Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything header image 2


December 27th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 12 Comments

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.

Categories: Worldviews
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12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Dec 27, 2008 at 11:09 am

    Proof reading cut short by laptop running out of battery. ;-) We’re driving from the Karoo to Hartenbos / Stilbaai at the moment. I’ll be back, and provide more context to this post, e.g. what provided the inspiration on this drive.

  • 2 Hugo // Dec 27, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    I’ve made some minor improvements, including one ugly grammatical one. Proof reading is of course indispensable for higher quality writing. Apologies for sometimes not proofing well, time pressure and all.

    Holding back on challenging everyone and everything, it is sometimes hard to choose when not to hold back. Picking up on a conversation in the car, where my sister mentioned a particular wording of “if you can picture it in your mind, it will come your way”, I did chip in with a “who said that?” She recognised the challenge and put it down with “I did”. So I backed down, and left it at that — if it wasn’t outright bad that I chipped in, my contribution was certainly “good enough”.

    Firstly, I was chipping in on a conversation I hadn’t exactly been following, and lacked the context. She was talking to my mother and encouraging her. Not that I’d say my mother needs encouragement, she’s strong and will do just fine without anyone having to encourage any woo.

    But secondly, my sister does know she’s talking … “poetic”. She knows what the scientific angle is on such things, and she understands the poetic nature of her words in the context of “the power of positive thinking”. What she chooses to fundamentally believe I don’t really know, and I don’t need to know it either — but I know her well enough to know that I can trust her to keep the nature of her poetic words in mind.

    So that then is my point: we can educate and make sure people understand the nature of empirical science and reality, but beyond that, it’s their choice. And my mother also knows the poetic nature of such words of encouragement. There are some kinds of “let’s fool ourselves with our own word choice” that we act out, because it keeps life interesting. And it is perfectly fine if we don’t take it too seriously, or others take it too seriously.

    An atheistic PhD scientist-friend of mine seems to take eye contact during toasts very seriously, on the grounds of “no eye contact” leading to “seven years of bad sex” or something like that. When we pull her leg about her “superstition”, my friend responds with “don’t want to take that chance”. ;-) I’m quite sure that’s not a modified version of Pascal’s Wager, even if it looks like it on the surface: it seems more like the kind of thing that “keeps life interesting”, and good humoured eye-contact between friends that regularly reminds of a certain truth: “good sex is… well… good… and worth protecting!” What’s the point in challenging that bit of human curiousness? Being a fundamentalist with no sense of humour when it comes to your particular field of fundamentalism? (In this case rationality and the language use around it.)

    Ditto for knock-on-wood: I’ve come across many that “knock on wood” after saying something that kinda “tempts fate”. I see that more as an act of communicating a desire that things continue the way they’re going, than an actual superstition. And as long as they continue to remember that, and smile a good-humoured smile at the ritual (hmmm… ritual as a form of communication?), it’s good?

    When everyone’s an educated adult, the rest really should be personal choice. Unless you’re a big fan of authoritarianism and would like to live under dictatorship or monarchy or something. All we need to do is to help one another understand the various ways of viewing the world, and the benefits and problems inherent in each. That should be enough.

  • 3 -M- // Dec 27, 2008 at 8:27 pm


  • 4 G-J // Dec 27, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks for another very mulling-over-worthy post, Hugo. Some of your ideas reminded me a lot of some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing, specifically his very pragmatic, feet-on-the-ground thoughts on hope in Treue zur Welt. Have you had the chance to read him at all?

  • 5 miller // Dec 27, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    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

    Haha, are you talking about me?

    My attitude isn’t so much, “I don’t need hope, why would you?” but rather, “But hope is so easy to come by, can’t you all see?” :P

  • 6 Hugo // Dec 28, 2008 at 12:48 am

    @G-J, Bonhoeffer is very near the top of my “favourite ‘authors’ I have yet to read” list. I’ve come across a couple of fragments of his letters and numerous bits of commentary, e.g. by Peter Rollins (another high up on the list, with a book on my shelf, I have only read his blog and others’ blogs containing fragments of his writing, and chatted with Theo about the guy). So… what might you recommend? Treue zur Welt?

    @miller, I’m often primarily talking about myself. That allows the benefit of experience and knowledge of the person I’m talking about, but with the nice bonus that it usually applies to other people as well. ;-)

    On finding hope: we sometimes make it very difficult for ourselves, silly psychology. A helping hand of encouragement to hope is then certainly a blessing!

  • 7 G-J // Dec 28, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    @hugo I’d recommend Treue zur Welt as a first read, since it’s very digestible, even between other reads. It’s a collection of “meditations” (apparently an old-fashioned word for “blog entries”…). I haven’t tried his magnum opus, Nachfolge (The Cost of Discipleship) yet though, but it seems to be very highly regarded in reformed Christian circles.

  • 8 Sadducees and the Afterlife // Jan 6, 2009 at 1:17 am

    [...] Blog | Comments ← Hope [...]

  • 9 gerhard // Jan 8, 2009 at 10:39 am

    When everyone’s an educated adult, the rest really should be personal choice. Unless you’re a big fan of authoritarianism and would like to live under dictatorship or monarchy or something.

    Don’t we already? every ‘free’ society has rules and regulations about what is ‘bad’ to believe and behave. take having sex with 12 year olds , your culture probably is very authoritarian towards people who do that but in reality there are many cultures for whom that is perfectly acceptable , norm or something to strive for. So i would use your ‘the rest should be personal choice’. What about your cultures attitude towards death? Are you allowed to kill yourself? are you allowed to help other people kill themselves? If you and another man decide to duel to death, does the victor go to jail? Are you allowed to eat your pets? What about all those people giving false hope and raping sick and dieng people of the little money they have left? (homeopathy, faith healing , healing touch, chiropractors etc.)
    Are you allowed to smoke your pot? What about your crack?

    There simply are some things that if they damage society in the long run should be disallowed esp if its one of those things where people can recognize the bad but choose ignore that because of traditions etc. obviously i’m not talking about throwing salt over your shoulder here and some of those listed examples i actually would like to see allowed.
    But culture (what you choose to believe) decides what the ethics of that society are, not reason. Tradition extinguishes the light of reason.

  • 10 Bad Ben // Jan 16, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Are you saying that all tradition is absolutely irrational? That the conditions which require “reasonable” negotiation are too shifty to establish any form of rational legacy? Am I misunderstanding your point?

  • 11 Bad Ben // Jan 16, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    Ie. Could there be no “reasonable tradition”?

  • 12 More on the Afterlife Belief // Feb 1, 2009 at 3:51 am

    [...] This post was promised as a follow-up to Sadducees and the Afterlife. That makes this the third post in a series of three, the first was Hope. [...]

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