by rhod v. nuncio
Rhetoric: Idealism vs. Realism
It is important to discuss the cultural implications of youth’s idealism. There is a compelling urge to delineate facts from fiction, practice from theory as regards understanding the idealism of the youth.
It can be said that youth’s idealism is the antithesis of cultural degradation and social pathologies. This can be said in a positive note; however, the point here is that idealism can also lead us to escapism or a quixotic quest in futility. Still to make it easier to understand, idealism is the contrast of realism.
Realism is the contemporaneity of conditions. It is the equivalence of truth as it happens “today”, “now”, “in the present”. Thus, locating this realism in our culture and society, we may have to qualify first our assessments and the tools we use to assess things. Here are some. First, the assessment is that social or cultural realism in one extreme can give us the ensuing problems that we face today. When we talk about real condition, it is equivalent in saying “what’s the problem?” It is as if real events do not involve a sense of harmony, peace, order and, yes, happiness. Realism shows us the landscape of the dark side of humanity. We are confronted by daily doses of workloads, unfinished business, and insurmountable problems. Such assessment can be seen in the literary works of F. Sionil Jose, the author of The Pretenders, that capture the existential burden of one person to live and suffer, to witness and die (or shall we say commit suicide) amidst the absurdity of “real life”. This is a sample of literary assessment along with other great works of Jose Rizal, Amado Hernandez, Edgardo Reyes, Lualhati Bautista, Fanny A. Garcia, and many others. They are social realist writers who use their imagination and creativity through their pen and paper as tools for unveiling the truth of the moment, the truth in all our social concerns. Their idealism can be found in their self-realization, in the way they transgress the boundaries of facts and fiction to capture a piece of the reality out there. Henceforth, the longing to change society is crystallized in a realist point of view layered in their idealistic quest through their imaginative writings.
Realism can also be found in the news—the gory police stories, corrupt politicians, wicked and greedy people in the cities and elsewhere. News means bad news. Other assessments may include social scientific research, cultural immersions or in-depth ethnographic work, policy research, and many others. The point here is that such assessments are academically or institutionally based. In the opposite direction, the rationale or the strongest motivation, I would say, of idealism is to change something. But what is change?
Arguments on Culture
Culture is neither good nor bad. Anthropologists would say that every culture is relative. But what does “every culture” mean? For Raymond Williams, culture is the most problematic term in contemporary cultural studies. It denotes a universal characteristic that we possess as a people: it shapes us and molds us. It influences us and decides for ourselves what is good or bad, what is with taste or without taste, high and low, real and inauthentic. Culture is the measure of all things human but it is not the criterion to decide whether a person or group of people is good or bad. It precedes us (a priori) and, at the same time, comes after us (a posteriori). Meaning to say, culture is the cause and effect of humanity. Culture is something that we cannot shrug off and forget: it lives in us, in our skin, deep-bone, in our soul, our mind, our totality as a being. Culture is present all the time as we speak, think, live and die. To be specific, culture is “the totality of learned, socially transmitted customs, knowledge, material objects, and behavior. It includes the ideas, values, customs, and artifacts of groups of people” (Schaefer 2005: 50). Nevertheless, this textbook definition of culture lacks something. Though very specific, the definition fails to explain why culture is pervasive and why we can’t escape it. Culture is prevalent because it is lived knowledge (not just knowledge)—something stored up, retrieved, opened, disseminated, and patronized. Culture is a lived understanding of ourselves and of others in time and space, something we absorb and adhere to. Imagine yourselves living inside a box all throughout your life. We can jump out from that box but a bigger and wider box awaits us – a labyrinth of boxes. No one lives out of culture. Aside from these characteristics, there is also politics, or power, to ensure all these. Cultures do also compete as perceived, imposed, and maintained by people of power and people in power. Filipino culture as they say is the amalgamation of different competing cultures—survival cultures drawn out from a long stretch of colonial history: Spanish, American, Japanese occupations, not to mention the cultural influences of Chinese and Arabs as a form of “quiet assimilation” from pre-Hispanic times up to the present. Today, American cultural imperialism is evident, well, in our use of the English language, the educational system, mass media, form of government, bureaucracy, trade and commerce and many others. American cultural hegemony reigns in the center, mostly in the cities where modernity or modernization creeps in to replace the old ways, the old culture. The old dominant culture or the Spanish legacy can be found everywhere but it recedes in our memory, in the periphery. It has become secondary to American cultural hegemony. Yet because it lies in the periphery, rural or folk culture integrates Spanish influences more than the American’s. Now folk culture, the quintessential Filipino culture, can be surmised to be shattered due to foreign cultural influences. Cultures of the Mangyans of Mindoro, the T’bolis of Mindanao, Igorots of Cordillera and many others are starting to be assimilated with lowland cultures because of geographic and cultural dislocations. The strategy is very obvious, the powerful, the land gluttons, the hacienderos or landlord capitalists took away and took over the ancestral lands of these people. Without lands, these people find ways to live and work in the lowland barrios and cities.
In the end, the culture from below is the culture from which its place, worth, and legacy are decided through and by power struggle. This is the culture of the minorities, the oppressed, the destitute, the forsaken, and the marginalized. Yes, they too have culture: tastes, ideas, artifacts and choices which others in high culture abandoned or abhorred because they consider it as low-brow, inauthentic, derogatory to their own tastes and choices. Social inequality breeds cultural differences and cultural indifference. This is the cultural politics of social class. Our social standing as our cultural position too is dictated by our cultural preferences: the Hollywood movies we watch, the sleek top-of-the-line cellphone we own, the pizzas and burgers we eat. All these things depend on how much we spend and consume. Culture then becomes popular culture. Popular culture does not prioritize culture as lived knowledge. It transforms culture as commodity as what the NeoMarxists say. Yet though it may be a form of knowledge, commodity unlike knowledge is dispensible. Knowledge is composed of ideas. It is immaterial, a mental construct which can be transmitted or passed on from generations to generations. A worn out, dysfunctional commodity is only good in the trash can. They say the battle rests on the struggle of the youth to maintain their idealism as visionaries and change agents face to face with realism. However, a majority of them would want to escape from reality consumed by popular culture, evading the issues of life and society.
Youth’s idealism started the student activism of the 70s. It is the same idealism which bolsters the political ambitions of young politicians. For others it is a coping mechanism, which maintains the stamina and the adrenalin to move on amidst the bitter and horrifying realities of the present. It is the beginning of big ideas, bold inventions, and soaring creativity in the future. Idealism is something we dream of having to dream big, bold, and happy. Yet, idealism can be the lazy dog’s daydream. It can be the pathway to one’s ivory tower, distancing oneself from the ins and outs of society, of reality. I believe that the youth’s idealism must empower the culture from below and ignite a cultural change. They should be liberated in order to free others. Others say that idealism gives us the power to dream. But more than that, idealism is dreaming about change.
Let me rephrase what the late Senator Raul Roco said: “When I was a boy I wanted to change everything – the world, my country, my community. But as I age, all throughout this longing to change others, I want to ask this, to remind me always of my success or failure: to what extent did I change myself?” Socrates once said: an unexamined life is not worth living. Idealism is about action and reflection not just day dreaming in the corner. It is about choices with convictions.
We must take the lead. Either we choose the red pill or the blue pill…or both…or none at all!
(The original text of this essay was delivered during a symposium organized by the UNESCO-San Beda College Youth Club last December 4, 2006.)