In November 2021, the Horizons of Hope Panel invited a virtual audience to reflect on the idea of hope. This event was organised as part of 2021's Festival of Social Science - a month-long conference to share, develop, and reflect on research across the social sciences. Given the context of the ongoing global pandemic, this topic could hardly have been more relevant. More than five million people had died with coronavirus, millions more had experienced horrendous symptoms, and unknown numbers were living with the terrifying prospect of "long-covid." At the same time, our response to the virus crippled economies and devastated social networks, revealing and deepening unpleasant political and ideological divides within communities. But at the same time, the colossal task of confronting this new disease gave us many reasons to be hopeful. For some, it cultivated a sense of national unity; a feeling of being "in it together" and working towards a common goal. In the UK, expressions of appreciation and gratitude to National health Service staff and critical workers will be a lasting reminder of this moment of national unity. For many, the most powerfully uplifting moment of the pandemic came in December 2020 when the UK approved the use of the Pfizer-manufactured vaccine, soon followed by those of AstraZeneca and Moderna. Viral variations notwithstanding, it seemed that inoculation would promptly become the indomitable weapon in our anti-coronavirus arsenal. Our struggles with coronavirus - at the personal, national, and global level - have therefore given us many reasons to despair but also to hope.
But what about the long term? What was the state of hope prior to the pandemic? There too the scales are heavily laden on both sides. On the one hand, recent years have given many of us reasons to be pessimistic about our present and our future. Political extremism and polarisation seem to be on the increase across the world, ideological divides appear insurmountable, democracy and the rule of law feel under threat, and all around us the climate is in crisis and the global environment is collapsing. But again there is cause for hope. Democracy has proven more resilient than some feared, and the democratic nation state continues to be the norm for national organisation. And mass movements, like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the Climate Strike forced politicians and society as a whole to face up to and grapple with massive systemic inequalities and injustices.
THE FESTIVAL OF SOCIAL SCIENCE: HORIZONS OF HOPE PANEL
It was in this bewildering, contentious, and controversial context that the Horizons of Hope Panel convened to discuss the concept of hope. Panellists brought insights and perspectives from a wide range of backgrounds, personal beliefs, and professional interests, each providing a unique take on this subjective and personal topic. Indeed, hope can be so subjective that the word itself means different things to different people. It was therefore illuminating to begin with a discussion of what hope is and where it comes from. The word is used widely and freely today, and we rarely give much thought to what we really mean by it. We say things casually like "I hope this article isn't too boring," or "I hope it doesn't rain today." These common phrases seem almost flippant when contrasted with a more reverent and philosophical understanding of hope. Saint Paul ranked hope alongside faith and love in a holy trinity of human virtues. So is hope a holy virtue or a common feeling felt and expressed many times a day? Why not both?
Of all of our panellists, Dave Neita's conceptualisation of hope appeared to me to be the most strikingly faith-based. Neita's sense of hope, he claimed, is rooted in a "creator" from whom he draws a sense of being loved and feeling special. This deification of hope, Neita continued, provides him with an unshakeable strength and resolve to tackle what appear at first to be insurmountable challenges. Neita's work as a lawyer and civil-rights campaigner bring him into constant contact with some of the most insidious and deeply-rooted challenges of human society. In particular, his activism on the Windrush Scandal have brought him head to head with institutional racism and class discrimination. These evils are so structurally-grounded and have proven capable of withstanding dedicated challenge for so long that at times it feels futile to combat them. But, Neita says, hope allows us to breach the gap between the challenges of our reality and our vision of a better future. He says hope transformers the way we perceive our world, and by looking through a hopeful lens we make the insurmountable beatable and the futile possible. Through his work representing oppressed and marginalised groups, Neita has come to see hope as a vital tool in our arsenal against institutional racism and inequality.
Manyile Banda articulated a similarly grand understanding of what hope is and where it comes from. Banda believes that hope comes from "something bigger" than ourselves and our immediate experiences. But this need not be a deity as Neita suggested. Banda says that collective experiences such as a struggle for national unity can be powerful sources of hope. Through her work in Zambia, Banda has witnessed first-hand the powerful national feeling that followed the election of President Hichilema in 2021. A shared belief among many that Hichilema can and will bring positive change to Zambia represents a collective feeling that overrides immediate individualism, transcends conventional political tribalism, and unites people around a shared objective. Like Neida, Banda sees hope as a belief that things can and will improve despite what appear to be overwhelming odds.
But hope cannot be a directionless belief. It is sustained only if people have the will and ability to enact necessary change in pursuit of a defined goal. This was demonstrated clearly through Banda's contributions. Banda works with Eineri Platforms Limited, a Zambian company working to incentivise and support sustainable tree-planting by independent smallholders and local farmers. Through this work, Banda has realised that "small positive changes" are essential in sustaining hope from day to day. Like racism and repression, environmental degradation and impoverishment in developing countries can appear like insurmountable problems. But Banda reminds us to look for and take encouragement from gradual and incremental advancements, and to see these little victories as proof that things can and will improve through determined work.
Through her work with the Indian blood-donation charity BloodConnect, Uzma Adil has developed an approach to hope similarly rooted in an appreciation of seemingly small and incremental change. When asked where she thinks hope comes from, Adil asserted that she and her colleagues across fourteen Indian cities have drawn hope from the selflessness of the blood-donors they work with. This is a notably human-centred articulation of hope, rooted in the everyday decisions and actions of other people. It is also striking that something as apparently small as a single blood donation can give hope and resolve to India's largest youth-run charity organisation. This organisation in turn is benefiting the lives of countless individuals who would otherwise suffer as a result of India's blood shortage. Like both Neita and Banda, Adil and charity workers like her use hope as a tool for overcoming a seemingly ineluctable challenge. As Neita said, in such circumstances hope acts as a bridge between our current circumstances and our imagined future. Adil's imagined future is an India that does not suffer from a blood shortage and where there is no need for a campaign to support and organise blood-donation. Her experience with individual donors makes this a realistic vision and is the foundation of her hope.
Laone van Vuuren also sees hope as a motive for action. Indeed, he struck me as the most strident of the panellists in his assertion that hope comes into play when things not only can change but must change. As a human rights and policy development specialist based in southern Africa, van Vuuren has seen for himself the positive changes that his work can bring about, particularly in areas of LGTB+ rights and indigenous governance. But his vision of the future is a bold one and rather than focus on incremental improvements van Vuuren spoke in terms of challenging the political and economic systems that perpetuate injustice. For him, hope is "a daring ambition" that should be bold and courageous and should motivate radical action to hold politicians to account for their failures. Consistent with this grand-scale reformist approach, van Vuuren sees hope as an intrinsically collective phenomenon. He pointed out that the Global North has a highly individualistic culture that is not reflected in other parts of the world - including where he is based in southern Africa. Here, hope is a shared experience that emerges from collective dissatisfaction. Hope helps to forge common and consistent objectives throughout a community, and provides the strength of will to pursue those goals, no matter how ambitious.
Through their discussion the panellists thus developed a well thought-out conceptualisation of hope rooted in their personal beliefs and professional experiences. Collectively, the panel saw hope as a phenomenon that motivates proactive action, laying somewhere between belief and expectation. This feeling is at once incredibly grand and markedly humble. Hope is ultimately sourced from a belief in something bigger than ourselves. This might be: one or more deities; a religious, spiritual, or ideological faith; a shared national consciousness; or a moment of communal unity. These things transcend personal experience and imagination and demand up to envisage a more perfect reality for ourselves and others. But in terms of our day-to-day lived experience, hope is maintained through a succession of seemingly small and even fleeting victories - one more blood donation, an extra plantation established, another court victory. These direct experiences and person-to-person interactions provide essential support to our belief in something bigger. They act as evidence to justify our vision of an improved reality and provide us with the strength and resolve necessary to work towards that imagined reality.