Saturday, June 21, 2014

Optimism, Hope, Hopeless Hope and Radical Hope

When I observed that "the world is unfair, but it gets better", some people were uncomfortable with that.  On the VUU (episode 64), we got into discussion about various types of hope.

There is a distinction made between hope and optimism.  Optimism is a belief that things will work out for the best.  Optimism has been proven wrong so often that it doesn't carry much weight. I am optimistic that it won't rain on Saturday. I am optimistic that the Democrats will hold the Senate in the fall. I could be wrong about both, and if I am, I will be mildly chagrined. No crisis of faith.

Now when it comes to Hope, a much more substantial emotion. Hope is the conviction that things will improve. It is a belief about the nature of the world and progress. St. Paul says that hope is one the three things that last forever, along with faith and love.

People point out that it is hard to hope, what with the disastrous turns history makes, as well as seeming permanence of some people's conditions. It is hard to hope for progress on a planet which is being poisoned and cooked. Some question Parker's statement that "the arc of the Universe bends toward Justice." They see in it a presumption of privilege, or an excuse for sitting back and letting the inevitable do the work of justice for us.

The Michigan Labor Legacy Monument --
the incomplete arc
But saying that objective conditions do not merit hope is like saying the every person is not worthy of love. These are not statements of scientific fact, where a single counter-example disproves the theory. (It would only take one time for the sun rises in the West to disprove our understanding of the solar system.)

The fact that history is so often tragic leads some to what they call "existential hope", or what I call "hopeless hope." Hope is a moral obligation, and even a psychological compulsion, in the face of almost certain failure. Hope is a mental state, disconnected from material reality.  It is like "love" in the face of violent rejection, or "faith" in the face of what seems God abandoning you. It is mustering the will to act "as if" there is hope in a hopeless situation.  For me, I think it is a kind of vanity, a heroic pose, which is off-putting. In a world in which almost everybody struggles on their daily lives for something better, it seems odd for sophisticated philosophers to say that there is no real basis for hope. What does that say to the family in Central America who sends their children North? Or the single mother minimum wage worker who is works 3 part time jobs? They hope for real things.

For me, our hopes must be rooted in some understanding of a real process, beyond our will. While I do not think our hope for justice is inherent in the movements of the stars above and the tectonic plates below, I think that our hopes have a material basis in human beings and in the process of human cultural evolution.

It is said that "Oppression breeds resistance".

A wall mural in Belfast 
Why is that true? It is true, not in the direct "water freezes at 32F" way, but across history and cultures, it does seem true that oppression breeds resistance. Maybe, you can say that human beings will overthrow the social system that they live under when their survival seems at stake. That process is real, and doesn't work on my command, as much as I would like to call up rebellion with my words and deeds. I have hope because human beings are made in such a way that oppression does breed resistance.

The other material process upon which I base my hope is in the directionality of human cultural evolution. I have been influenced by Robert Wright, "NonZero" on this. As much as human beings are prone to resolving differences with violence, they also tend to end violence with the creation of more complex systems which rely on less violent means to resolve differences. Somehow, violence ends with an "win-win" cultural elaboration. The secular state resolves the European religious wars. More complicated, less violent.

Oppression breeds Resistance; Rebellions force accommodations and increased social complexity. There is a human element here. The more clarity about oppression, the greater the resistance. The more resistance, the greater the rebellion. The greater the rebellion, the larger accommodation and the more progress. Humanity advances through the push and pull of contending forces.

I call this "radical hope." It is hope that is born of a dialectical view of history. I believe both that "the arc of the universe bends toward justice" with Parker, in that processes beyond our simple human wills are at work. I also believe with Obama, that we have grab that arc and pull it hard toward justice.




4 comments:

Tim Bartik said...

I second your comment that there is progress over the "long-run" in human history. But this long-run may be greater than a human lifetime, and may only be evident on a worldwide basis, not within the narrower confines of a single human life lived in a particular place.

I actually don't see how anyone looking objectively on human history since 1500 could deny that there is a direction to history that is moving in a positive direction. Wright is a good guide to some of the positive trends. Economists have documented some positive trends (see, for example Brad Delong's attempts to summarize world economic history: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2014/05/estimates-of-world-gdp-one-million-bc-present-1998-my-view-as-of-1998-the-honest-broker-for-the-week-of-may-24-2014.html#more )

However, as you point out, this is a very gradual evolution in a better direction that is contingent on what we do to make it so. It is a direction that human history tends to because of the deliberate actions and interactions of people and our choices. We might in the end blow ourselves up, because of bad choices. But in no way was there a gol.en age in the past from which we are regressing

Tim Bartik said...

I second your comment that there is progress over the "long-run" in human history. But this long-run may be greater than a human lifetime, and may only be evident on a worldwide basis, not within the narrower confines of a single human life lived in a particular place.

I actually don't see how anyone looking objectively on human history since 1500 could deny that there is a direction to history that is moving in a positive direction. Wright is a good guide to some of the positive trends. Economists have documented some positive trends (see, for example Brad Delong's attempts to summarize world economic history: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2014/05/estimates-of-world-gdp-one-million-bc-present-1998-my-view-as-of-1998-the-honest-broker-for-the-week-of-may-24-2014.html#more )

However, as you point out, this is a very gradual evolution in a better direction that is contingent on what we do to make it so. It is a direction that human history tends to because of the deliberate actions and interactions of people and our choices. We might in the end blow ourselves up, because of bad choices. But in no way was there a gol.en age in the past from which we are regressing

John A Arkansawyer said...

Tim, third world people point out the main effect the Enlightenment had on them was to enable Europeans to invade their lands and conquer them. They've got a point.

Tim Bartik said...

John: I assume you don't mean to say that this means that overall, the Enlightenment was a bad thing. If that's what you mean, you should say so, and I would disagree.

Colonialism and imperialism committed many crimes.

Still, despite the crimes, and the stolen wealth involved with the colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries, as these systems of oppression have been dismantled, there has been overall some positive trends elsewhere.

For example, although income inequality has worsened within Western countries by quite a bit, the overall global income distribution appears to be towards somewhat greater equality, due largely to the rise of China and India. (See March 18 2014 interview in New York Times by reporter Eduardo Porter with CUNY economist Branko Milanovic.)

What is true is these somewhat favorable trends in areas that comprise a huge proportion of the world's population are not yet worldwide, for example, not yet evidenced in Latin America and particularly in Africa.

Economic development offers up opportunities for all human beings to more fully exercise their capabilities, if we can create the social and economic institutions that can seize those opportunities, for example through better education and infrastructure and strong democratic institutions.

The fact that some exploited technology and science to use to conquer and oppress others does not mean that overall, the expanded technology and science does not offer greater potential for good than for evil, in the long-run.

I think books such as Wright's, and an overall view of economic history, suggests that our future history offers more potential for progress than for regress, although it all is still up to us and what we choose to do.