will feel it important to tell you, in detail, why you’re wrong. Some will mentally categorise you as somebody they shouldn’t interact with, ever again.
Nothing brings out the fear in people more than an idealistic statement. Why? It’s because the statement usually uncomfortably highlights their acquiescence in the prevailing programming and propaganda, that they have swallowed whole, without question or challenge, all their lives. There are voting adults alive today that have known nothing other than neoliberalism, for example. A single idealistic statement brings to mind the possibility that there is, in fact, an alternative (whereas, their default belief is that there is no alternative) and that sticking with the current orthodoxy is a choice. “Idealism is unrealistic” is an article of faith, rather than a provable proposition.
Isn’t that article of faith just the prevailing notion, a fetishised obsession and an “idée fixe”, though? After all, nothing revolutionary happens without somebody believing in better, so courageously, that they make it happen. What’s so ideal about leaving everything the way it is, when it demonstrably causes pain and misery for billions of people and destroys the very planet we rely upon for our survival? How is the current course of human affairs in any way “realistic”, when it inexorably and inevitably leads to slow, painful deaths, through starvation, poverty, preventable disease and war and ultimately to the extinction of the human species (or the vast majority of it)?
The truth of the matter is that those who have placed themselves in charge of everything have a choice. They can choose to believe humanity’s ultimate purpose is to be conquered, commanded and controlled by them; farmed and exploited like dumbed-down domesticated animals. Indeed, they can take active measures to ensure that it is so and they do. That’s their current choice.
Alternatively, they can choose to see that it is our soaring imaginations and creativity that distinguishes us from farm animals and so, realise that unleashing and fostering that creativity is best for everyone. It is the artistry, of which we are abundantly and inexhaustibly capable, which gives us the potential to create that utopian, idealistic world, but as a concrete reality, not a fanciful, impossible pipe dream.
While most innovation, today, consists mainly of creating ever more gigantic, powerful, private, monopolistic bureaucracies (most web apps are just form-filling in disguise, after all), a population whose creativity is unfettered could, instead, solve the hard problems (such as destructive despoliation of the planet, environmental pollution and the provision of harmless energy) with their bare hands, not just their imaginations. You can’t tweet, facebook or blog your way to this idealistic future. You have to do the real, hard work, not just fill in more on-line forms.
Here’s the catch, though: You can’t govern, surveil and legislate creativity. It’s not available on-demand. You can’t exert control and ownership over other people’s creative ideas (though capitalist societies fool themselves into thinking they can and only do so by the exertion of violence, thereby killing the goose that lays the golden eggs). Freedom from wage slavery and debt peonage is a necessary pre-condition for creativity to flourish. This is the price of better.
Inequality would have to end. That would require a political choice of major proportions and it is violently resisted, because there is a group of people who mistakenly believe that the current political and economic systems leave them sitting pretty, even while there is abundant evidence that the planet is going to hell in a hand cart and that they, themselves, have no way of escaping the inevitable consequences of their current political and economic choices.
What they hate is that money doesn’t buy you a special place at the creativity table. You’re only as good as your ideas and the ideas that most of the moneyed cling to, so doggedly, stink. They’re rotten ideas, with terrible consequences. If their privilege is contingent on shoring up these broken, discredited, disproven plans, then they will be the enemies of progress toward better ideas, which lead to better outcomes, universally.
Are those in charge of everything too stupid, greedy and selfish to forego their privilege, in exchange for humanity being fully harnessed to use its almost limitless creativity, industry and imaginations, to create a much better world for all, than even the most opulent enjoys today? That is the question of our age.
Perhaps the artists and idealists are more realistic than most people think.