How can we think about idealism, when faced with the challenges in society and the world? Is it the end of the road, when we hit cynicism? Do we become apathetic fatalists, in which nothing we can do will ever change the situation? I think cynicism is not the final answer, and being a cynical idealism is an awkward term of phrase. I believe that the phrase to use is patient idealism, and it captures the reality of what happens in the world, yet also provides the space for ideals to be realised.
Cynicism had a different meaning in ancient Greece. Wikipedia described it as “living with virtue”, as in, living with the barest of necessities. Wikipedia also describes Cynicism as “to live regardless of the vicissitudes of life”, and to seek “eudaimonia.”
I guess there’s a very natural tendency for cynics to become apathetic about life, and then to think about how to get ahead, to live in reverse of the ancient cynics and seek material life as comfort and as the aim of life.
Cynicism appears to emerge during the transition of youth and into the real world of real responsibilities. Working in organisations, one can become disillusioned at what the world offers. I guess this transition is difficult for youths who have had some experience of activism, and realise that the world can be harder to change than when they first joined the scene. Many young people use their experience in activism as a CV filler to help them climb ladders to exclusive educational institutions; I guess they imbibe the values of the world and continue climbing other, perhaps even non-activist ladders.
There will be many people who use the term, “tempered idealism” as a way to communicate the result when the reality of things clashes with their idealism. People use the phrase to describe how their idealism needs to be compromised, especially when they seem unattainable now. Those who cannot see accommodation or compromises between so-called ideals and so-called reality can also lapse into apathy or fatalism – the belief that nothing possible can be done, so there’s little point in trying anything.
Many positions are possible. I remember using the terms “tempered idealism” a lot myself. Gradually however, I felt that this did not reflect what I truly felt. I did not feel that idealism was being moderated or had to be subjected to moderation or compromise. I thought that there were things I believed in that are good goals in themselves, and can be attained. However, they would need time to achieve. That led me to realise that a distinctly-different position was possible, and for myself, I call this patient idealism.
There might be a whole bunch of reasons why the factor of time is often not considered in activism and idealism. One of it could be due to life-experience. I guess when young people start out projects, they are often quickly done, and for great effect. People are often quickly encouraged, and want to do bigger and better things, and quickly hitting the limits of scale and resources. The other reason could be due to the general feeling of instant gratification, the idea that change must come, and it should come now and all at once. The other thing could be the idea that efforts will be rewarded with the goal – that a serious, concerted effort to make change happen can truly result in a discontinuous change or a break with the past.
All of these notions ignore the necessity of time, and the inertia of human institutions. Those views also ignore human psychology – that existing habits are, obviously hard to change, and that much social change, is a change in habits and mental perspectives, and those things cannot, are not subjected to large internal changes. To truly effect the changes one wishes to see in the world (after changing oneself, of course), one would have to change the direction of the organisations and institutions that matter. The would-be-activist would either establish an organisation, and grow it, or to enter into an organisation, and continuously change the groups that they find themselves in. After all, much of human activity takes place in organisations. Does the Internet portend a different model of organisation? As revolutionary as it is, it turns out that the Internet has appeared to strengthen the need for organisations – the Internet has changed the format and technology of organising, but it has not changed the need for organisations. No matter how crowdsourced a movement is, leadership is still necessary, though the leadership in dispersed connected movements call forth different skills.
Establishing a thriving organisation and climbing organisational ladders both take a lot of time, and both entail significant risks for the activist. Establishing a new organisation be it a movement or a social organisation is fraught with risks. Where does one get the resources of people and capital? Will the competition choke off growth? Can it find the legitimacy to survive? Yet there are clear advantages too. In establishing a new organisation, one can do something truly new (at least according to the founder), and not be weighed down by history and established patterns. One can afford to take risks in new organisations, and failure is possible. In entering an existing organisation, one faces a different set of conditions. There are existing patterns and habits, which in themselves are already difficult to change. One has to convince others that the change is legitimate, and functionally better. Activists would have to convince that the change advocated for is aligned with the direction of the organisation, and find more senior staff who can protect them from change-adverse colleagues, or even from other activists advocating for their direction of the organisation. They do however, take on far less risk than the starter of a new endeavour. Herein is the major tradeoff that is often not articulated – it is the tradeoff between risk and freedom.
Being an activist, or more broadly, a social agent of change is a matter of habit. One does not suddenly realise the need for change – one sees opportunities for change in many situations on many occasions. And there often are opportunities for change every where – the question is one of far-reaching it goes. It could be simple as making a mundane procedure more efficient, with less steps in between initiation and implementation, or in organising a movement for a previously neglected social need. One doesn’t wake up and realise that the world is fundamentally flawed and in need for a change in direction towards a greater good; one starts exploring how flawed the world is and sees the opportunities for change.
I don’t believe that one needs to climb to the top of the organisation hierarchy before change can be enacted. Activism – in whatever form, is a habit, and a skill – one in which there are paths to improvement, where mastery can be defined and attained. As with all skills, however, it requires time – the time to practise, to reflect on how to do it better, and to have the clarity of the goals to be achieved. Activism requires patience.
Policies enacted by government (or any other institution) can only do so much to get people thinking about their present conditions, and do so much to change their behaviours. Think about changing habits – habits are difficult to change when they are formed. Yet they can change, although they sometimes require an event major enough to change. And so think about the difficulty of engaging in change-making projects – without a crisis backdrop, people are generally not convinced of the need for change, because it would involve additional work especially during periods of transition. There are limits to how much change people can stomach all at once. With these things in mind, one realises that incremental changes are not acts of cowardice or conservativeness (though they can be). Incremental change is just the realisation of psychological realities – everything happening all at once fundamentally is just too much for people to stomach. Still, incremental changes, pursued consistently in the same direction, leads up to major changes. They take time, however, from five to ten years, and they depend on the fickleness of leadership and circumstances, which can unravel schemes. In activism and change-making, one has to play the very-long-game, and that is why it can take one’s entire lifetime for a cause.
This is why I use the term patient idealist for myself. I believe change is possible, even deep fundamental changes. However, they will take time to fully manifest, bearing in mind the realities of human psychology and the inertia of organisation and institutions. But they are only obstacles, and besides, what good important work wasn’t difficult?