To be a college student in this day and age is a weird, unique experience. We are in the middle of a pandemic, facing a looming election and constantly on the brink of a revolution. Wealth inequality is more extreme than at any time since the French Revolution, and we will likely enter a job market in the throes of a recession.
But we haven’t sat idly by. We have been forced to take a look at how society fails, especially in the ways it fails BIPOC, and have taken action to address and voice the disparities. Protests have been a constant occurrence throughout our time in supposed isolation, and they haven’t stopped or lost momentum — even if it might seem that way. We have begun to take matters into our own hands and envision a future different from the present we’ve inherited.
With all this talk of change, it’s hard not to be hopeful for the future. There are good deeds happening all around us, and I think it can be seen most fruitfully in the eruption of support for social justice movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and so many others. We can see tangible support for change, and it has carried with it perhaps the best possible side effect — renewed hope. But lately, I’ve come to think that being hopeful is a side effect of youth and makes us naive in ways no one talks about.
I would know. This, coming from a girl who previously confessed her wishes for magic and unicorns, seems like a drastic change in personality, but I promise, my exposition is not as grim as it sounds.
One thing I’ve learned in my time as a rhetoric major is that the human language is a semiological function that serves to give form to abstract concepts, so that we may relate common ideas to one another on a common plane. To use words is to convey what you mean and how you view the space you are in.
Over time, we’ve come to use language in evermore quickly changing ways, letting our language grow with society and its changing times. Put simply, the same words point to different ideas as society goes on, and that’s a good thing. To evolve is to progress, and I think that’s the goal in life.
But when we talk about a word such as “hope,” whose meaning (which is a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular outcome) has stayed the same since the beginning of its use, it has morphed a new form of itself and taken on a new layer of meaning that has come to signify something else in the spectacle of modern politics and media.
It’s perverted most exceptionally in the political sphere, where it signifies a seemingly positive subject that actually subtly incapacitates the unsuspecting proletariat. Instead of its original meaning to signify a feeling that one has, it has now become an invitation to political and social inaction. Far from “hope” compelling action, our modern political rhetoric has turned “hope” into an excuse for complacency.
Among the people, hope isn’t a bad thing. It rallies many to a cause and raises conversations previously considered settled, reinstalling the need for radical movement. But when these movements become overtly political, the rhetoric of hope, in turn, becomes a political tool, appeasing and appealing to the ideals of the movements without threatening any actual change. We need to be aware of the effect that it has on movements and see through the farce being propagated.
Hope is used in political campaigns primarily to pacify the masses: Politicians promise us change while pandering to the white supremacist’s institutions that keep us oppressed. And it works. It becomes a promise with no intention of being fulfilled, all while keeping us on the edge of our seats, expecting something good to come — but it never does.
We saw this in 2008, with the stylized campaign poster depicting Barack Obama over the bold “HOPE” that represented one of the three main slogans of his campaign, the other two being “change” and “progress.” Using the words “hope” and “change” — implying some deep, fundamental reform — signaled an expectation of political action that, as we saw, never actually came to be.
We’re still faced with the murder of Black bodies at the hands of structurally racist institutions such as the police force, and although met (currently and formerly) with significant Republican opposition, the limp idea of hope seems to be the Obama era’s sole lingering legacy. The conflation of hope with optimistic inaction has changed the way we view the term and, unconsciously, use it as a way to express our wants for the future without committing to working to bring them to fruition.
If we look at the use of “hope” in a more recent context, it connotes complacency even more dangerously. Even in social justice movements, as the performative allyship continues and many return to their everyday lives, there remains the conversation of hope but with a diminishing commitment to the necessary action.
I think when you’re young, hope is a driving factor in everything that you do — it’s almost like dreaming: Life is an infinite realm of possibility. But if you want to translate those dreams into reality, you have to wake up. Hope is only appropriate when words are made manifest through action. And when you’re actively pursuing a social and political goal, hope, it turns out, is the most insignificant step. It’s just the beginning.