What is real(ism)?

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.


2 thoughts on “What is real(ism)?

  1. To share a quick story that is 1. love and 2. exactly to your point that there’s no way for realism to account for this: yesterday night I was finishing an application that needed to be sent out asap (and was already on the late side). Sleep-deprived and grumpy and overworked, when I was nearing the end I just hit the wall and could not keep working on it. I just had to proof read and save some clips as PDF and just the thought of having to save a clip as a PDF was more than I could handle. And then DB (dearest bf) stepped in, having already patiently hung out with me online for two hours listening to me stress/ignore him while I was working, and offered to make the PDFs for me and do a final proofread. From a “selfish” point of view, he really did not need to do anything – he was getting nothing back, he already knew I was grateful for him being there, he knows and is secure in my love for him. So the only reason he did it is because he cared about me. How can realism account for that? I can’t see it either.

    1. Aw, Caro, I still remember when you first introduced me to him, haha. It was totally in front of Coupa at Green on a Friday.

      That is so wonderful, and exactly the kind of thing I was talking about.

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