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.

24 comments on “The Humorlessness of Idealists
  • Oh dear. Storm approaching. You have impugned Good Works, Good Intentions, and Good Thoughts. And starting with Fair trade coffee!!!

    I was involved in the first wave of the Feminist movement. NOW meetings, protest marches, non-shaving. God, how GRIM we all were. GRIM, GRIM, GRIM. No one seemed to remember that the Counter Culture movement grew due to the FUN. It was FUN. Sex and drugs was FUN.

    I’m 54 and I am so proud of the younger generation. Most I work with see right through the seriousness, the pretentiousness, the preciousness of today’s “movements.”

    Someone said “Puritanism is the fear that someone somewhere is having fun and it is determined to stop it.” Greens are puritans. Hell, I see more puritanism in the left than the right now. It’s the left that wants to tell me what not to say,(verbten words) what not to eat, meat) how to throw away my trash, (recycle or else) what I can drive, (MUST BE A HYBRID OR A BICYCYLE) what I can wear, (no leather)……..

  • (assuming I am responding to a serious comment here, and not one said in jest)

    “It’s the left that wants to tell me what not to say,(verbten words) what not to eat, meat) how to throw away my trash, (recycle or else) what I can drive, (MUST BE A HYBRID OR A BICYCYLE) what I can wear, (no leather)……..”

    Cmon, please. I know a good proportion of people on this blog lean to the right, but is it really necessary to throw around overly board sweeping half-truths and steriotypes like this?

    It would be just as easy to paint the right as moralising religious zealots, young people, people of African or any descent in any which way you want.

    Errr. Wait, what was this blog topic about again? 🙂

  • Obama is one of the bigger idealists in the campaign, and he often cracks jokes, etc etc. Just sayin.’

    Heck, in a different way, Bush is very much an idealist…he’s pretty jolly too.

    I guess idealism and being sanctimonius and uber-serious don’t really go hand in hand for me.

  • Ben, I’ve got nothing but love for you my friend, but I think you’re being a bit disingenuous here:

    I would argue that quite a bit of what I read on your blog, and read in your book (and thoroughly enjoyed) was idealism. The notion that a kid or a business can change the world, or even some small fraction of it, is not optimism, its idealism in my book. [You can correct me if I mischaracterize your situation here, but you’re too prime of an example not to use]: It seems to me that you don’t change the organizational structure of local governments (or accomplish any feat) by being positive, but by being idealistic – by thinking bigger than it’s rational to think.

    And I think that in a generation that’s as passive and apathetic as ours, any idealism is a good sign. Obviously, most of us hate people whose idyllic pursuit of a cause is filled with the whole self-adoring, holier-than-thou crap. But fundamentally, I think everybody who wants to make the world a better place has a little of that arrogance and self-love in them, it’s just that if they’re smart, they know how unattractive a quality it is and they choose not to show it. But I definitely think that most of the “self-less” heroes of history had visions of self-glorification to keep them going through their struggles.

    Also, progressive activism is just too easy a target: our generation is very conservative (compared to its predecessors) and there is a really strong desire to stray from hippie-idealism that (some of) our parents’ generation took part in. For every kid I know who buys fair-trade coffee, or tries to help the planet by conserving energy, I’d say I know 3 or 4 who’d belittle/degrade him for it. It really isn’t cool to care about stuff, or to invest yourself in something that isn’t for self-improvement.

    As far as I’m concerned, a bit of idealism never hurt anybody. I agree that certain perversions of it can be annoying, but fundamentally what’s wrong with wanting to stop genocide? or support a business that doesn’t exploit its employees? or work towards a more sustainable future? Will we achieve the desired changes in our society sooner if nobody voices an opinion of dissent or dissatisfaction?

    I guess the thing that has me riled about this post is that you’re someone who’s taken chances for something he believed in, and it (seems like it) has paid off hugely for you. How do scorn somebody else for a politically- (as opposed to business-) oriented version of the same thing?

    Alright, those are my random, semi-coherent thoughts at 4am. Sorry for the novel of a response (when I should be writing a paper). Good post topic


  • Thank’s for speaking out what was on my mind. I used to live together with a history student who was always “on the right side” of political issues and took herself very seriously.

    The worst thing is that you can’t even debate with those people on a rational basis. If you even dare to mention such things like the
    Copenhagen Consensus
    they go beserk. For me it beares a lot of resemblances with religion, with all those taboo topics and holy truths you are not allowed to question.

  • I take it you object to idealistic social activists not on the grounds that their goals are misguided but because you think their tactics don’t work. More specifically, the quality you find distasteful in activists is the slightly delusional belief that individuals working together change the world from the bottom-up.

    Two thoughts.

    1 – This post is the virtual equivalent of a 4×4 picket sign in a sea of colorful opinions. How ironic that you’d *blog* about this particular view. Some might even call your post humorless and sanctimonious.

    2 – You seem to be forgetting that most people–including those who don’t demonstrate–lack efficient problem-solving skills and vision. I have the same gripe with corporate monkeys.

  • Steve, you write:

    “I take it you object to idealistic social activists not on the grounds that their goals are misguided but because you think their tactics don’t work. More specifically, the quality you find distasteful in activists is the slightly delusional belief that individuals working together change the world from the bottom-up.”

    I don’t find those two sentences connected. I agree with your first sentence. I don’t agree with your second sentence. I don’t find the idea that individuals working together can change the world distasteful; in fact, I find it wonderful.

  • The ‘humorless’ aspect rings very true. I’ve had a friend sinking further and further into extremism on all fronts (eco, anti-capitalist, yoga, etc). I started to get really worried when suddenly we couldn’t joke about these thinks. Previously we’d been able to exchange mutual jabs at our chosen lifestyles, mocking the stereotypes of hippies or biz folks. But now the attitude was “you’re part of the solution or part of the problem.” I’d only previously encountered that mentality among religious fundamentalists. And you’re right: when people take themselves too seriously, they can’t communicate to the outside world.

  • Ben:

    The activist tactic you consider misguided is the practice of gathering, at the grassroots level, and preaching to each other while annoying innocent passersby. My guess is that you’d prefer something more creative from them, like social entrepreneurship or other forms of creative problem solving that rely on wits rather than numbers.

    I had two points.

    My first point is that you probably aren’t writing about this issue because you believe doing so will resolve it; you’re writing about it because it’s on your mind. If that’s so, and you understand your motives, you aren’t demonstrating to effect change, you’re demonstrating to demonstrate, and what distinguishes you from the people that annoy you? If that’s the case, but you /don’t/ understand your motives, who are you to comment on the irony of their actions? And if it’s not the case–which I doubt–then you’re as delusional as the demonstrators.

    My second point was that the lack of creativity you see in low-level activists isn’t unique to low-level activists; it just gets to you because they are so publicly ineffectual. But the truth is that behind the scenes there is something more tragic about your peers who labor under the misguided belief that they will make any difference as some corporate foot soldier.

  • As usual, the reason that discussions end up in ad hominem attacks is the result of conflicting assumptions and definitions.

    At the heart of this discussion is the definition of “idealism.”

    From what I can tell, Ben defines idealism as a belief in particular principles or actions without a consideration of practicality.

    It’s not that Ben is advocating that you not believe that the world can be a better place, rather, he wants you to examine whether or not the actions you take are actually going to help.

    For example, does walking around with a “Save Darfur” T-shirt actually impact anyone, or is it just a fashion statement or a way to feel better about not taking more effective action?

    My mom believes in constantly nagging me about things. When I explain to her that her nagging is unlikely to get me to change my behavior, and that she should try subtler but more effective tactics, she says that she loves me too much to do so.

    Now that is the sign of an idealist* as defined above.

    Neither liberals, conservatives, classical liberals (libertarians), or concerned moms have a monopoly on pragmatism. It’s something we should all aspire to.

  • While I agree with your basic premise that santimonious windbags are annoying, I would like to point out that a sanctimonius windbag with a sense of humour is not much better.

    Case in point: Caitlin Flanagan. While she is a talented, funny writer; I generally avoid her motherhood articles, because beneath the funny, self-deprecating anecdotes, you can still sense her sanctimoniousness coming through.

    Sanctimoniousness has more to do with holding very specific ideas about how things should be and being blinkered to the obvious inconsistencies or hypocrisies in your position and being judgemental about how other people might make other decisions in contrast to your own. Layering a veneer of humour over it does not make it any less irritating.

  • In the 1970s, my brother and I went to a campus feminist meeting. Afterwards, I expressed some disagreement with the content, and he responded, “Sometimes I think you’re not really a feminist.” Now that was funny. He considered himself more of a feminist than I (a female) even though I noticed that each Thanksgiving, he joined the men sitting in front of the TV instead of helping the women who were cleaning up.

    My former therapist had an interesting opinion of extremists. He said that they help the rest of us form our (more moderate) opinions. I’m extreme in some ways, but I tend to keep that to myself–e.g., vegetarianism. Why would I try to persuade others to be vegetarians when it’s a lot more work and they actually like meat? But that doesn’t mean that I don’t (usually secretly) regard all meat-eaters as unthinking, unenlightened, and slightly deranged. Instead, I like to say that I came from a long line of meat-eaters–if they hadn’t eaten meat, I wouldn’t be here.

  • Ah, nobody will ever blame Ben for not stirring the pot ;-), another nicely provocative post!

    The crux of this debate for me is here: “Barraging the audience with statistics, gruesome photos, or heart-wrenching stories is not enough, and *may even be counterproductive*.”

    If these practices (humorlessness / sanctimoniousness) _are actually counterproductive_, then by all means let’s quash them. Into the ground. Take no prisoners. “You people should shut up and do something useful with your lives instead of causing harm with by being all sanctimonious and serious.”

    On the other hand, if they’re on the right track in intent, but simply ineffective in tactics, then how would meeting them at their own level by writing this [humorless, perhaps sanctimonious] post that rails against them accomplish anything?

    Better to tell a joke and offer an idea that these devoted folks could run with, I say. It’s tough to be creative when weighed down by the emotional impact of wholly confronting the reality of, say, machete warfare. Maybe they need some emotionally disconnected outsiders such as yourself to provide them with ideas or plans that would be a more effective use of their time and energy?

    If Darfur is worth saving and coffee farmer’s lives are worth improving, then let’s figure out some fun / effective ways to do something about it before bashing those who try, but don’t really know how.

    • YES!

      Judgment is the same all the world over.

      “You’re an idiot because you’re impractical! I hate idealists because they are all exactly like this one person I knew once.”
      – or –
      “You’re a jerk because you don’t care about everyone!”

      Most of us are not completely selfless, self-aware, and otherwise perfectly rational all the time. Sometimes, we may lack perspective or hope or levity or a certain skill or knowledge of best practices. So when this happens, let’s accost each other and maybe the resulting personal insecurity will improve the national economic situation.

      Or let’s appreciate others for what they do have, and pick up the slack when it’s ours to notice.

  • If you happen to be leading an idealistic movement, you’re faced with a very strange dilemma: How can you stop the humorlessness effect?

    Lecturing people on how they must avoid humorlessness isn’t going to work.

    You can’t practice humor out of a desire to be virtuous. I’ve known rationalists who have this idea that they ought to be able to laugh at themselves, and pursue it very earnestly – making sure that everyone sees how carefully they ridicule themselves. Worst of all, their jokes aren’t funny. Surely this is not the Way.

    I even know some people who, as far as I can tell, have no senses of humor at all. But they didn’t ask to be born that way, so what’s an idealist to do?

    It’s easy to call for laughter when you happen to have been born with a strong sense of humor.

    • Levity is a skill and its also a byproduct of security — through a sense of mutual trust and supportive relationships.

      I’ve noticed in myself a loss of humor both when I moved away from like-minded friends and when I became more informed of global current events. I realize how essential humor is and I’m searching for inspiration from those precious few who seem to simultaneously have passionate conviction and lightness.

      Idealists have a complicated relationship with humor. I’ve heard “If you laugh about it, you’ll never change it.” The same joke is different coming from different people, depending on the mutuality or callousness behind it.

      Also, I’m reminded of the debate between Lindy West and Jim Norton about rape jokes ( Jim Norton argued that a comedian’s job is to make people laugh, by any means possible. Laughter from the audience is justification enough. To hold a comedian accountable for a joke is tantamount to censorship. These are extremist, reductionist views: no accountability or censorship. Surely, there is a middle path.

      Not helping is the pervasive connection between comedy and cynicism and a culture that is often intolerant of idealism, making much popular humor and inside joke which excludes idealists. To be positive and funny without being overstated or sentimental… that’s the holy grail.

      I’m seeking out a community of people who share my values where I am to alleviate my defensiveness from not fitting in. I’m actively pursuing humor by making it a priority… being aware of what makes me laugh without seeming to ask for my complicity.

      It’s absurd to pursue levity with so much gravity and intention. But hey. What are you gonna do?

  • The failure of many types of idealism is that too many idealists try to tweak the wrong emotions by making people feel sad or scared. This lasts for a while, but followers become cynical or sad and ineffective and the cause dies.

    I used to read a lot about genocide and Darfur, and it contributed to my feelings of depression. Romeo Dallaire’s assistant on the book “Shake Hands with the Devil” (about the genocide in Rwanda) even committed suicide after the book was finished.

    Just look at this section from the Wikipedia entry for the Save Darfur Coalition:
    “It is a coalition of more than 180 faith-based, advocacy, and human rights organizations designed to raise public awareness and to mobilize an effective united response to the atrocities that threaten the lives of some two million people in Darfur. To date, it has been unsuccessful.”

    hmm, I wonder why it’s been unsuccessful. Probably because everything they talk about makes people feel sad and depressed!

    The key to stopping genocide, improving womens’ rights, fixing poverty, etc is to make it fun for the people who are involved in fixing those problems.

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