Exit, voice, and duty

“Idealist” is a somewhat derogatory term.

There are, of course, those radicals who wear the badge with pride – flaunting their faith in hoping for the best in a world which seems to always be preparing for the worst.

But generally speaking, “idealistic” is often used as a synonym for “unrealistic.”

And perhaps it’s just the recent run of Man of La Mancha commercials, but this characterization seems somewhat unfair. I suppose it depends in large part on how you define an idealist.

Did Don Quixote de la Mancha try to reach the unreachable star because he thought he could? Or because it would be unchivalrousness to do less than try?

Should we be the change we want to see in the world, as Ghandi never actually said because that’s they only way to change the world, or because it’s our responsibility to constantly change ourselves to the best we can be?

In Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyaltyhe outlines “alternative ways of reacting to deterioration in business firms and, in general, to dissatisfaction with organizations: one, ‘exit,’ is for the member to quit the organization or for the customer to switch to the competing product, and the other, ‘voice,’ is for members or customers to agitate and exert influence for change ‘from within.'”

For Hirschman, loyalty mediates these two options. If you’re loyal you will stay and fight (voice), if you’re not loyal, you will peace out (exit).

I’d argue that an “idealist” is loyal. An idealist doesn’t have to believe they will win. An idealist doesn’t even have to believe that it’s possible to win.

But an idealist believes that it’s their duty to try. To exercise voice and forgo the option of exit. To fight with every breath for what they believe in, even when no one cares to listen.

If “idealist” is derogatory, its because these knights put us shame as they tilt at windmills with buckets on their heads. Because so often we choose to exit – through apathy or pragmatism – rather than to voice what we believe.

The challenges we face are complex. The forecast for success is gloomy. But the idealist knows this for certain: exit will get you nowhere.

If you feel a duty to confront these challenges – to fight the unfightable foe – then voice is the only option. You must chose to run where the brave dare not go.


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