What a Wonderful World: The Role of Idealism in Activism

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I'm a city girl who enjoys dancing in the rain, reading good books, singing (poorly) to my three dogs, and smashing the cisheteropatriarchy.

Social justice movements have been happening for a really long time.  From slave revolts in Haiti, to the rise of feminism, to child labor movements, to Marxism, there is nothing new about movements to organize against oppression. However, sometimes it feels like there’s very little to show for such a long history of revolution. Patriarchy still exists. Cisheteronormativity is still around. White supremacy is alive and well. Even though we have such a long history of movement-building and organizing, there’s still so much work to do. Like, so. Much. Work. Honestly, sometimes it feels like we’re wasting time. What’s the point of organizing if it seems like nothing changes? As people working in anti-oppression praxis, it’s easy—in fact, it’s almost inviting—to become apathetic.

I’ve met so many people who just “gave up on feminism because it was too exhausting.” Or, some people have said “[insert power structure here] is never going away, so just stop trying.” Or, “you’ll never be able to change everyone’s mind, so just stop while you still have energy.” Or, “You’ll always face backlash, and nothing will get done.” One guy even started talking about the etymology of the word “revolution,” and said that we’re always going to revolve back to the same place we’re at now.

Apathy is dangerous. It threatens the foundations—foundations built on centuries of struggle—of our movements. It threatens to stagnate us— to let us become content with modern times. The world isn’t that bad, right? Wrong.

Here’s the reality of what we’re dealing with: the violence that we’re organizing against—patriarchal violence, cisheteronormative violence, white supremacist violence, class violence, etc—are systems that have been around for a long time. We are dealing with much more than some privileged tool on reddit—we are dealing with a system built on oppression. We are dealing with structural violence. The violence we are fighting is an ideology sewn into the institutions we engage, the textbooks we read, the people around us. We are fighting a system that was never meant to include marginalized people in the first place. We are fighting power structures with centuries of experience in oppression.

That’s a lot. Structural violence is heavy and exhausting and a lot of work. However, we have to remember that every single movement in history is centered on an idealistic idea of what the world could look like. That’s why people started organizing in the first place—to create the world they wanted. Every revolutionary had an image of what they wanted our culture to be, and that’s what they worked towards. The idea that the work we have to do requires too much effort fuels the rise of apathy. It makes people become content in thinking that “the world we really want is too much work.” This is problematic: it means that as a movement, we’ll never be able to create the world we want because we’re trying to “be realistic about it.”  We don’t need to be realistic: we need to be idealistic about what we’re doing.  We need to be able to imagine the world we’re trying to create.

That said, social justice movements have still made a lot of progress.  Institutional reforms like voting rights, desegregation in schools, affirmative action, “yes means yes” laws, and reproductive justice for women have been integral to uplifting marginalized people.  Even though progress is happening slowly, if we look back 100, even 50 years, we’d be living in a completely different world.

Maybe it is naïve to think that one day, we will have smashed the white supremacist cisheteronormative patriarchy.  In fact, it’s definitely naïve to think that. Tearing down power structures doesn’t happen overnight. However, it’s important that we think about what a world without patriarchy/white supremacy/cisheteronormativity/other types of violence will look like. We can’t effectively organize if we can’t be naïve and idealistic about what we want the world to be.  If we’re “realistic,” we’ll become apathetic, and apathy will be the death of our movement. Becoming content with a not-perfect world will kill everything we’ve worked so hard to create.

The Riot Grrl Manifesto writes:


Drawing your inspiration from revolutionaries everywhere and from all eras, you have to believe, truly believe with all parts of you, that we are a revolutionary force. Remember that we are standing on the back of history, and carrying out the visions of the revolutionaries before us. Remember that you are part of a legacy—a big, naïve, idealistic, beautiful legacy of organizing against violence.  It is our job to carry through the vision of the perfect world. It is our job to be idealistic. It is our job to resist the enticement of apathy.  It is our job to continue to fight.