Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It's Time to Embrace Our Idealism

My friend and colleague, Mary Pat Champeau, brought over a Netflix video for a few of us to watch at the Institute for Humane Education. It was called The Girl in the Café, and I figured she’d just landed upon a really entertaining film and wanted to share it. “Just send it back when you’re done,” she said. I wasn’t supposed to be home that evening because of my Aikido class, but my back was hurting, and so I decided not to go to class and watch the film instead. I’m so glad I did.

The Girl in the Café is certainly an entertaining film, but its entertainment value is trumped by its great message. Revolving around the G8 summit and the Millennium Goals to (among other things) eradicate extreme poverty, the take home point is that we must stop dithering and compromising our values; we must stop defending the indefensible; we must stop conflating idealism with utopianism; and we must commit to meeting goals that are, beyond a doubt, achievable, if we harness our will to achieve them.

The next morning, I read an AP article about farm groups joining together to fight bad publicity and improve farmers’ images. In the article, Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, is quoted saying the following:
"So often people advocate for a utopian world and it's not doable.... Feeding the world requires us to kick up some dirt and create a few odors. That is just a reality of producing food and fiber that may not fit in with the utopian vision.... The vast majority of people are reasonable people, they just need to know that you can't have the perfect world."
What Cornely is implicitly defending are egregious farming practices in which sentient beings are crammed into cages and crates in which they can barely move, routinely mutilated without painkillers or anesthesia, forced to live (and die) under conditions so inhumane that were such atrocities perpetrated on dogs or cats the people responsible would be thrown in jail. He is also implicitly defending practices that are causing such horrific pollution that wildlife, too, routinely die by the thousands, as waste lagoons burst and their contents spill into waterways.

Having watched The Girl in the Café the night before, Cornely’s words were particularly cynical. By resorting to utopianism as the alternative to institutionalized cruelty and destruction in our modern farming practices, he tries to appeal to those “reasonable” people among us who might be swayed that striving for a more humane, sustainable, and healthy world is either impossible or downright silly.

Idealism is too often perceived as a weakness, a form of immaturity, a sign that a person is not yet wise. Yet Martin Luther King, Jr., was an idealist, and so was Mahatma Gandhi. Nobel Peace Prize winners, Wangari Maathai and Aung San Suu Kyi, are also idealists. Even the founding fathers of the United States were idealists, and without William Wilberforce’s persistent idealism, what might have happened in the British Parliament during the endless debates about the African slave trade? Today, it is the tireless efforts of millions of changemakers across the globe – fueled by a belief in a better world; fueled by idealism – that is creating systemic change leading us closer to peace and closer to restoration. Without idealists who envision a safer, saner, more equitable world and who are willing to work toward it, the fate of billions of people, animals, and the ecosystems upon which we all depend, would be far worse.

Cornely and the Farm Bureau fighting reforms follow a long line of people who dig in their heels to protect the status quo, no matter how destructive and unjust that status quo is. They prey on our fears and doubts, our inertia and apathy, our greed and our self-centeredness. They urge us to feel superior if we are “pragmatists,” even though there is nothing pragmatic about practices that cause harm and suffering and misery.

It’s time for all of us to embrace the idealist within and refuse to succumb to the messages that would keep us inert. This does not mean we should be utopians or refuse to compromise when compromise serves the ends we seek. It does not mean that we should perceive the world – or other people – in either/or terms, taking sides rather than seeking viable solutions. It means that we should envision the world that we have the power to create and take all the necessary steps to achieve it, practically, and with every ounce of our idealism intact.

And we must nurture our children’s idealism, ensuring that they never fall for the myth that wisdom lies in abandoning your ideals and that “reasonableness” is a sign of maturity. Instead, we must raise them to be solutionaries who use their great minds in service with their loving hearts to change unjust and inhumane systems, understanding that their idealism can and must be harnessed effectively and practically for the good.

Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, www.HumaneEducation.org, and author of Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; and The Power and Promise of Humane Education. She has given a TEDx talk on solutionary education and blogs at www.zoeweil.com and Humane Connection.

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