The Realism of Idealism

By Tess

The week before last KW Hungry Minds debated torture. I know, torture is painful and humiliating and who could be pro torture? However, torture is still used as a tool of modern warfare and it finds support among many of the talking heads you come across on TV. One side cries out in horror “We are America and America doesn’t torture” and the other side argues that, while it is distasteful, America needs to not be afraid to use torture when the situation demands it. In order to understand what is behind the very existence of a debate on what would seem, on the surface, fairly obviously wrong, Hungry Minds took the angle of whether we should be looking at such decisions on the basis of idealism or realism and what that would mean for what we say about the use of torture. I came away from the debate with the surprising realization that realism and idealism don’t have to be that far apart and the realist in me can safely let the idealist in me to have a happy place in my life.


Before attending the debate, I brought up the subject with a friend that I would label as being as much of a capital L liberal as you can find anywhere. He surprised me by saying that he defined an idealist is someone who has an opinion in spite of the facts. For him, a realist is one who bases opinion on the facts and he added that both assume a lack of ignorance and the presence of facts. As I looked at the subject of torture and other hot topics that pit idealism against realism, I was equally surprised at my cynicism when it came to the pronouncements of the idealist camp, scoffing at the concept that some things are wrong simply because they are wrong without having to back that up with real world analysis and reasons.  A little too much like religious dogmatism for my liking.


I was very happy that during the debate I came across the seed of a hypothesis that may help me to have my idealist cake and eat it too. At a moment in the discussion when Samir had brought up a comparison between things done in North America to the actions of governments in the Middle East, Czeryll asserted that if she had to trust a government, which she feels she does in the modern world, she would rather depend on the governments found in Canada or the U.S. than those of Syria or Saudi Arabia. That got me thinking about why we trust and what it means to trust. My mind immediately thought, do I trust them not to harm me in anyway? Do I trust that I won’t be tortured? Well, wait –if it is okay in my realist world for them to use torture at any point, then why couldn’t it be used on me?


The realist in me then saw that perhaps the idealist absolutes have a practical side in that they protect my own interests as well. It’s pretty much The Golden Rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you as a very sane long-road political policy. If the realist takes a look at where policies can lead, the ever-bending arc of history, then perhaps they can find value in what they may see as simple impractical concepts adhered to by the idealist. With this still-forming hypothesis rattling around in my head, I am looking forward to the upcoming debate on whether or not personal privacy really matters in the face of threats to national security.     

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