This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.   Rebecca Solnit Hope in the Dark

Although first published in 2004, the above quote eloquently captures the tenor of the times. Holding both visions can be challenging. For many the shadows block out the light bringing with it a myriad of negative emotions such as hopelessness, despair, and/or blind rage. For social workers who interact with those most vulnerable to draconian policies and global trends there are challenges on many levels: in the provision of services, the magnitude of suffering, and their own struggles. How are we to muster the energy and vision to participate in and generate transformative movements? How do we counter “the death of the social sphere, evisceration of the welfare state, the broad appeal of right-wing populism, and the destruction of the formative public institutions and civic culture which produced the crucial democratic values of solidarity, trust, compassion, economic equality, and most of all, a sense of ethical and social responsibility?” (Giroux, 2020).

One reason for despair in these times may be our inability to engender or maintain a sense of hope. According to Jonathan Lear (2008), this comes about because of our inability to imagine our culture’s own devastation. Getting beyond this, according to Lear, requires “radical hope” – to envision possibilities that go beyond what the dominant culture tells us is possible. Lear expounds, “What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.  [It] anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.” Finally, he encourages appropriating the uncertainty of the future as motivation for working towards what may seem impossible.

To act on these possibilities requires not only hope but courage. That is, courage to understand that we need new concepts to imaginatively address the challenges facing us in novel ways, a position that aligns well with social constructionist thought.

Clearly, the scope of these issues requires responses on multiple levels. For example, Solnit asserts that “changes in ideas and values [can] result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media.” Similarly, in the educational realm, Gannon (2020) avers that engaging in acts of hope by imagining a better future “takes shape out of our students’ critical refusal to abide by the limitations of the present.” (p. 5).

These notions of imagining transforming movements, pursuing counter-cultural actions, developing new concepts, and embracing uncertainty are congruent with social constructionist and related perspectives. Additionally, they can move us beyond individualistic notions of hope “that highlights a person working toward their own future goals and/or coping with an illness or state of distress” and towards more relational views that envision “new forms of collective flourishing” (Lear, 2008) and ways to address societal problems.

In addition to the above questions, here are some suggestions for other questions your dialogue group might wish to discuss.

  • What are your thoughts on this view of radical hope? Can we imagine our own culture’s devastation and transcend what the culture tells us is possible?
  • What has been your experience with hope during these times?
    How have you tried to address hope in your own life and the lives of those you work with, instilling and/or maintaining it?
  • How do you understand the role of courage as related to radical hope?
  • It seems that many efforts (e.g., science) are directed toward diminishing a sense of uncertainty, what some might call a modernist rather than a postmodern ethos. Are there ways to embrace rather than fear or attempt to control uncertainty that might facilitate envisioning possible futures?
  • How can we, or have we, used social constructionist and related frameworks in the service of radical hope?

References

Kenneth Gannon, Radical hope: A teaching manifesto.  West Virginia University Press, 2020.
Henry Giroux (2020). Trump Ousted. The Spirit of Insurgent Democracy Is Rising. https://truthout.org/articles/trump-ousted-the-spirit-of-insurgent-democracy-is-rising/
Jonathan Lear (2008). Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Harvard University Press.

Rebecca Solnit (2016). Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. 3rd edition. Haymarket Books.

 

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