Posted by: scintillatingspeck | January 22, 2013

The other side of hope.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.
Let go of every hope, all you who enter.
– Dante Alighieri, “Inferno”

Hope is one of those slippery concepts that activists and concerned citizens of all stripes seem to contemplate a lot.  What is this “hope” of which people speak?  When I hear people say, “We can’t allow hope to die, because then we have nothing,” what does that mean?  What are people hoping for?  What does that hope rest on?  What behavior is justified in the service of hope?

My questions are spurred today by a number of factors: first, I was reminded of Derrick Jensen’s radiant essay, Beyond Hope, which appeared in Orion magazine in 2006.  It had a significant effect on me then, and it continues to do so today.  If you have never read this essay, it might go a long way towards explaining the philosophical and practical stance of activists such as myself.  If you have read it before, read it again.  It’s so worth it.  This essay propels me forward, and along with delving into the questions, What is my writing about?  Who am I trying to reach?  it’s dawning on me that a big part of it right now is offering words to activists, offering love and understanding, offering bursts of inspiration and commiseration.  But what my writing most assuredly is not is an offering of false hope, or anything less than my most truthful reflections on reality.

Of course, mentioning a phrase like “false hope” implies that there is necessarily a “true hope.”  I’m not convinced that this is so.  What kind of true hope is the misplaced faith in our so-called leaders, the heads of industry and government and every institutional structure we can think of?  Are they (the mythical “they”) actually implementing the sort of change that desperately needs to occur now, or furthering the aims of industrial empire in all its destructive, consuming power?   What kind of true hope is the reliance on a vague feeling that somebody, somewhere, will do something, rather than setting aside that hope in favor of ongoing, clear discernment and decisive action?

From what I can observe, I think people do still cling to the hope that it’s not too late to turn things around, to have a glorious, fair, abundant human society, to have a flourishing community of all life forms, to save the oceans, to prevent or stop or reverse climate chaos, to “be the change we wish to see,” all of that high-minded, utopian verbiage about creating the most beautiful possible vision and then making it be so.  Maybe it’s just a subset of people whose voices are amplified in my world, the voices of earnest, relatively comfortable people, from the global north, from the belly of the beast.  I think that hope rests on a set of compelling cultural stories and illusions that appear solid, because for so many they are the only stories they’ve ever known, but nevertheless, they are stories.  Stories of progress, of success, of triumphalism, of human domination and “ingenuity.”  Relying on these stories and visions, I would hazard a guess, will only lead us to more of the same greenwashing and consequent merciless destruction that we witness on a daily basis.

In the service of that brand of hope, full of positivity and good feelings and soothing, inspirational rhetoric, there are some who claim that it is strategic and correct to mislead people into believing that the global situation is better than it is, i.e., to lie.  For example, there are climate activists who believe strongly that we absolutely must not extinguish hope in a beautiful tomorrow, because to do so would eviscerate motivation and prevent the sort of mass movement that might create change.  What good is it to make people hopeless and ineffective? they say.  What good is it to induce despair?  So what if it’s too late?  If we act as if it is too late, then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy and we will never get anywhere.  Okay, you know, deep in our hearts, we know that we’re really fucked, but surely we can’t tell people that?  Those of us on a higher plane of analysis and critical thinking and scientific knowledge, those of us who are able to read and interpret the research, we can know the truth, we can be driven frantic by the truth, but surely we have a responsibility to those who don’t understand, to let them believe that change is possible?  To give them solace for whatever time they have left that they can take action, no matter how ineffective it might be?

I have a big problem with this.  First, I don’t believe people should be manipulated through lies in the service of any goal.  I think people deserve the truth, to the best of our ability to discern the truth.  I know there are those who believe in this “higher” and “lower” forms of thinking, who think that “the educated ones” must somehow be smarter and should dictate action for slews of others.  I reject this thinking entirely.  It’s fundamentally disempowering to withhold information and to not offer the tools of analysis to as wide a group as possible.  Yes, there are ethical dilemmas embedded throughout, but here’s a parallel from medicine that often comes to my mind: if a patient is diagnosed with a terminal illness, should that knowledge be revealed to the patient?  In this culture, it’s now a given that patients have the right to know about the details of their health, no matter how dire the news.  It was not always the case.  Can you imagine having a terminal illness and everyone around you hiding that news, even as you could feel that something was terribly wrong?  Can you imagine not being given the opportunity to address that illness to the best of your ability?  Can you imagine not being given the opportunity to review your life, to grieve, to make the most of the time that is left?  And what of those valiant patients who immerse themselves in medical research that they never knew existed before, who sometimes end up more influential and informed than the researchers themselves, because their motivation knows no bounds, despite the death sentence looming over their heads?  The ones who say, it may be too late for me, but damn it, I will do everything I can to spare others this pain?

As a librarian and an activist, I pledge this to you.  If you are confused about research; if you are wanting access to the tools of critical thinking; if you are determined to discern for yourself what the truth is, and let your own conscience dictate the actions that you will take, I will help you.  I will walk you through the process of finding and evaluating information.  I will help you clarify the questions you are seeking to answer.  This is what I do, as an act of service.  In future posts, I would like to offer some additional resources in this vein, but please feel free to contact me as well, either through the comments or via email (scintillatingspeck [at] gmail [dot] com).

Derrick Jensen wrote in Beyond Hope: “A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems—you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself—and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.”

Activist sisters and brothers, may we engage in effective action without delay, and let go of the shackles of hope as we traverse the Inferno.

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