The Authentic Hope of Robert Jensen

Posted on May 27, 2007

Digging in and digging deep


Robert Jensen is a Texan, but probably about as far removed as you can get from the conservative cowboy that springs to mind. And that’s about as much of a compliment as you can get.

This article is a gem. Robert recounts his change from pessimism to optimism about the world, breaking up conceptions we might hold about how optimistic or pessimistic people are said to view the world.

In his younger years, he looked for answers about the state of the world, which he saw could be improved. At that time, all he found was a mish-mash idea of an immutably negative ‘human nature’ somethign that at once justified and explained-away both the evils of the world and his own “smug” place in it.

This kind of passive acceptance of the world, he says, is actually pessimistic, because it needs as a basis a negative human nature. It avoids any responsibility for our world and its future.

But something started to shift in me in 1988, when I went to graduate school and had a chance to learn more about how the world works. I started to study and realized that the world was far worse off than I had ever imagined, that the suffering was deeper, and that the problems were rooted in powerful institutions not easily dislodged.

That’s when I stopped being cynical and began to feel hopeful.
Now, that may seem counterintuitive. How did a deepening sense of the scale and scope of injustice and suffering make me hopeful? Because I started to understand that the problems of the world were not simply the product of an inherently evil and stupid human nature, though we can all be evil and stupid at times. Instead, I started to think about how systems and structures of power shape us and channel our behavior. I came to realize that the authority structures that so bend our lives are powerful and deeply entrenched. I also realized that most of the channels that the dominant culture offers us for working to make the world a better place are themselves deeply embedded in those authority structures, so that often the solutions become part of the problem. I realized that the analysis and action that could save us has to be more radical than I ever could have imagined, at a time when the culture is more depoliticized and right-wing than ever.

In a world where activists and hopeful people are often labelled as overly critical and pessimistic, Robert’s insights ought to be highly valued – and least by some they are. Best of luck to him.