On Hope, Hopelessness, and Change
There have already been thousands of blog posts written about Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, so I am coming a bit late to the game here. But as a late arrival I have the benefit of stepping back and trying to take more of a long view of what has been said, and what it might all mean. While most of the ink spilled about the award focused on Barack Obama’s worthiness to receive such an honor or on how this announcement might hurt or help him politically. While there were a few thoughtful critiques, both of these arguments tended to echo the hollow horse race media coverage we see around elections.
I am less interested in whether Obama deserves the award and more interested in the intentions of the Nobel committee in choosing him. Clearly the committee was interested in sending a message – and while some snidely interpreted that message as “Thanks for not being George W. Bush,” I think there was more to it.
In announcing the award, the Nobel committee described Obama’s efforts to change the tone of international diplomacy and reduce the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons, but also noted that “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”
This point was also highlighted in Desmond Tutu’s response to the news of Obama’s prize. “It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama’s message of hope,” he said.
Is hope, or the power to give people hope, worth a Nobel Prize? The Nobel committee seemed to think so – and I would tend to agree. But this award and the debate surrounding it has gotten me thinking about the role of hope in making change. At a time when we are facing unprecedented environmental, economic, and social challenges, when we have wars being waged around the globe, when our media feeds on sensationalism and engenders fear and distrust, what is the role of hope?
Perhaps hope can be revolutionary. Perhaps hope can help us start down a difficult path we might not otherwise. Perhaps hope can help people find common ground. Perhaps hope can change the way we make change.
And perhaps it can’t.
That’s the problem with hope. Like faith, it’s an unknown. Like faith, it has to be embodied and enacted in the way we live our lives. Hope, without action, is not enough. But action, without hope, may never move us forward.
For me, this line of thought is complicated by another article I read this week. Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, has been an astute – if curmudgeonly – commentator on the future of the news for the past few months. His skill is not usually in coming up with new ideas, but rather synthesizing the larger debate and casting it in a new light.
However, every time I have heard him speak or read one of his pieces on journalism, I have been struck by the pervasive lack of hope for the near future of journalism. In the long run, Shirky is confident we will have a robust press in America, but right now he admits “the old models are breaking faster than the new models can be put into place.”
In the article I read this weekend, Shirky takes this hopelessness head-on (excuse the extended quote, but I think it’s important to put this in context):
“I think a bad thing is going to happen, right? And it’s amazing to me how much, in a conversation conducted by adults, the possibility that maybe things are just going to get a lot worse for a while does not seem to be something people are taking seriously. But I think this falling into relative corruption of moderate-sized cities and towns — I think that’s baked into the current environment. I don’t think there’s any way we can get out of that kind of thing. So I think we are headed into a long trough of decline in accountability journalism…
…There was a long hundred years between the Protestant Reformation and the Treaty of Westphalia. And that was a hundred years in which people almost literally did not know what to think. The old institutions were visibly not functioning any longer, but the nation-state as a new organizing principle was not yet in place. And those were, for many people, not a great hundred years.
So I have no idea how long this transition will take. But I don’t think that some degree of failure and decay is avoidable. I think our goal should be to minimize the depth of that trough, to constrain that trough to the areas we can constrain it to, and to hasten its end. But I don’t think we can get away with a simple and rapid alternative to what we enjoyed in the 20th century — in part because the accidents that held that landscape together in the 20th century were so crazily contingent.”
So in Shirky’s assessment it is (at least in part) people’s blind hope – their unwillingness to admit that “bad things are going to happen” – that is inhibiting real conversation about the future of journalism. By acknowledging, and confronting what’s to come, Shirky would argue, we are better prepared to make change and face the struggles we must face.
Can pessimism then be just as motivating as hope? Can our concerns about the impending “failure and decay” of so many pieces of our society inspire people to action “to minimize the depth of that trough, to constrain that trough to the areas we can constrain it to, and to hasten its end?”
I like that Shirky’s construction of how we make change calls us to study who is most at risk of being impacted and focusing our energy there. This raises the question for me: is the change we achieve through pessimism more targeted, more applicable, more immediate?
I think there exists a productive space between Shirky and Obama, one that both embody at times. It is a kind of pragmatic hope, one that is grounded in the realities of the world around us, but aspires to a vision of what is possible. Indeed, I think Obama’s rhetoric around his inauguration and again this past week in accepting the Nobel Prize exemplify this.
Obama has said that he is accepting the award as a call to action:
“A call for all nations and all peoples to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. These challenges won’t all be met during my presidency, or even my lifetime. But I know these challenges can be met so long as it’s recognized that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone.
This award — and the call to action that comes with it — does not belong simply to me or my administration; it belongs to all people around the world who have fought for justice and for peace. And most of all, it belongs to you, the men and women of America, who have dared to hope and have worked so hard to make our world a little better.”
In the end, perhaps it is the tension between hope and hopelessness that helps move us closer to the change we seek.