I’m back in North Carolina for a couple weeks now. And as I was driving around Durham this evening in my rental car, I listened to the BBC doing a long retrospective and discussion on the life of Nelson Mandela, who passed away less than a day ago.
I have to admit, Nelson Mandela has always felt a bit distant for me as a political figure; I probably grew up a generation too late to really appreciate what he meant to the world. I was 8 years old when he was released from prison; I was 12 when he became the President of South Africa. And even though I was vaguely aware that Big Important Things were happening in that part of the world, I didn’t actually understand them, or pay much attention to them.
But tonight, listening to the radio and hearing various interviewees talk about what Mandela meant to them personally, I couldn’t help but be moved. One particular quote of Mandela’s stood out to me, amongst many; part of a speech he gave after the assassination of politician and apartheid opponent Chris Hani.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Nelson Mandela was not only a leader, he was an idealist, especially after his release from prison. With a few words he could have likely sent South Africa tumbling into a civil war; instead he worked to be a uniter, to bring South Africans together. This can be seen in the quote above, and many others of Mandela’s. It can be seen in the events that inspired Invictus, in which he appeared on-field to present the trophy to South Africa’s mostly-white rugby team in 1995. Perhaps most powerfully, it can be seen in his decision to serve only one term as South Africa’s president. Unlike so many other revolutionary rulers, he had the courage to step down, and thus demonstrate his faith in the country he helped build. In that sense, Mandela was like George Washington, who I suspect was also fundamentally an idealist about the human condition.
A long time ago I made the decision to be an idealist over a realist. By which I mean I wanted to be focused, politically and socially, more on the ideal than on what people might or might not think was possible. The way I define it, an idealist fights and advocates for what they believe is right; a realist fights for what they believe is possible. A realist often gets bogged down by pessimism over the human condition, and spends a lot time worrying about what can be accomplished instead of fighting for what should be accomplished (or, if you’re a particularly strong idealist, what must be accomplished.)
Despite my terminology, I don’t actually think realists have a stronger grip on reality than idealists; rather they’re more focused on what they perceive to be current reality, as opposed to the idealist, who is more focused on their goals. Obviously, everyone who cares about the world has elements of both, but as someone who considers himself a strong social progressive, I’ve always preferred idealism over realism (or pessimism masquerading as realism).
When it comes to major victories in the history of social progress– the end of segregation; the suffragettes; the slow-but-steady recognition of gay marriage; the continued growth of feminism throughout the past decades– I feel like it’s often a victory of the idealists over the realists. Because even though many of the realists may support the cause the idealists are fighting for, they will still often drag their feet. “We’re moving too fast,” they might say, or “It’d be nice, but society won’t be able to handle the changes.”
And I definitely feel that dynamic playing out in today’s battles. In the fight against sexual assault and rape culture, the realist might say, “Well, of course we need to educate males, but boys will be boys…”
In the fight for gay rights, the realist might say, “Well, of course we want to improve gay rights, but we don’t want to move too fast…” (I’ve heard the latter used by serious pundits as an argument against court action.)
To use a recent real life example from an argument with an acquaintance of mine, his view (paraphrased) was pretty much “We should improve the culture of I.T. workplaces, but it’s just in men’s nature to sexualize their female counterparts…” My view, on the other hand, was “We need to change the culture so that sexualization and prejudice in the workplace is not tolerated.” What he sees as fundamental, I see as changeable. Sexism, racism, religious intolerance, homophobia, on all levels– I firmly believe that these are, and always have been, products of human culture, and that they can and will be eradicated, despite the naysaying realists.
And okay, maybe in some cases, it’s important to have realists around, to temper determination with a voice of caution, and to make sure that even the most idealistic social progressives have a plan. But all in all, I feel like there are more than enough realists in the world. I’d rather be an idealist. And if someone tells me that I view the human condition too optimistically, that I argue for things which are too difficult or unrealistic to achieve– well, that’s a criticism I’m prepared to embrace wholeheartedly. Hell, I’d engrave that on my tombstone.
But in people like Nelson Mandela, I see concrete evidence that sometimes the idealists really do win, and win big. That society improves, despite the naysayers and the pessimists and even the realists who support you but are nevertheless afraid of change, or just can’t believe your dream is possible. Strive for what you believe in, and you really can win.
Rest in peace, Mr. Mandela.