When Martin Luther King fought for racial equality, he was being idealistic.

When Florence Nightingale worked for better medical care, she was being idealistic.

When Malala Yousafzai protested against her education being taken, she was being idealistic.

But in the end, it turned out that these idealists were realists too. Because they all made change happen.

They all had their fair share of detractors. Hell, two of them were shot. And at the time, they were all ridiculed for ‘unrealistic’ views that were simply never going to happen.

Fast forward to 2020, and idealists are still objects of derision. 

Idealists are naive. Probably even a bit stupid. And those who have already given up on their ideals see them as self-important, holier-than-thou pricks; and call them out as ‘virtue-signallers’.

These insults are devastatingly effective, especially when paired with the standard takedown of “I’m not an idealist, I’m a realist” – a takedown that’s usually shorthand for “I’m doing something ethically questionable because it’s easier/it’s the done thing/it makes me rich.”

But idealism-realism is a false dichotomy, because the opposite of ‘ideal’ isn’t ‘real’. The opposite of ‘ideal’ is ‘bad’.

Taking it further, the opposite of having ideals is having a lack of ideals.

And a society without ideals is a society without aspirations beyond maintaining the status quo, however messed up it might be.

It’s time to reclaim idealism

Few idealists will make the level of change that Martin Luther King, Malala or Florence Nightingale made. But that doesn’t make their idealism any less important. It’s still vital, even on a small scale.

But it’s hard to stay idealistic. We get it beaten out of us, by a combination of disappointment with the world and judgment from others. It’s happened to me. I’ve used the phrase, ‘when I was young and idealistic’ on many occasions. It happens. I’m 36. I got weary.

But I’m going to stop using that phrase. Now. 

For now on, I’m proud to say I’m idealistic, because I still have ideals I believe in. 

I’m proud to say I’m idealistic, even if people think it makes me a ‘virtue-signalling’, holier-than-thou, self-important prick.

And I’m proud to say I’m idealistic because I’m not ready to give up on things I believe in just yet.

And if someone ‘accuses’ me of being idealistic, I’ll know what to say. I’ll ask,

“Yes I have ideals. Why the hell don’t you?”

And if that sounds idealistic, well… I guess it is.

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash