I am an incredibly opinionated and passionate individual. There’s a reason I write these columns, and my friends and loved ones just expect me to have a complicated and specific take for just about anything. One thing I’ve noticed recently, however, is how cynical and hopeless some of my friends are about the future. Multiple friends, roommates and family members have heard me wax poetic about the idea of a more egalitarian society, and the steps I believe we need to take to get there. They all reply with some variation of “Viral, you’re a bold dreamer, but that’s never gonna happen.”
I always find this argument of “being realistic” to be interesting. I wouldn’t consider myself a pure idealist. In fact, I primarily focus my attention to making direct material changes in my community. But these actions are all part of a grander vision of a better world. I do not imagine, nor should I imagine, that my individual actions will single-handedly change everything for the better. Quite the opposite actually, which is why I spend a sizeable amount of time trying to energize others to get involved and help me in my quest for justice for all.
But at an even more basic level, I push back against calls for “realism” because I’ve failed to see it work. Historically, social movements have not succeeded by asking for piecemeal concessions. They succeed when they transform the consciousness of a society, laying bare injustices that cannot be simply tweaked but instead must be abandoned wholesale.
The abolitionists who took power after the American Civil War were not content with merely ending the expansion of slavery or with buying the freedom of all the slaves from the slaveowners. They demanded the immediate freedom of all the slaves. The suffragettes weren’t content with women merely having a vote in local elections. They wanted universal suffrage.
Imagine if the brave teenagers of the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins had accepted a compromise of “half the lunch counter seats will be white, half will be black.” If Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid activists accepted being allowed to vote for some of the parliamentary seats, but not all.
Those sorts of concessions seem ludicrous to us, because as a society, we have not only conceded the moral strength of these movements’ claims, but we have shown that it is possible to fundamentally reorder society. We possess the ability to transform society. What we lack is the imagination.
My great-great-grandfather was active in the Indian independence movement. While I can’t know for sure, it’s pretty likely that he faced detractors from his family and friends. People almost certainly told him that though they agreed the British were terrible, nothing was going to change. Why have hope?
I don’t know what he must of thought of his efforts when he neared the end of his life. He passed a few years before Partition, never living to see the free India he spent years fighting for. If he could see me now, I hope he would be proud of how far our people have come since the days of British rule. He could not have imagined how much the world would change, but he was committed to a movement that saw radical change as necessary.
I personally think a lot of people who get involved in electoral politics fall into the trap of thinking that because most of modern government is technocratic tinkering, that’s how everyday people understand the world. I think this is the reason so many pundits and mainstream media figures were unable to see Trump succeeding; they refused to believe that simple clear messaging could rally people.
I would not want to be mistaken for approving of his policies, as I very sincerely do not and am generally distrustful of all politicians. I do, however, have faith in working people coming together and demanding exactly what we need from the unjust system holding us all back.
When I look inside the belly of our nation’s collective beast, I see a nightmarish collection of horrors. Generations of injustice, destruction and violence. I look ahead to the future and see our time is running out fast to halt the worst damages of climate change.
A past of violence and devastation, a future of catastrophe. I can’t help but think that if we wish to live in a moral and just society, perhaps being realistic will mean demanding the impossible.
Viral Mistry is a fourth-year biology and cognitive science double major who is also minoring in chemistry, history and philosophy. In his free time, he enjoys drinking good union-made beer, reading academic non-fiction and watching Vine compilations on YouTube.