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.


  1. I am wondering if Journalism is not just a harbinger for what will happen as networks begin to take on the roles of institutions, I totally agree that there will be a lot of chaos, our entire way of thinking about industries and cultural norms is going to be restructured. My hope is that in our exponential society it will take a lot less than 100 years for these things to normalize.

  2. Noah Enelow says:

    Josh, that was an excellent and thought-provoking post. What we’re facing is so enormous and amorphous that it’s easy to allow oneself to get caught up in hopelessness. But hopelessness, I think, is dangerous. Not the cut-your-losses kind of hopelessness that Shirky is talking about, but a more reckless, nothing-to-lose kind of hopelessness. Such hopelessness tends to lead people to believe that there are no constructive solutions to our problems, that the landscape of corruption, corporate greed, wars, and bailouts, is literally all that exists, and the only thing anyone can do is try to destroy what has been created. Such attitudes make me angry, because I feel strongly that it is just as important to notice and appreciate the good as it is to resist the bad.

    Shirky’s kind of realism I like better. We all know there will be disasters, or at least we are pretty sure there will be. And we all know change is going to have to happen, deep social and institutional change. But we also have to live one day at a time, to plan for the future without ignoring the present. So I agree with you, we need both. One needs to temper the other. Hope without realism is just blind; realism without hope is toxic.

  3. Jenna says:

    I think that hope is very motivating and essential to any struggle for change. What are we hoping for, though? Are we hoping for a healthcare system that is a little less unjust? Are we hoping for a society where things seem a little more equal (but most people still struggle to get by)? Are we hoping to decrease our presence in the “bad” war (Iraq) and meanwhile kill increasing numbers of civilians in a supposedly “good” war (Afghanistan… and Pakistan more and more)? I could go on. What I mean to say is to me, Obama does not offer much hope.

    As a communist, my hopes are set much higher than the reforms of an imperialist president. I believe we can do better. Capitalism has failed for at least 6.5 of the 6.6 billion people on earth. It was a nice idea in theory but it doesn’t work. If we are going to have real hope we need to imagine and hope for something very different. I have my ideas about what this would look like and how we would get there. That is a much longer discussion. My point is that if we set our hopes and expectations low, we may see reforms happen that touch on them. If enough people struggled together for a greater common hope and vision of what the world should be like, how much farther might we go?

  4. Natasha says:

    Although I am not a communist…I agree with Jenna’s point (as I understand it) that some progress, albeit the achievement of a low expectation, or a small hope, is better than none. It is like the steps of a baby…small and wavering at first, but quickly growing to an all-out run. As an all-out supporter of Obama, I was surprised at the fact he was awarded a the Nobel Peace Prize at first. My initial thoughts were- where are the results? Where is the peace? Where is the reduction of arms?? We live in a society of instant gratification, and without results, many of us often think there is no merit to an action. However, as I pondered it longer, I realized that the basis of hope, from which our president has based so much of his dogma…doesn’t have to follow the “result” system of achievement. In fact, the act of allowing hope to have a different understanding in out society…the understanding that any amount of change or progress towards a larger goal is something to celebrate, I find quite refreshing. I really can’t put it any better than the following quote:

    “…real hope is found in committing ourselves to vast hopes and dreams–dreams such as world without war and violence, a world where everyone can live in dignity. The problems that face our world are daunting in their depth and complexity. Sometimes it may be hard to see where–or how–to begin. But we cannot be paralyzed by despair. We must each take action toward the goals we have set and in which we believe. Rather than passively accepting things as they are, we must embark on the challenge of creating a new reality. It is in that effort that true undying hope is found.”–Josei Toda

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