Hope and despair exist on a spectrum — here's how to move toward hope

Hope is not as soft or as passive an emotion as we think. Here's how 'The Shawshank Redemption' can teach us the philosophy and function of hope as a response to possibility.

Andrew Chignell: When you start talking about hope some people think it’s immediately a kind of Pollyanna-ish thing. Like: “Oh, I should be hopeful,” or it’s kind of a greeting card sentiment. You go kind of doe-eyed and start thinking soft thoughts about how we should all be hopeful in one another. And, of course, there are some important things to be said in favor of those kinds of things, but we think of hope as also an extremely difficult and important and foundational sort of state that can be discussed in ways that aren’t so saccharine.

One of the interesting things that philosophers talk about with respect to hope is, of course, its rationality. So there’s a sense in which you can’t hope for everything. You can wish for lots of things for which you can’t hope. I can wish that the Bears won the Super Bowl last year, but I can’t hope that they won the Super Bowl last year because we know that they didn’t. And so it seems almost like you’re misusing the word to say, “I hope that they won last year.” Or, “I hope that the weather was different yesterday than it was.” So there’s a kind of semantic content that suggests that there are rationality constraints on hope which philosophers try to look at and analyze.

There’s a kind of orthodox account—people call it the orthodox account because most people share it—that says that hope involves at least desiring something and believing that it’s possible. So in this case you wouldn’t believe that the weather yesterday could be different than it was and so you wouldn’t believe that’s possible, and so you can’t really hope for it. So that’s that condition that’s constraining the rationality of hope. And then there’s this kind of debate about what further conditions might be required.

One thought experiment that people have discussed frequently is that of 'The Shawshank Redemption'. So this is a Stephen King short story that was turned into a film. You have two characters, Andy and Red. Both of them really desire something: to get out of prison. Both of them regard it as possible, it’s explicit in the story and in the film, but somehow one character, Andy, is hopeful and says he’s hopeful and that he’s acting in such a way as to make it come about even if he thinks it’s extremely unlikely. And the other character, Red, says he can’t allow himself to hope. The fear of disappointment is too great and will crush him. So they both meet those conditions. It’s something they really desire and it’s something they believe to be possible, and yet one hopes and the other despairs.

So cases like this make people think we need some other kind of condition to really explain the difference between hope and despair. And that’s where some of the debate is at the moment, trying to find this elusive third condition. And different people have different things they want to add to the orthodox conception. My own favored approach, which I’m in the middle of writing up, is what I call the focus or attention account of hope. So it basically says something like the difference between hope and despair is the extent to which you’re focusing on the very slim odds of the thing coming about or whether you’re focusing on the fact that it’s possible—or that you take it to be possible.

So if you’re focused on the thing as a possibility, under the aspect of its possibility, if you want, then you’re hoping for it. If you’re focusing on the fact that it’s incredibly unlikely and the odds are such long-shot odds then you’re despairing of it. So you can desire it in the same way. You can believe that it’s possible in the same way. And it’s this focus that really makes the difference between hope and despair. It might even be a kind of spectrum thing where you can move back and forth. The focus might be under your control sometimes, other times given the circumstances or the strength and the desire it might not always be under your control.
So I also kind of talk a little bit about the way a certain kind of mindfulness training could lead us to be more hopeful people, cultivating the virtue of hope by learning how to focus on something under the aspect of its possibility rather than allowing our focus or attention to always drift towards the fact that it’s so unlikely.

You can even hear this in the way that someone might say something about what they hope for or despair of. So in the Andy and Red case, Andy might say, “I know that it’s really unlikely but at least it’s possible,” and sort of focus on the possibility. That’s the hopeful sort of approach. And Red might say, “I know that it’s possible, but it’s really unlikely.”
Same desire, same estimation of the probabilities but you can even hear in the way it’s stated a kind of difference in attitude that I take to be the essential difference between hope and despair.
So one more locus of discussion is the relationship between hope, optimism, and action. I think a lot of people regard hope in a way as unserious because it gets detached from action in a certain way. So hope is something that you do when you can’t do anything else. It’s the kind of curse that is left in Pandora’s box, because you still have it even though there’s nothing else you can do with respect to achieving the goal in question. “I’m just hoping for it. It seems possible but there’s not much I can do. I’m just sort of passively hoping.”

That obviously seems like a bit of a character of the way in which hope might actually work. And so we’re curious, and people in both psychology and sociology, other social sciences as well as philosophers and religious studies people, in our project, think about the way in which hope underwrites action, hope manifests itself in action, hope is the result of action. So agency and hope is a really interesting set of issues that we think is underdeveloped.

Hope's reputation is so good, it's bad. People hear the word and dismiss it as Hallmark, doe-eyed, emotional fluff. But hoping is not the same as dreaming or wishing: it is constrained by rationality, and unlike fantasy the possibility has to exist, even if the odds are slim. As Professor Andrew Chignell explains: you can wish the weather had been nicer yesterday, but you can't hope it. Hope is a spectrum of how you react to possibility, and it runs all the way to despair. Here, Chignell explains his latest research in philosophy, mindfulness, and uses The Shawshank Redemption to illustrate how closely hope and despair are related. This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which has supported interdisciplinary academic research into under-explored aspects of hope and optimism. Discover more at hopeoptimism.com.

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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