Saturday, November 20, 2010

Words, words, words.

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.
— attributed to Dante Alighieri. 
What I said on Thursday, regarding the difference between the cynical, populist parties and the more earnest, values-driven minor parties, goes for the general public at least as much. Indeed, the success of populism, tautological though it may appear to be in a democratic system, only exists because the hoi polloi are overly cynical about the process themselves. It is fashionable to view being committed to a particular ideal, let alone ideology, as both untenable and undesirable. Idealism is seen as simple naïveté, a denial of the deeply flawed world in which we find ourselves.

Yet if it were not for the flaws in the world, there would be no need for either ideal nor ideology. I am an idealist not because I insist that the world is not flawed, but because I can easily see that it is. Like the fatalist, I believe that a lot of things suck. Yet I am not a fatalist, because I believe that they don’t have to. Rather, I am an optimist, because I believe they can get better. Like the nihilist, I believe that nothing has inherent or intrinsic meaning; yet I am not a nihilist, because I don’t conclude from this that nothing has any meaning at all; rather, I am an existentialist, because I believe that what meaning we give things ourselves is supremely important. (Plenty of people forget this aspect of existentialism, and lump it in with nihilism; my dearest Quincy explains most excellently in the abovelinked entry exactly why this viewpoint is a load of bollocks.)

What do you believe in? We all believe in something. We might be wrong in a great many cases, but apathy is no better. The great horrors of history owe their existence to indifference as much as to malice. If you don’t care about anything, you are abdicating one of the most important privileges of being a part of society. But even belief itself is a lesser matter compared to the second question.

Do you act on your beliefs, and if not, in what sense can you honestly say you hold them? Do you go to church on Sunday and sing about caring for the poor, but lob a single bob into the charity tin and consider your obligations met? Do you want to see the rights of gays, or homeless communities, or children, upheld, yet still vote for whichever major party annoys you less (or promises you a bigger tax cut) and not bother considering the broader implications? Do you want more than anything to see the world, or own a house, or learn to cook, but can’t be bothered putting in the time and effort required, and wind up never leaving your own country, permanently renting, or stuck with bland staples and junk food?

I admit that I do struggle with this sort of thing myself; and when I try to do justice to my words I can overdo it and burn myself out. Moderation, and above all recognition of your limitations, remains crucial; at the end of the day, you can’t have everything. But even then, deciding how much you can afford to do, rather than just doing as you have always done because it’s made life bearable so far, is the biggest individual step in the right direction.

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