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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

When Compromise Means Defending the Indefensible, It’s Time to Embrace Our Idealism

My friend and colleague, Mary Pat Champeau, brought over a Netflix video for a few of us to watch at the Institute for Humane Education. It was called The Girl in the Café, and I figured she’d just landed upon a really entertaining film and wanted to share it. “Just send it back when you’re done,” she said. I wasn’t supposed to be home that evening because of my Aikido class, but my back was hurting, and so I decided not to go to class and watch the film instead. I’m so glad I did.

The Girl in the Café is certainly an entertaining film, but its entertainment value is trumped by its great message. Revolving around the G8 summit and the Millennium Goals to (among other things) eradicate extreme poverty, the take home point is that we must stop dithering and compromising our values; we must stop defending the indefensible; we must stop conflating idealism with utopianism; and we must commit to meeting goals that are, beyond a doubt, achievable, if we harness our will to achieve them.

The next morning, I read an AP article about farm groups joining together to fight bad publicity and improve farmers’ images. In the article, Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, is quoted saying the following:

“So often people advocate for a utopian world and it’s not doable…. Feeding the world requires us to kick up some dirt and create a few odors. That is just a reality of producing food and fiber that may not fit in with the utopian vision…. The vast majority of people are reasonable people, they just need to know that you can’t have the perfect world.”

What Cornely is implicitly defending are egregious farming practices in which sentient beings are crammed into cages and crates in which they can barely move, routinely mutilated without painkillers or anesthesia, forced to live (and die) under conditions so inhumane that were such atrocities perpetrated on dogs or cats the people responsible would be thrown in jail. He is also implicitly defending practices that are causing such horrific pollution that wildlife, too, routinely die by the thousands, as waste lagoons burst and their contents spill into waterways.

Having watched The Girl in the Café the night before, Cornely’s words were particularly cynical. By resorting to utopianism as the alternative to institutionalized cruelty and destruction in our modern farming practices, he tries to appeal to those “reasonable” people among us who might be swayed that striving for a more humane, sustainable, and healthy world is either impossible or downright silly.

Idealism is too often perceived as a weakness, a form of immaturity, a sign that a person is not yet wise. Yet Martin Luther King, Jr., was an idealist, and so was Mahatma Gandhi. Nobel Peace Prize winners, Wangari Maathai and Aung San Suu Kyi, are also idealists. Even the founding fathers of the United States were idealists, and without William Wilberforce’s persistent idealism, what might have happened in the British Parliament during the endless debates about the African slave trade? Today, it is the tireless efforts of millions of changemakers across the globe – fueled by a belief in a better world; fueled by idealism – that is creating systemic change leading us closer to peace and closer to restoration. Without idealists who envision a safer, saner, more equitable world and who are willing to work toward it, the fate of billions of people, animals, and the ecosystems upon which we all depend, would be far worse.

Cornely and the Farm Bureau fighting reforms follow a long line of people who dig in their heels to protect the status quo, no matter how destructive and unjust that status quo is. They prey on our fears and doubts, our inertia and apathy, our greed and our self-centeredness. They urge us to feel superior if we are “pragmatists,” even though there is nothing pragmatic about practices that cause harm and suffering and misery.

It’s time for all of us to embrace the idealist within and refuse to succumb to the messages that would keep us inert. This does not mean we should be utopians or refuse to compromise when compromise serves the ends we seek. It does not mean that we should perceive the world – or other people – in either/or terms, taking sides rather than seeking viable solutions. It means that we should envision the world that we have the power to create and take all the necessary steps to achieve it, practically, and with every ounce of our idealism intact.

And we must nurture our children’s idealism, ensuring that they never fall for the myth that wisdom lies in abandoning your ideals and that “reasonableness” is a sign of maturity. Instead, we must raise them to be solutionaries who use their great minds in service with their loving hearts to change unjust and inhumane systems, understanding that their idealism can and must be harnessed effectively and practically for the good.

For a better world,

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm and Above All, Be Kind


About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


13 thoughts on “When Compromise Means Defending the Indefensible, It’s Time to Embrace Our Idealism

  1. My father would be all over this, and as I’ve aged, I’ve come to see this wisdom of his ideals. You are right, we cannot compromise our vision because we feel like we live in a flawed world. We must always work toward the ideal world.

    How can we communicate this to other educators without coming across as “holy than thou art”? What worries me is that when we push for an ideal world, the cynics and realists of the world will push against our vision, whether or not they believe in the final goal. Some people, when they see someone working toward a vision will join sides with that vision, while others will pick it apart and try to destroy the vision, perhaps only because of their own insecurities.

    Posted by dwees | February 7, 2011, 5:16 am
    • I think it is always possible – though sometimes very challenging – to communicate without coming across as holier than thou. In the film, the “girl in the cafe” does this powerfully and beautifully. Take a look. There will always be people who poo-poo idealism. So be it. Onward we strive knowing, as Margaret Mead, wrote so eloquently that we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

      Posted by Zoe Weil | February 8, 2011, 7:35 pm
  2. Thank you! I needed to read this today. It’s a hard balance between working towards an ideal and not getting caught up in all the roadblocks and responding to the nay-sayers along the way. On the toughest of days I retreat backwards and try to make one small change in my smallest circle of influence so that I can remind myself that even a small change is a change. I also believe that the discomfort of others equates to hope because at least they are thinking about the issue at hand.

    Posted by mom2mikey | February 7, 2011, 8:24 am
  3. This was a very intersting topic to read. The world needs more idealists because without these people who stand up for what they believe in our Nation would be lost. You are absolutely correct it is time for all of us to embrace the idealist within and refuse to succumb to the messages that would keep us inert. It is not wrong to think realistically about certain issues but for others sometimes you need to go outside the box.

    Posted by Bailey Abston | February 7, 2011, 4:35 pm
  4. This is a good post to read today. Lots of little moments outside my influence unfolded in ways I wish they hadn’t. I’ll head to work tomorrow more determined to act idealistically, rather than aloofly.

    School transformation will take much more idealism than Utopianism.

    What lever does an idealist need to move a system? What conversations should a classroom teacher start amongst others and with admin?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 7, 2011, 8:31 pm
  5. Hi Zoe,

    Thanks for this. Like everyone else, I appreciate it and found it refreshing and important. I am reminded how important it is to stay attentive to the terms of the discourse, the “framing” of the problem, in George Lakoff terms, as we think about what’s possible. I especially remember Cornel West talking about how the phrase “politically correct” had become coded to mean some insignificant, pandering and insincere stance towards people who were oversensitive to some imagined wrongs. This is simply a way of cartoonizing systemic racism, sexism, centuries of privilege and dominance. I hope you’ll keep bringing examples of this discourse framing here.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 8, 2011, 9:53 am
  6. Thanks so much Zoe,
    What I loved most about this post is the way in which you described not only holding onto our ideals and giving examples of extrodinary people who did so, but also, how you challenged us to teach our children/students to be solutionaries, looking for the applicable what of infusing the ideals, rather than settling for a more “mature” harmful reality.

    Your post, could, and should be posted, in every teacher’s classroom across the United States and internationally.

    Posted by Casey Caronna | February 8, 2011, 7:35 pm
  7. ah.. bravo Zoe.. everyone.

    i’ve struggled with this my whole life. until about 3 years ago i started aggressively being me. seeking out unlikely people and books and gatherings and thoughts. previous to that i pretty much did as was expected. (and i’ll take responsibility for that.. they were my perceived expectations.)
    i remember letting my idealism leak from time to time, only to get that look, and i’d draw it all back in. so that i might continue my strenuous pursuit of a compliant production. (again – much of the compliancy was self-driven as i continually opted out of my will to gracefully question everything.)

    so now, with a boldness i wouldn’t have imagined just 3 years ago, (and i must add – much of which has come from all of you) i urge us all to

    1) be bold: by realizing that we do live in a reliability-oriented world, if we expect that, it’s much easier to, again, gracefully, hold our ground. i loved and learned a great deal from watching Jaime Escalante’s persona over and over in Stand and Deliver. any roadblocks he faced he took in as info, yet wasted no energy on a rebuttle, by simply replying, yup, that’ll do it. i hear that phrase often in my head. i hear a lot of people in my head. t

    2) play offense: i think we could have changed the world by now if we didn’t spend so much time and money and energy on defense. look at our schools alone, so much is spent on administrative jobs/paperwork as proof that we are following the rules, rules/policies that most of us don’t even believe in. David Wiley said in a recent future of ed webinar, with the tech we have, we could be educating the world, what stands in the way is policy.
    so i say – bravo to Will Richardson’s back to school night. let’s move forward, start informing our parents/communities with info such as this:

    i’m breathing you all in.

    Posted by monika hardy | February 12, 2011, 12:20 pm


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