The Opiate of Hope
I loved the Shawshank Redemption. Its on my list of all-time favourite movies. There is enough inspiration in its themes of redemption, loyalty, and integrity-in-the face-of-corruption, to satisfy a consummate dreamer like myself through numerous sittings. So it gives me little joy to rattle the cages of the movie’s most important theme, echoed in the quote above. Yet how can one aspire to be a bearer of discomfort, to challenge the taken for granted, without a willingness to examine the most cherished of ideals? To question easily spoken yet rarely demonstrated values like truth. Or the apparent necessity to the human spirit of this very “best of things”: Hope.
Several years ago I was having coffee with two women with whom I was attending a conference on Racism and Whiteness studies in Adelaide, Australia. One was a barrister, the other a social worker dealing primarily with domestic violence. They were discussing the absolute necessity of hope to the work that they do, even as they bemoaned the many and varied systemic and institutional challenges they each face in their jobs. I have a terrible need, when I get a sense of someone gripping tightly, desperately to any idea or ideal, to be a nuisance. To want to prise loose a few fingers. An adult version perhaps of the 5 year old that continually asks “But WHY…?”. The response I was met with was interesting, as are those I’ve received whenever I’ve sought to bring the problem of hope up since. Indignation. Annoyance. Dismay. You have to have hope, apparently. Have to, or else nothing would get done and we’d all just give up. Everywhere would be despair. Just have to. I can hear her whining inside of me “But Whyyyyyy?”
At the risk of promoting binaries (as in – its either this, or that), if hope is a must, then its opposite is a must not – hopelessness. Makes you wonder what it is about hopelessness that inspires such fear. What might happen if we embrace hopelessness? Sit with it a while? Alas it seems that hope-lessness is very unsexy – there is a lot of social sanction against it. The great crystal ball gazing ‘science’ of psychology leads the charge on rejecting hopelessness. By breaking it down and measuring it as a sign of psychological dis-ease. By inspiring pop psyche articles like 9 Types of Hopelessness and How to Overcome them. Heck even Oprah gets in on the game. So the idea promoted through science as well as countless ‘new age’ material (that also instruct us to “be happy” and “think positive”) is that hopelessness is bad, hope by contrast is good! After all, unlikely Black American presidential candidates win elections on it. Even when they have little actual hope of achieving real change in a corporate run democracy that, as has been discussed previously, can only ever produce comfortable fictions. Hope may have gotten him in to power, but given the system’s inbuilt resistance to truth/change combined with current economic and social crises; America’s first Black president may find himself wondering next election how the Audacity of Hope, became the Audacity of Nope.
But enough of the US, how does hope play out on home shores? A quick google of ‘Māori’ and ‘hope’ brings up some interesting finds. Front page links include: ‘New reintegration unit a hope for Māori prisoners‘, ‘Future Māori generations given hope of tobacco free lives’, and ‘Tuhoe hope agreement will pave way for Te Urewera deal‘. Hope is a popular word to throw into a news article apparently, and yet each one of these propositions is a potential eyebrow raiser. The last in particular given a shocking history that saw the Crown seize ownership of Te Urewera from the Tuhoe people through confiscation, the implementation of a scorched earth policy causing widespread death, and the legislation of blatant theft. These stark facts combined with John Key’s rejection of any possibility of returning Te Urewera to its rightful guardians, and subsequent joking over the matter – a “let them eat hope” attitude, just begs the question: yeah … how’s that hope working out for ya?
Which is really my point. Sometimes hope is part of the problem. A theme analysis of Shawshank Redemption looks at ‘the Power of Hope’ in the movie and proffers that “(h)ope is an abstract, passive emotion, akin to the passive, immobile, and inert lives of the prisoners”. Is it possible that hope can at times induce passivity in us in a way that makes us a prisoner of ever realising that hope? Perhaps holding on to hope where there is in fact none, actually renders us immobile; keeps us stuck in the exact position hope is supposed to take us away from. These days when people say “oh, you must have hope” I’m inclined to think – hmmm not always. Experience tells me hope can be painful. It can stop us seeing that what we’re doing currently isn’t working and its time to try something else. Worse still, at a broader level hoping in vain can have disastrous consequences.
In a thought-provoking article titled ‘Hope is for the Weak: The Challenge of a Broken World‘ Robert Jensen describes a world in crisis – where, as Bob Marley puts it, everywhere is war…
It is a world in which powerful nations unleash a grotesque yet sanitized violence that supposedly is for the benefit of those whose homes [and lives/livelihood] will be destroyed. It is a world in which men invade the most intimate spaces of women, and then demand that women remain silent about that violence. It is a world in which the affluent step over the homeless on their way to the mall … in which white people continue to demand that non-white people bear the burden of our inability to confront our own white pathology. And, most frightening of all, it is a world in which we are drawing down the ecological capital of the planet in a fashion that is unsustainable, not just over the long term but now even in a much shorter calculus.
Sadly these things have been going on for quite some time now, despite (or is that because of) our best hopes. Jensen argues that hope can mitigate any need to engage in real action and is too often based on a shallow analysis of the problem at hand. Seeking simple understandings of complex issues. When a crisis arises, such as the recent Rena oil spill off Tauranga – our worst ever maritime environmental disaster; political and mainstream analysis is limited to finding a scapegoat – a ‘bad apple’. The massive impact oil and chemical spills like this have on our takutai moana are often beyond easy measure and out of sight. Such as long-term and in some cases irreversible damage to the seabed and the marine life that exist in and off it. Or the damage to the adjacent foreshore and those who enjoy its uses and exist by its (ever diminishing) bounty. So what is the response? A slow and under-resourced initial reaction which sees anxious locals scrambling to plug the gaps of an inadequate official presence. The use of toxic chemicals to disperse the gallons of oil floating in our moana, produced by corporations with dubious ties to the same ones that supply the oil in the first place. And of course retribution. The prime minister promises to hold whoever is responsible for the disaster accountable. Hence the sea captain and first officer are arrested and taken to court. Bad apples. The owners threatened with court action to recover some of the cost of the disaster. Bad apple company. Filipino New Zealanders are forced to ‘stand in’ for the majority Filipino boat crew, and bear the brunt of a New Zealand public seeking vengeance. Seemingly exploited workers such as these, often employed under conditions and dubious practices that earn them a fraction of what they are entitled to, are to be held accountable too. Blame it on the dark, Asian (read: shifty) ‘other’. Brown bad apples, all.
The deeper analysis Jensen advocates might require us to question how the entitled way we expect to live our lives in ‘First World’ countries is implicated in such disasters. As they say in The Matrix, just how deep does the rabbit hole go? In the case of Rena; consider the role of our advertisement-induced consumer obsessions that require us not to ask how we get our much needed toys at affordable prices, just insist that we do. Widespread exploitative, unsafe yet profitable shipping practices be damned. Lets just hope its a one off incident, despite the predictions it was inevitable. As the government obstinately persists in its plans to auction off drilling licenses for large chunks of our coastal areas while insisting there is limited danger, I guess we just hope some more. No need to question ever increasing energy demands in the false hope that technology (the new God) will provide, and bugger the consequences. One has to wonder – has hope become the new opium of the masses? Does expressing our hope for a better future give the appearance of caring while ensuring our comfortable lives are maintained? How does hope serve the needs of those in power, and maintain the status quo?
Many years back I listened to John Campbell interview Edward Goldsmith, founder of the UK’s leading environmental publication The Ecologist, on National Radio. After half an hour of discussing the numerous global environmental crises we are faced with, from deforestation to excessive energy/mineral consumption and its impact on the whenua, I could detect a mounting despair in Campbell that lead him to plead “but it all sounds so bleak! Can’t you give us some hope? What’s the answer?” Golsmith’s response has stayed with me ever since: “worldwide economic collapse. I pray for it every day”. Its an alarmingly uncomfortable thought to consider. Some might say insane, especially in (over)developed countries like this one where the ‘benefits’ of the global economic order are far more apparent than they are in less developed ones, even as those benefits here increasingly shift upwards (so much for hoping for some trickle down). As outrageous a proposition as it might seem it is worth asking; how likely is real environmental sustainability, given the profit to be made in exploiting the only planet we have? How much does the hope that we can have it all – profligate consumerism AND a healthy world, contribute to our current problem? What alternatives to rapacious capitalism might there be? Difficult questions to answer. Yet in beginning to tackle such unpopular, uncomfortable truths, hope just may not be “the best of things”. As Woody Allen writes
“More than any other time in history, [hu]mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
A clever friend once said to me that ‘to know’ and ‘to love’ are one and the same. In deepening our analysis we have the opportunity to know what it is we are challenging. Acting on that analysis, can only be an act of love – for our whenua, and for each other. Protest action, or however we choose to fight the battles we face, is ultimately an expression of love; of passion for what and who matters. And love-in-action, love made visible, will always trump hope.