I’ve learned that asking that question is a way to stop many discussions, especially those that have degenerated into complaining about whatever those in authority are doing to the rest of us. I won’t attend another meeting if I suspect that it’s just another rehearsal of how awful the boss, an administration, the right-wing, those people, whomever, or whatever, continues to be.
It doesn’t matter where people are on the political spectrum as to how they fall in the spectrum of responses to a call to do something. But it does matter to us if we really want to stop what’s hurting us.
Some people get stuck. Their response to discrimination and injustice is to continue to go on about just how awful things are.
They can teach us the history of the problem as well as how systemic it is. They can be telling the truth, but their actions often stop there.
How many books by great thinkers whom I admire are thoughtful, accurate, enlightening discourses on the history and depth of problems with the only solution offered being that it helps to understand how entrenched it all is? But understanding is never an end; we understand in order to respond to our knowledge, whether it opens us up or turns us inward.
How many have experienced this limitation in their education? The Humanities and Social Sciences in most universities fall into this category, leaving students in the depths of problems with little more than a wish of “good luck with that.”
If these liberal arts professors were to start teaching students solutions, they’d be criticized by their colleagues for not being objective, and threatened with never earning tenure or a merit raise. They’re already labeled leftists, so they must be careful not to sound biased in favor of changing anything.
Of course, if professors are in fields designed to promote the current socio-economic system, such as business, they’re expected to flow with advice. And it’s handsomely rewarded as “consulting” with higher paychecks.
Make no mistake. We need people who bring to light the latest selfish, shortsighted, bigoted strategies of the religious-political-economic-military right-wing. We need to know what’s really going on with them.
The existence of progressive talk radio and the evening lineup on MSNBC has clearly changed the discussion. It keeps, for example, the Koch brothers and the multitude of on-going attacks on labor that they bankroll in the news when mainstream media would rather move on and take the spotlight off its potential advertisers.
The popularity of blogging has given people the feeling that just sitting down at their computer and complaining about the world is doing something. It requires no face-face-to-face contact with its readers or the powers that be, and often spreads a blogger’s cynicism and hopelessness.
Online petitions continue to proliferate even though we’re not always sure that they get us anywhere. And though I’m just happy someone is doing something, anything, such as an online petition, the process can become an easy substitute for the legwork of being an agent of change.
Then there are those of us who turn the issues on each other. Instead of the real change work of fighting the oppressors and the powers that dominate us, we pick on those of us who are doing something because it doesn’t represent the purer view of how the victims of oppression should act that we espouse.
This is both personal and political. Getting stuck in these ways without helping all of us with what it takes to change things often arises out of a feeling of hopelessness. And here is a key point: hopelessness is, after all, a secondary emotion that covers deeper fear, confusion, and hurt.
Acting out of hopelessness and cynicism is not personally healing. It instead spreads one’s own feelings of hopelessness to others, as a substitute for confronting the root, underlying personal hopelessness.
Hopelessness and cynicism are easier to feel than the terror that it’s going to get worse for me personally, that what’s going on in the world is going to attack me. They substitute for admitting to ourselves that we don’t have the answers or the power to change things.
They result from feeling isolated in the struggle while they serve to promote that very loneliness. They fester because of a lack of healthy community or in groups dedicated to building monuments to shared hopelessness and cynicism.
No matter how connected, online can be a lonely place. No matter how many people are out there, or how popular ones blog is, these cannot substitute for voice-to-voice, face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder participation in a community strategizing and fighting together to promote, control, or prevent change.
Hopelessness is a real feeling. Hope, however, is a choice that must be remade every time things look worse.
So, want hope in the midst of what’s going on, instead of cynicism and despair? Listen to the voices of those who have won change when the odds seemed stacked against them.
Paul Rogat Loeb’s The Impossible Will Take a While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (2004) has collected many of these voices. “Hope,” Loeb quotes one writer, “is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
And listen to Alice Walker’s poem, “Once” (1968):
It is true –
I’ve always loved
Like the black young
At a white
beach (in Alabama)
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.