It’s an interesting thing, hope. It isn’t really an emotion. It certainly isn’t a strategy. (That’s a motto in my job: hope is not a strategy!) An attitude? I actually think it is something more, something deeper, than a mere attitude.
Hope is a belief, in the possibility of a better future. More fundamental than a positive attitude, it is a belief that brings about a positive attitude and sustains it. Positive attitudes can come and go quite quickly, a strong conviction of hope is more long lasting. And that positivity seems to be one of the most fundamental necessities for the average human to live a successful life. Hope. And hope is not rational, it is not something that you sit down and reason about until you come to the conclusion that… bla bla bla something or other. The result of someone sitting down and rationally coming to a conclusion, isn’t exactly called “hope”, is it?
When I was in Rio de Janeiro last year, the tour guide told us something interesting. He didn’t provide a solid citation, and the conclusion was in favour of “his city”, so it is quite correct to maintain a little bit of skepticism about his claim, but it sounds like something that can be mostly true. He said that a recent study of which people in the world are the happiest, those of Rio de Janeiro came out on top. Above first world “welll-off” cities and peoples. The reason provided? They have something to look forward to. As a people and a culture and an economy, they are up-and-coming. They have something to look forward to. They have hope.
By all means, take a look around and see if you can find that study. That’s what I should do if I cared about who the happiest people in the world really are. But that’s not what I’m writing about, I’m writing about the principle.
I’ve also heard the strength of early Christianity explained in those terms. The Romans were highly rational, highly calculating. Naturally that is a strength, we’ll get back to that. But within the Roman Empire, a movement started in an oppressed people, a movement that ended up growing so big that it was co-opted by that same empire via Constantine. The source of strength of this community? Hope. Of the kind that that the purely and obsessively rational lack.
People derive hope from the most interesting places, in the most curious ways. Much of it is woo. Because, in fact, hope would be woo, if you were to define woo as “anything that is not entirely rational”. But more than that, hope is sometimes so enticing, that it sucks people into the more explicit kinds of woo, from What the Bleep Do We Know? to The Secret to Alien Cults to Afterlife-obsessions, Raptures and Imminent Second Comings. These things become evil when people are so obsessed with something expected in the future, that they forget to live in the present. They end up with hope, without rationality.
And we need both… hope and rationality. Just one or the other simply doesn’t cut it (unless you’re already living a couple of standard deviations above the average human’s lot). A campaign of Hope, which provides motivation and encourages positivity, should lead over into action. When hope becomes votes, and votes lead to positive change… when hope becomes a driving factor for social action… if hope pulls someone out of a self-destructive circle of depression and self-doubt and puts them on a self-reinforcing path of positive productivity, it has done its work, it is doing its work. It provides an enabling attitude. At that point, rationality should become the tool by which the job is actually done. Rationality is a tool. A very important one, but a tool nonetheless, we still need the motivation to use that tool for good.
Thoughts about Destroyers
Personally, I’d identify two kinds of evil in the context of this post: the first: killing rationality, and the second: killing hope. And hope being such an odd, elusive bit of “woo”, or rather so often associated with it, means that many well-meaning people aiming to encourage development of the tool, can end up destroying the motivation: hope. Because rationality and many forms of woo are indeed incompatible. What I’m suggesting is that people tread carefully, and keep the importance of hope in mind. Yes, sure, if the source of hope destroys rationality, I’ve already labelled it evil, but fighting evil isn’t exactly a good excuse for committing another evil.
Now something about arrogance: consider an upper-middle-class person that has everything he or she needs to have an easy existence in this world, and therefore experiences no need for any hope to get them through the day, destroying the hope others have found. “I don’t need it, why would you?” In cases where those others are struggling for survival in the third world, or in the face of extreme economic and political uncertainty, I believe it to be an instance of arrogance, an inability to exercise the empathy needed to successfully practise the golden rule. If you’ve not been in another person’s situation, what makes you think you know so well what they need? Don’t you think you should leave the final decision up to them?
Hope, an Opiate?
Let’s take a quick look at a famous Karl Marx quote. In context. In looking at afterlife-believing religions, he concluded the following:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.
He had a certain understanding of the role of religion, the belief-in-the-supernatural kind, as a protest against injustices in the world. Continuing the quote:
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
— Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
Reread that very last sentence. The point I’m using Marx for here is not to argue about illusions or religion or lies, but rather the role of hope and an example of the way some smart guy approached it. He recognised the value of that hope, and he didn’t attack it directly. (I’d consider that evil, remember.) He recognised why it was needed, what it was a solution to, solution in the sense of providing humans with positivity within a grim situation, and set about coming up with a solution to the cause of that symptom.
(For more on this, read Karl Marx on Religion: Is Religion the Opiate of the Masses? — thanks goes to Ben’Jammin for providing the link.)
Now look back at all the diverse forms of woo. Recognise what it provides people with, understand what their needs are. If you believe the woo is particularly evil (in destroying rationality), why not address the cause, rather than the symptom? Seek to find and promote healthier anchors for hope. Promoting those anchors as potential substitutes, providing people with choice, and ridding yourself of the patronising and arrogant habit of wanting to choose on their behalf, is one way around the problem of committing evil in the process of fighting evil.
Create, as much as you destroy.