Idealistic is Not an Insult
“You live in a dream world”. These were the words shouted at me over a dinner table last week, whilst wrapped up in a debate about career motivations. I choose to believe that, given the choice, people want to do something important, that humans are motivated, not by greed, but by kindness. Our natural disposition is to help others out, to do good, and to improve the world we live in. But to do this, people need to be given something to believe in. They need to feel that their efforts are not futile. This means that they need political leaders to have a vision that they can subscribe to. We all need a little bit of idealism.
Life might seem pretty grim at the moment. Nothing seems to work — our hospitals are overflowing, more and more people rely on foodbanks, heating your house has become a luxury. On top of all that, those who are in power are not even trusted to sort any of this out. Why would they be? It seems that at every opportunity, politicians choose the road signposted “wrong way”. This means that idealism doesn’t come naturally, and those who choose to believe in “something bigger” (potentially something improbable), are labelled as being simply foolish. We’re much more focussed on the short term, the here-and-now. This has diffused into every aspect of our lives, from the personal to the political.
It’s no wonder, then, that those in power seem to be distinctly “non-ideological”. They are carried with the changing tides of the political system and popular favour. They are scared to (or perhaps unable to) articulate any big vision for the country precisely because having a big vision has become equated to being naïve or, simply, deluded. Neither Starmer nor Sunak propose an ideal version of what Britain might look like, other than themselves being its Prime Minister. Left and Right have become subdued, arguing over incremental changes to public policy or corruption within their ranks, rather than proposing any over-arching reform that could engender real progress.
Of course, this creates a climate where we are inclined to reject idealism, and believe that constructing any version of “Utopia” is futile. But, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at”. That is to say, if we won’t even give the time of day to envisaging what an ideal world would look like, how can we ever hope to progress towards making society a kinder, fairer, better place.
It’s important to remember the world has improved. Just look at society a hundred years ago. It was a much grimmer place. In Britain, the child mortality rate was 14.2 per cent. In 2020, it was 0.4 per cent. Diseases such as smallpox and polio were killing millions of people. Now, they are practically wiped out. Worldwide, the number of people suffering from malnutrition has shrunk by more than 35 per cent since 1990. Life has got better. But this was not inevitable. It took time, work, and ideas. There’s a reason to be hopeful. But, more importantly, it’s essential to harness this hope to create a vision. Only then, is there a possibility of enacting it.
When Thomas More coined the word “utopia” in 1516, he didn’t envisage a world that we might now describe as either liberal or ideal. Derived from the ancient Greek “ou-topos”, utopia directly translates as “nowhere”. What is important about a “utopia”, is not whether we ever arrive at it, but that it provides us with a vision to strive towards. There’s a fine line between what is imaginary and what is tangible. By rejecting idealism as something reserved for those so out-of-touch with the practical constraints of reality, we limit what is possible. Idealism doesn’t have to be an abstract concept. In many ways, constructing a version of “Utopia” is a poignant way of critiquing the social and political status quo. Having an idea of what an “ideal” world would look like requires thinking deeply. It requires meditating on what really matters. In this way, idealism shouldn’t be regarded as a blinding force. It provides clarity of thought, clarity of mission, and clarity of action.
Moving past pragmatism, opportunism, and short-termism requires courage. Constructing, and believing in, an ideal version of society requires faith, sure, but it also requires resilience and passion. These are qualities we surely value in both our personal lives, and our political systems. So, if being idealistic means living in a dream world, then I’m happy with that— at least I’ve got an idea of what the world should look like in a dream.