How Should We Hope? Advice #4
A few months ago I introduced ideas from Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. (See Story and Meaning posts for March 3, 10, and 24, 2016.) Today I recall some of that material in order to compare Lear’s advice about hope with advices from Simon Critchley and Adrienne Martin.
Lear says that people may hope for good futures even in cases of cultural devastation. Superficially, this stands in stark contrast to Critchley’s advice to “abandon (almost) all hope”; i.e. to limit our hopes, particularly our hopes for political or social goods, to what is realistic. Lear encourages us to hope despite the worst things imaginable, while Critchley warns against unreasonable hopes, especially if those unrealistic hopes determine policy choices.
On closer examination, though, Critchley and Lear’s advices may complement each other.
Chief Plenty Coups believed the Crow people faced an oncoming storm, a storm that would level all the “trees of the forest” (i.e. various native peoples). The coming of Europeans to the Great Plains would end the traditional Crow way of life. The very concepts the Crow used to describe a good life would be robbed of their thick cultural meanings. The Crow people would have to live on a reservation, adapt to white schools, and obey laws established by the invaders. Courage, a quintessential virtue for a Crow warrior, would no longer be expressed in battle, by planting a coup-stick, or by raiding hostile tribes. Courage might have to be “thinned” down into a willingness to face an uncertain future. In spite of all this, Plenty Coups held out the hope that the Crow could weather the storm and still be Crow.
What might Critchley say about this? Obviously, I don’t know what he would say, but it seems he might approve of much of Lear’s thinking while defending his own demand for realism.
Of first importance, Critchley might say, Plenty Coups (and the Crow elders who interpreted and validated Plenty Coups’ visions) offered a realistic hope. Suppose Plenty Coups had offered his people a different hope, hope for victory over the invading Europeans. Certainly many Native American leaders preached such hope at various points in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They may have known that the whites outnumbered their people, and they may have realized that the whites’ factories and inventions gave the invaders more powerful weapons. Nevertheless, they offered hope for victory. Critchley might point out that such hopes led to disaster.
To further his case, Critchley might adopt the language of Adrienne Martin’s “incorporation thesis” to describe this bad hope. Native American leaders who preached hope of victory probably acknowledged that the odds were against them. We can easily imagine such chiefs admitting that their chances of defeating the whites were small. However, on the “incorporation thesis,” so long as the desired good is possible, we may then consider that the desired good is so practically important that we license ourselves to incorporate that good into our lives. Critchley could argue that Martin’s incorporation thesis, applied to Native American leaders in the nineteenth century, would have done little to prevent disastrous policies based on unrealistic hope.
Aside: Martin could defend her theory. When we license ourselves to hope (e.g. a patient hopes that the experimental drug will cure the disease), we do not deceive ourselves about the probability of success. Martin explicitly says it is wise to make a “back-up plan” in case the hoped for event does not occur. How the notion of back-up plan might apply to Native American leaders in Plenty Coups’ situation is unclear.
Critchley might conclude that he has no objection to “radical” hope so long as one’s policy decisions are based on realism rather than hope. It is permissible, even admirable, that Plenty Coups preached a message of hope to his people—but only because that hope was grounded on the firm recognition that the “storm” could not be avoided. In the late 1800s Native American chiefs could do nothing to stop the cultural devastation of their peoples. Plenty Coups was nearly alone among Native American leaders in that his radical hope was also realistic. In contrast, the “transformational” hope that the 2008 Obama campaign would help produce a post-racial American was both unrealistic and harmful.
Jonathan Lear might agree with Critchley in this: Plenty Coups’ radical hope was not unrealistic. But he might also object that Plenty Coups did base policy recommendations on his hope. Plenty Coups urged his people to learn farming. He sought out schools for the reservation and encouraged Crow children to attend them. He pushed his people to obey laws established by whites. He did all this in hope that the Crow would still be Crow. He fought hard, by legal and legislative means, to keep traditional Crow lands in Crow hands. Lear would argue that radical hope helped the people of the Chickadee to weather the storm better than other tribes.
Stepping back from what Critchley, Martin, or Lear might say (and they would undoubtedly have much more to say), it seems that there is no necessary conflict between them. (1) We ought to be realistic. Probably the experimental drug will not work. The European invasion of the 18th and 19th centuries could not be stopped. (2) In spite of dismal prospects, we may still hope for a good future after the storm. We may not know what that good future will look like, but (as Lear puts it) the goodness of the world is almost infinite, far greater than what finite beings like us can assay. Therefore, we may hope. (3) As Martin puts it, we “incorporate” hope into our lives in many ways; hope is a “syndrome.”
As I wrote in March, it is possible that the 21st century will bring cultural devastation to many people, perhaps even to the world’s leading military power. We fear climate change run amok, we fear ever-more-deadly terrorists, we fear major power confrontations, we fear super germs invented in labs, we fear descent into authoritarianism and the loss of liberty, and the list goes on. Our liberal, scientific, technological culture could suffer disaster. Critchley would say we should, with a clear-eyed gaze on all these possibilities, work realistically to minimize them. Martin would remind us that in regard to all these fears, good outcomes are both possible and very important; therefore we may hope against them. Lear would say that we should continue to hope even if the worst happens.