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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 29-May-16


Sunday 29-May-16

Strange bedfellows: The idealists and the thugs

You could perhaps be forgiven for thinking idealists who seek some kind of perfection are pretty much polar opposite to thugs who gain pleasure from wanton harm. Yet there are times when they end up in the same bed.

A recent example is ISIS (or whatever you call it). On one hand, they are religious idealists, seeking purity in their beliefs. And, on the other hand, they seem to revel in atrocities. What is it that makes people seek perfection yet resort to aggressive means? Is it about the end justifying the means?

It's not just terrorists who seek perfection through aggression. Try arguing with any fundamentalist and you'll likely find they quickly become angry when you contradict their beliefs. Anger is often a consequence of fear, as the 'fight or flight' response takes the fight route. When we are angry, we effectively say 'Do as I want or I will harm you.' Christian history is littered with wars, from the Crusades onwards, in which God is always on our side.

One of the telling aspects of the strange marriage of idealism and thuggery can be seen in the degrading of recruitment strategies. At one time, they sought true idealists, but when these started running out, they accepted those with lesser religious ideals and just a greater desire to fight. The truth of the human condition here is that there are more thugs than idealists. Thugs also make useful front-line cannon fodder, allowing the elite idealists to stand back and pontificate.

Idealism and thuggery also appears in many organisations. You can see it in politics, where ideals of equality easily turn into bully-boy tactics that just seek compliance. It appears in business, where nice ideas of customer- and employee-friendly companies get waylaid by the pressures of sales targets and share prices.

Those who survive with their idealism intact often seem to keep things small, are very careful who they allow to join their peaceful group, and deal quickly with any nascent aggression. Their senior people understand the dangers of Machiavellian thuggery that, while achieving short-term goals will destroy longer-term ideals. They build robust cultures that both ensure the organisation survives and also that it does so without compromising core values.

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