In May this year, I interviewed Barry* for an article. We talked about many things, mostly him, but somewhere in the middle of our conversation, we deviated onto the broader topic of workplaces with poor cultures, poor managers or poor management styles.
He’d just been made redundant from a company he’d been with for over a decade and in that time he’d become jaded and demotivated and he was far from being the only one. From processes that made no sense to workers who were treated with contempt, he’d seen enough to welcome the redundancy and the chance to move on and up in his career, hopefully to a company that didn’t engender the same or similar employee disappointment and dissatisfaction.
My response, in the form of a question, was this: “If good employees leave, how will poor cultures and poor managers ever change?”
Barry didn’t answer. He didn’t know the answer. We finished the interview and as I drove home, the question crystallised in my mind. Because it’s not just the workplace where this is relevant, it’s the entire world. If we all just turn our backs or leave when times get tough or when we encounter difficulties, where will the impetus for change for the better come from?
In short, I wondered, where have all the idealists gone?
I was an idealist once. It’s probably more accurate to say I was a perfectionist who wanted to use that specific skill (or obsession, if you prefer) to achieve something approaching an ideal situation. Progress at the very least if not completion.
But the intention was subtly taken from me in most cases and blatantly beaten out of me in others over a succession of workplaces, some better, some worse than others. Bullies prospered and were promoted and people in positions that you would generally consider gave them the power to effect real change did nothing or were prevented from doing something by even higher powers. Employee morale was equivalent to environmental programs in the eyes of the hierarchy – paid plenty of lip service and then forgotten.
Workplaces these days have become adversarial, everyday and ongoing mini competitions, not just between management and employees but also between every individual worker. It’s not about what can be achieved as a team, it’s about what an individual can achieve – or at least claim to have achieved, often by screwing over the rest of the team when the time comes for recognition – and how that achievement can be used to climb the corporate ladder.
To someone safely ensconced in a comfortable, wealthy and very far away country like Australia, it’s probably easy to look at the Syrian crisis and ask the same question: “Where have all the idealists gone?”
There are so many refugees fleeing the country, over the border into Turkey and further into Europe if they are lucky enough to make it that far, that it’s difficult to believe there’s anyone left. In past conflicts, it seemed like more people stayed to fight. Perhaps it only seemed that way. Maybe what they actually did was stay to die and Syrians aren’t prepared to suffer the same fate.
Which is fair enough. But it doesn’t help in answering my original question. It doesn’t help us to understand how things will ever get better in Syria if everyone who could make a difference, if everyone who has a genuine right to determine the future of the country – Syrians – leaves.
So where have all the idealists gone? I’ve had this question written on my ideas board for months now. A few weeks ago I added the following words next to it: “Only in fiction these days.”
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that idealists are disappearing from our fiction, too. The appetite for anti-heroes seems insatiable. Katniss Everdeen. Walter White. Hannibal Lecter. Dexter Morgan. Raymond Reddington. Tom Ripley. Jack Reacher. Captain Jack Sparrow. Emily Thorne (formerly Amanda Clarke). I could go on and on. In fact, there are so many anti-heroes, there’s an entire Wikipedia article devoted to listing them all.
I can understand this appetite. These characters are so much more interesting and complex. And because it’s fiction, they often achieve an ideal anyway. But is it influencing a generation of people who are no longer willing to try to change the world for the better?
I was an idealist once. But I now sound like a cynic. I don’t like that. But I think I may have gotten a little bit of my idealism back last night after meeting with representatives of a charity called Humanitarian Clowns.
I previously worked with their Treasurer and agreed to donate my time to help develop proposal material to assist with fundraising, sponsorship and grant applications.
Humanitarian Clowns offers a variety of charitable services but its primary role is compassionate clowning. They visit aged care facilities, rehab facilities, the homeless, seeking people who often slip through the cracks, the forgotten, to provide laughter therapy and what they call Random Acts of Clownness.
I asked for a demonstration so that I could properly understand what it is I’m going to be writing about. The demonstration lasted less than ten seconds but in those brief moments I was enchanted, I was smiling and I was convinced that this kind of engagement was important and could change lives for the better. Maybe not the world, at least not all at once, but definitely lives.
Humanitarian Clowns is a charity very much in its infancy but they already have close to 100 volunteers in Australia and more than 300 in a variety of other countries around the world.
I know there are a lot of charities out there these days, so many different causes, so many worthy intentions. But here is where at least some of the idealists have gone. If you can donate, if you have room in your charitable donation budget, consider Humanitarian Clowns. Go to their website (soon to be overhauled through another generous donation of time from a web and marketing specialist) to learn more about them and how you can help them change the world, one laugh and one smile at a time.
*Named changed for privacy reasons