In Defense of Utopia

When I first came to Stanford, I had high hopes for the diverse intellectual atmosphere I would encounter here. And although I have met some incredibly bright and interesting people, I feel we have lost the art of discussion around campus. Conversations lack intellectual idealism and tend to narrow viewpoints to simple binaries, leaving little room for nuance. We judge ideas solely on their practicality, and have a tendency to dismiss as out of hand controversial ideologies, decreasing our ability to effectively evaluate ideas, especially those ideas we disagree with. To put it bluntly, we seek comfort, not intellectual rigor, from our discussions both inside and outside the classroom. But in so doing, we leave our opinions unchallenged, and with it, the ability to both defend and criticize our views – a tool we cannot afford to lose at a university.

Many Stanford students unapologetically dismiss any idea they fear is impractical. When discussing a theory, I frequently observe classmates immediately draw a difference between theory and practice, and judge the theory by its applicability before considering its intellectual value. This practice prevents a full consideration of the theory by confining it to the degree that it seems applicable. As scholars, we must evaluate an idea by what it offers and what kind of vision it demands. Ideas that appear unfeasible often contribute to our intellectual development and carve different, better worlds we can aspire to. For instance, it may very hard to implement an international justice system operating by universal standards, but this would be highly desirable. This orientation of international justice would require countries to agree on the principles that govern the system, as well as the mechanisms that enact its policies. However, this ostensible impracticability does not undermine its value. Such a system would help prevent crimes against humanity like genocide, war crimes, and torture, and give countries the legal force to respond more quickly and effectively. Like global equality, a internationally integrated form of international justice may never be fully realized, but this does not mean we should not enshrine it as a guiding principle.

When we dismiss valuable, but perhaps impractical, theories, we lose ideals that the status quo can strive towards. Intellectual idealism is an important factor in global development, and can initiate movements that contribute to the structure and moral development of society. Witness only the great strides made by women’s suffrage (advanced by both protestations and brave women authors and philosophers), secularism, and anti-racial segregation movements. Were the ideas spearheaded by these movements not considered impracticable once too? As political theorist Ayelet Shachar put it, “many of the ideas that we now hold dear were deemed widely utopian before they transformed our world.” (Birthright Lottery, 2009).

Academia, particularly, should hold these ideals, as scholars are some of the primary influencers in areas such as politics, international relations, science, and law. If intellectuals set low standards, progress made in the real-world arena will be even lower.  Although the general public often views academia as an ivory tower divorced from reality, scholars still ground their principles on their study of the world and their ideas often profoundly influence society over time. Take Fanon for instance. He was the first person to propose economy of violence – that is that structural violence exists.  A lot of the language we use today derives from his book The Wretched of the Earth.

We particularly avoid impractical ideas that are seen by controversial. Socialism is a prime case of this. American students tend to dismiss socialist ideas without considering their intrinsic value, thereby allowing prejudice to prevent intellectual progress. This is, moreover, damaging as socialist ideas could prove profoundly beneficial to the modern world. It is, after, all, self-evident that stark differences in opportunities are undesirable in any society, and we as the Stanford community are very familiar with one of the instances of this stark inequality: homelessness in Bay Area. Homelessness can also be seen as a result of the lack of an efficient social security net. Socialism, most frequently seen as an idealistic and controversial ideology, provides fundamental solutions to these issues from a position outside our current political imagination. And one does not have to be a hardcore leftist to incorporate socialist ideals, as is borne out by the fact that legions of Western European and Scandinavian states have adopted light versions of socialism through measures such as national healthcare systems. Certain elements of a controversial and idealistic ideologies can be and have been incorporated to profoundly improve a society.

More generally, because students limit the material they analyze, they are left with binaries instead of a whole range of ideas. Complicated issues demand complicated answers. Having a diversity of opinions aids students in developing original, nuanced ideas of their own. Instead of having two-fold options, students would have more innovative answers to questions by putting various thoughts into conversations.

While we may accept that entirely dismissing theories verges on the anti-intellectual, one might also point out that disregarding practicality has led to poor consequences. Instead, I suggest we first evaluate ideas on their intellectual merits and then work on their feasibility. In so doing, we can improve the practicability of ideas without dismissing them as invaluable.

Although this piece is limited to my short time here at Stanford as a freshman, lacklustre conversations are a phenomenon I pretty consistently experience, be it in class, section, dorm, or even the meme page. I hope that Stanford community will move away from labeling thoughts as unattainable, rejecting ideas solely on the basis of practicability, and dismissing diverse ideologies as utopic without actually critically engaging with these theories. If we want to make world a better place, we need to reinvigorate some intellectual vitality. We cannot afford to dismiss ideas when they could be our light in the darkness.


Gülin Ustabas

Photograph: The International Court of Justice. Credit: Alkan Boudewijn de Beaumont Chaglar, January 25, 2005


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