What is real(ism)?

by ninameetscafe

One amazing part of my time here has been meeting friends with really similar views of honesty and genuine friendships as me. It’s good fortune I met such people so fast. Another amazing part has been meeting people (and friends) with diametrically opposed views of life, specifically realism.

It’s a theory I studied in my very first international relations class, but seeing it lived out by peers is entirely different.

I first learned about realism in Stanford IR’s first required class, Political Science 1: International Relations. It’s a theory in which actors operate predominantly out of self-interest, or what they think is best for themselves first and foremost. The view suggests that we live in a system where actors do not truly cooperate if their best interests are at risk. It also advises international actors to assume their competitors are equally fearful about their interests being threatened, and will act defensively/offensively to protect them.

I’m not writing to counter this theory in IR. I’m writing because I have trouble believing this on an individual basis. In theory (haha), I’ve always “known” that people take this theory out of IR and apply it to the people around them. That is, they believe that every person – including their classmate, their friend, that stranger – is and should be doing what is best for themselves because that is human nature. The several people I have now discussed this with are adamant that they, I and everyone are this way, and we must accept it. Most interestingly, that it’s reassuring that everyone consistently acts selfishly for themselves whether they know it or not: with their career, friendships, dating relationships… The alternative would be a scary unpredictability of so many people.

I guess I haven’t had conversations so consciously centered around these principles before, and my deepest gut response confirms that I am not a realist. I concede that self-seeking behavior is human nature (in itself controversial), but I oppose the idea of making that functional for future behavior. I don’t think it’s useful to anyone involved to assume my peers are constantly making self-seeking decisions, or assume I understand their deepest motivations immediately. All the time, I see people realizing (step 1) when they are acting purely selfishly and then purposefully countering (step 2) themselves to avoid it. I see my family, my peers doing unbelievably self-sacrificial things for the sake of others, and so quietly as if no one will notice. I see unbelievable beauty in that unpredictability – the stories people pull from their pasts that inform an unexpected empathy with someone else.

I see no way for realism to account for love. Seriously.