Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Freeing Idealism

I argued yesterday that idealism gone bad is nasty stuff, but that strong idealism is necessary for any kind of progressive change. For folks interested in that kind of change, figuring out how to make idealism work well becomes an important priority.

How do you keep idealism from getting wacky and negative?

Well, most of all I think idealists need some checks and balances to keep their idealism healthy and constructive. A few thoughts on those checks and balances:

Idealists have gotta listen to the critiques of realists and take ‘em into account

I think this quote by Reinhold Niebuhr, the important 20th century Christian theologian, sort of sums it up:

I think there ought to be a club in which preachers and journalists could come together and have the idealistic sentimentality of the one matched with the cynicism of the other. That ought to bring them pretty close to the truth.

I’d add only one thing to that idea. The preachers (idealists) have actually gotta listen.

In general, Niebuhr taught that idealistic morality without realism is naive or worse, and realism without idealistic morality is cynicism or worse. In light of experience and history, I’d say idealistic morality without realism is naïve or much worse, particularly when that idealistic morality gets organized and ideological.

Idealists need to get their facts straight

This one is a little different than my first point. “Realists’ can sometimes reject idealistic ideas purely out of a deep skepticism about change in general. So while idealists may listen to that type of realist critique, they may not want to take it too seriously.

On the other hand, the strength of realism at its best is a focus on the facts. One of the most striking weaknesses of pretty much all forms of idealism--at their worst--is their willful ignorance of facts or the twisting of facts to suit their ideological purposes.

Idealistic military crusades into countries we don’t know much about aren't generally a good idea. Ignoring well established science isn’t either. Actually understanding the systems you’re trying to change can also be helpful :^)

Idealists need patience

A significant part of the damage that idealisms tend to cause come out of a basic lack of patience. Change gets forced onto situations and people before they’re ready to own and accept those changes.

Idealists must recognize that they aren’t as good as their ideals

The history of moral idealism, especially in its organized and ideological forms, is mostly the history of moral triumphalism and every kind of oppression and violence justified by the supposed moral superiority of the idealists.

This sense of moral superiority is the most poisonous element of idealism and does even more damage than the tendency of idealisms to ignore facts. It gives idealists license to oppress, and also lets them eventually ignore and overlook their own obvious shortcomings in living up to their ideals or accomplishing truly useful outcomes.

Basically, what I’m talking about is good old humility and a sense of perspective. Christians might say we’re talking about a basic sense of human sinfulness and frailty.

I think if you look at destructive idealisms, almost without exception you see an unwillingness to listen to critics, a playing fast and loose with the facts, and an obvious lack of humility and patience. When you combine those elements with the immense power that idealism has to move people into action, and you add organization and coercive power, well, you’ve got something potentially pretty destructive on your hands.

No need to take time here to look at positive and negative examples of organized idealisms and how they fit the grid I'm laying out. You can do the analyzing in your free time :^)

For progressives, keeping idealism healthy and functioning constructively is job one. We’re blessed culturally to have a pretty high respect for the scientific method, for democratic political checks and balances, and an emphasis on humility in the country’s primary religions, all of which tend to help mitigate the more damaging elements of idealism. We’ve just got to take advantage of those blessings a lot more than we’ve been doing lately.


Blogger ruth said...

good thoughts.

I seem to always find myself surrounded by idealists of various persuasions, and tend to be one myself... and I can definitely affirm that some good old humility and perspective is sorely needed. When you lose the ability to question yourself and your own motives, things get bad pretty fast.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...


Idealists tend to be life giving and attractive. I understand the pull.

Is there a third option?

8:01 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

meaning, other than idealism or realism? since they're both oversimplifications, maybe a balance is good.

personally, I prefer the wise, seasoned idealists who can acknowledge the grim reality of the world but still hold out for the hope of something different, and forgive things for the way they are.

Merciful idealism, I guess. What bothers me most about idealists is the lack of mercy for those on the wrong side of the issue.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Yes, I meant an alternative to idealism and realism. But I was thinking of something more along the lines of the Elks Club :^)

8:20 PM  

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