The Humorlessness of Idealists

Caitlin Flanagan is one of the funniest, most penetrating writers on feminist issues. And she has range. See her on MySpace predators, or on the supposed oral sex epidemic on college campuses.

In the latest Atlantic ($) she rips into Hillary Clinton. Along the way she says Hillary has the "worst of the traits that often mark idealists (humorlessness, sanctimoniousness) combined with the worst expediency and hypocrisy of her husband."

Her point about the humorlessness and sanctimoniousness of idealists caught my eye. I consider myself optimistic but not idealistic.

College is full of idealistic 20 year-olds. Particularly the activist variety. You know, people who walk around with "Save Darfur" t-shirts, drinking "Fair Trade" coffee (what a joke), munching on organic nuts from Trader Joe’s.

One of the reasons I dislike stereotypical activist types is the holier-than-thou aura they project. Whether fighting for Darfur or racial equality here at home, the leaders of the local movements I’ve been exposed to take themselves (and their movements) way too seriously.

Barraging the audience with statistics, gruesome photos, or heart-wrenching stories is not enough, and may even be counterproductive. Expressing intense moral outrage and expecting others to feel similarly guilty automatically is naive. I remember a National Organization for Women assembly at my high school — everyone left feeling depressed about the oppression of women. But it didn’t move us to act or think hard about how to change anything.

With so many just causes competing for the average Joe’s attention, I would recommend that the social activist idealists of the world spend more time thinking through specific communication tactics, among them the implicit suggestion from Flanagan: loosen up.

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