The Dark Side of Idealism and Woke Culture

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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I consider myself an idealistic person. I have a vision of the world as I would like to see it and see area’s that desperately need improvement. Idealism is important. It’s the driving force behind so much good that is done in the world, from the efforts to eradicate hunger or protect human rights, to the work done to protect the environment and our individual battle to be the best parents we can be.

Idealism starts from seeing what’s not working in the world, where the major problems lie. And it roots itself in the belief (naive or not) that there is a better alternative, that there is an ideal situation to strive for.

In the last decade, woke culture has come from this same energy, trying to mark social injustice first in connection to racism and later on connected to all forms of social injustice. This article gives a comprehensive explanation of the rise and development of woke culture. The reason this term now has bad connotations to some, brings me to the point of this article: Idealism (and thus woke culture) can also lead to extremes.

There is a certain irony in people who strive for tolerance for all and yet condemn beyond forgiveness anyone who stands in the way of that. There is extremism on all sides, and idealism can easily lend itself to a viewpoint that allows no more nuance.

Even if we consider all races, all genders, all cultures, all religions and all walks of life equal, it is still possible that we, perhaps unintentionally, say something racist, homophobic or anti-muslim. That doesn’t make us hypocrites or imposters, it makes us human. Human beings make mistakes. We were all raised with ideas that may not fit the world of tomorrow. And the best way to deal with the mistakes people make is by allowing them to correct those mistakes instead of pushing them into the margins of society.

Now, there’s an obvious caveat here: what exactly constitutes a ‘mistake‘ is very much dependent on your point of view. That leads me to another danger of idealism: we start thinking that our ideal of the world is the only right one. I believe that it doesn’t matter who you love, or what you do in your own home as long as it doesn’t harm anyone. But I know that there are others who believe differently, and as much as I think they may have the wrong idea, I know that they believe they are right and I am wrong. We take up opposite positions both thinking we are being the best person we can be.

This issue has become more and more clear to me in the last year with the heated discussions around Covid vaccinations. I’ve been vaccinated, but I know others who haven’t been and who have very convincing arguments why they refuse. I agree with many of those reasons. I also have friends and family who have very convincing arguments why it is paramount that as many people as possible get vaccinated. I agree with those reasons as well. By this time, it is very difficult for these people to hear each other’s arguments and fully acknowledge them, to fully understand them. There are feelings of resistance, irritation and fear on both sides, and the views become personal. I hear of friendships being severed over this.

Both of these sides believe they are doing the right thing. They are absolutely convinced that what the other side does is dangerous and irresponsible. They have an ideal in their line of vision, and only see people standing in the way. In some cases, those people become less human. The effect of polarization.

I don’t have a solution to this problem. I find that when it comes to Covid vaccines, I don’t really know where to land anymore. I think it’s horrible that people are losing their personal freedom and are forced into putting something in their bodies that they don’t want to. I think it’s equally horrible that others are being taken to the hospital and can’t get life-saving surgery because the intensive care units are full of Covid patients. (I know this to be true since my brother-in-law works in one of the biggest hospitals in the country.) And I refuse to condemn anyone for taking either of these stances. So I don’t take a stance myself, for either. Or I do, for both.

Idealism is about believing and doing what we think is right. The danger lies in believing that what is right and true is the same for everyone. We each have different windows through which we observe the world. We have different experiences, values and ideas. As NLP points out: we each have our own map, and the map is only a reflection of the actual territory. What the territory looks like exactly, is something we will never truly know. The closest we can get is by putting our map next to someone whose map looks very different. It allows you to notice the parts you forgot to fill out yourself.

From my own youth, I remember how easy it is to fall into extreme points of view. The world is complicated as a teenager. Your brain hasn’t quite developed enough to hold all those complications in consideration at the same time. When we grow older, however, we learn to entertain different points of view, and, if we’re practised, we can even learn to understand that our own point of view is only one among many. My thoughts are not more right than yours, they are just different.

I hope we learn to bridge the gaps that are created these days. I hope we come out of this pandemic without social scars that reverberate for decades like those of the post-WWII era. And I hope that those with ideals still stand up for what they believe in, with the tiny side note that they check from time to time where their possible blind spots might be and keep listening to those with whom they disagree.

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