January 15, 2012

In praise of pragmatic idealism

We are a society that praises idealism. Our ideals forged a new nation. Ideals act as our moral compass. And, ideals offer us a vision for the future. But, ideals also divide us and prevent us from making the compromises that benefit the greatest number by the greatest amount.

We were all taught that the Revolutionary War was fought over English economic oppression, and that the Civil War was a battle over slavery. While it is compelling for us humans to simplify complex phenomena and to recast history in a way that supports our own internal ideals, human conflict is rarely so simple.

However, when we cling to idealism as a compass to resolve conflict, we inevitably widen the gulf that makes compromise difficult. If this gulf becomes wide enough, wars ensue, inevitably at great cost to all. Among individuals, frustrations turn to resentments, and resentments turn to grudges that sometimes last a lifetime, or even generations. At their root are often individuals' insistence to cling to a set of assumptions or ideals in conflict or sharp contrast to the position of another.

Of course, there is a role for idealism. It often packs a complicated world view into a simple message. What it may sacrifice in nuance it makes up for in simplicity. An ideal can act as a compact premise that can be decoded and unpacked relatively easily. But the efficiency of an ideal can also limit an individual's thoughtful consideration, and can create artificial tensions among those with competing ideals.

Our ideals also act to anchor us artificially. We may choose to align ourselves with a sports team or a social movement or a political party that does not perfectly fit our individual preferences but nonetheless acts to align our own personal platforms.

What we sacrifice from our own thoughtful worldviews we gain by an alignment with a simpler and more broadly held premise. No longer do citizens harbor beliefs consistent perhaps only with their personal world views. We become Democrats or Republicans, Tea Partiers or Teamster Partisans. We align ourselves with a party platform and begin to mistrust those misguided, or plain wrong, folk who do not agree with us.

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