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On hope and agency.

On hope and agency

Hope is when you are hoping for something.
Agency is when you are in a position to influence whether or not it happens.

Hope can reinforce agency, assuming you have some to start with.

If you literally have no agency, then whether or not you have hope is immaterial, because by definition you are in no position to influence the outcome anyway. Otherwise, hope motivates you to exercise the influence you do have in a way that makes the desired outcome more likely, not least by acting to acquire more influence.

So where does this idea that hope actually UNDERMINES agency come from? Why do we read so often that hope is a drug that keeps us addicted to ineffective activism, or that it implies a LACK of agency?

I think there are two explanations.

One is that sometimes we use the word “hope” as an expression of fear rather than desire. We say “I hope she’s OK” to express fear that she might not be. “I hope nothing bad has happened” to express the fear that something bad WILL turn out to have happened. It’s an expression of helplessness, and (real or perceived) lack of agency, rather than of genuine hope.

The second is that we have hoped for things in the past and been disappointed, and now we are blaming hope. Perhaps we overestimated the agency we had, and now we think that hope is somehow responsible for the fact that we didn’t achieve our aims. Maybe we allowed our hope to blind us to our lack of agency, or motivate us to follow an approach that felt comfortable, didn’t demand much sacrifice, but was indeed ineffective.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are better off without hope. We don’t hope for anything, we just do. But I don’t buy that. Sure we can be motivated by other things than hope, but nobody goes through an entire day without hoping for something and allowing that hope to motivate them. Intention does not exist without hope, and agency cannot be exercised without intention.