Hope is not optimism. In a time of authoritarian politics and the rise of oppressive governance regimes worldwide, it is time to rethink what hope is, and recognize the important role hope plays in shaping democracy and protecting minority rights.
Hope is often forgotten as a key element that drives and shapes democracy and minority rights. Absent hope, lethargy and depression set in, preventing effective resistance or inclusive participation in debates on democracy and human rights. Understanding the meaning(s) of hope is therefore necessary in a time of authoritarian leaders and the epidemic of oppressive governance and realpolitik threatening liberal democracies worldwide.
We live in a new world order, multi-polar global politics, and a state of constant economic and political crisis and realpolitik, with hard power and post-truth science replacing soft power and hard facts. Hope and uncertainty are the two mindsets evoked in such times with bottomless crisis. These twin sentiments make their presence felt in life and society in the current era, not to mention in case of a life-threatening illness or starting a new family or job.
But what exactly is hope? Is it a deeper conviction, different than feel-good optimism? Is it possible to sustain hope independent from the fearsome outcomes we face in a multi-polar, authoritarian and liquid world that adapts to any and every circumstance and shape with realpolitik?
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) used the term “liquid modernity” alluding to disappearance of solid foundations that once seemed to sustain modern democratic societies. Bauman’s predictions made over two decades ago presciently capture the precariousness and uncertainty currently experienced by constant crises, mobility, shifting identities and loyalties in a multi-polar world.
Could nurturing and sustaining hope for democratic thought be a form of active resistance by minorities against global populism and authoritarianism? Sustaining hope in humanity and a just society has never been more important because the current worldwide rise of populism, hard power, xenophobia, and post-truth politics is deeply unsettling and depressing juggernauts that diminish hope for many minorities in society, to put it mildly.
The guideposts for hope can be gleaned from experiences of people who endured extreme oppression or difficult life circumstances.
Hope is not optimism
Victor Emil Frankl (1905-1997) was a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” he poignantly shared his life’s experiences and the sources of his strength for survival. Importantly, Frankl noted that people died less often from lack of food or medicine than from lack of hope, adding that forces beyond our control can take away everything we possess - except our freedom to choose how we will respond to the situation.
According to Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), poet, playwright and the Czech statesman, “hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out”.
Havel’s sentiment describes hope distinctly as a conviction deeper than optimism, and independent from externalities and fearsome outcomes one might face in the world, life and the workplace. Havel’s “certainty that something makes sense” could refer to principles and values such as the importance of universal human rights, gender equality and independent journalism in a time of global populism. Havel’s description of hope embodies a commitment to such nonnegotiable values in a liquid and ever changing external world. Most importantly, this permits a sense of dignity, clarity on priorities, and what matters universally and could stand the test of time, above realpolitik, uncertainty and everything else.
Global populism can impact solidarity in everyday life and society in subtle but significant ways. We might see our best friend or colleague become twisted like a fusilli – that variety of pasta formed into a corkscrew or helical shape – uncritically adapting to any and every populist circumstance with expediency. Yet, hope is far from the spineless and Machiavellian nature of a populist friend or fusilli personality. Hope comes from elsewhere as hinted by both Havel and Frankl, from working towards a larger principled cause, one that reaches out beyond oneself and escapes the immediate confines of the times.
And if all our efforts seem to fail, there is always Albert Camus, the French-Algerian existentialist novelist (1913 – 1960), who famously said "the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free, that your very existence is an act of rebellion", so as to reinstate our hope and resistance against global populism and its realpolitik.
Rick Blaine, a lead role played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 film classic Casablanca, has famously uttered his iconic sentence "We will always have Paris" to his former lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).
For minorities in a populist world, it is time to say “We will always have hope" because for the right to exist in life, we do not require permission from anyone.
Where to from here?
To be sure, this is not the end of times. But absent hope, we risk being sycophants to global populism and the realpolitik, akin to malleable fusilli pasta.
Hope is a new ingredient of policymaking and minority rights that offers remedies to prevent lethargy in public participation in the resistance against worldwide populism, thus helping to mature and advance democracy.
An essay on hope cannot be complete without a comment on sorrow. In the Middle East, the word "sorrow" is understood quite differently than elsewhere. After all, the Middle East geography is laden with many silenced stories and histories of minorities.
Sorrow (hüzün) feeds hope, and hope feeds sorrow in the Middle East.
Sorrow and hope are two lovers who are free and yet never depart each other.
Perhaps, this is the salient reason to remain hopeful in the current era of post-truth authoritarian regimes worldwide -- for sorrow can at once and easily transition to hope and democracy in most unexpected ways.
His research and Op-Ed analyses appeared in Nature Biotechnology, British Medical Journal, Annals of Medicine, Industrial Biotechnology, Big Data, Laws, American Journal of Bioethics, The Project Syndicate (Prague), Hürriyet Daily News (Istanbul), amongst other forums. Özdemir is a member of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and lives in Toronto, Canada.)