¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 What I am seeking, then, is generosity as a habit of mind, a conversational practice. But in suggesting as I did in the last paragraph that such generosity is understood as a key value within the academy, I am suddenly faced with two pitfalls. On the one hand, treating generosity as a value risks reducing a practice to a platitude, something we can all happily claim to espouse and yet do very little to enact. And worse, the abstraction that occurs in treating generosity as a value muddies the concept, drawing it into close association with a host of other terms that I do not mean to invoke.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Many of these terms, these values, are good ones, and many of them are values that we share, or at least that we aspire to share. But being values, they are double-edged: they are the terms through which we represent the best of what we wish to be, but they pose as universals when they are often very distinctly local. The value of these values seems self-evident to those who share them, but they are too easily wielded as weapons against others. They evade clear definition, relying on know-it-when-we-see-it assumptions, without fully questioning who the we is or what position we must be in in order to see it the way we do. These values, however valuable, have origins and histories and contingencies, all of which can too easily disappear behind assumed universals rather than insisting on our examination. And we must be willing to scrutinize those values, perhaps especially when we engage with those who may understand them to mean something quite different from what we expect. The challenge of shared values, after all, is precisely that they might not be shared, that they might result from assumptions that are far more local than we realize. (One such value, which I’ll explore further in a later chapter, is that of the public good itself: that there should be such a thing feels so self-evident to many of us that it’s shocking to run across others who find that very concept to be meaningless at best, and an imposition on their sense of liberty at worst.)
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Perhaps we might see the problem in attempting to establish a set of shared values by looking at something like civility. In an ideal world, we might hold civility up as a kind of aspirational community standard; it would be great to inhabit a world, or even a campus, where everyone interacted with mutual kindness and respect. But in actual practice, the term “civility” takes on a disciplinary force. It has repeatedly been used as a blunt instrument with which to quiet dissent and protest where they quite legitimately arise. And in those moments we have come to see that there are vast differences in our understanding, even within the academic community, much less between that community and the surrounding public, of what civility means and how it should best be enacted. So while civility is a quality I value—I would be very happy if we were able to conduct all our discussions and disagreements in what I think of as a civil fashion—demanding that we behave according to my understanding of civility runs the risk of reinforcing inequities between those who already get to speak and those who are expected to sit respectfully and listen passively.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Similarly, in talking about generosity, I do not mean to invoke the range of positive values it brushes up against, values that might be imagined to make us all a bit nicer to one another, such as optimism or even hope. Personally I am a bit prone toward optimism, though that position has been sorely challenged by recent circumstances. But there is perfectly good reason in today’s world not to feel so rosy about things. Many aspects of that world are in fact getting demonstrably worse, and some things show little sign of being salvageable at all. And in the face of such circumstances, the need to put on a happy face is both counterproductive and insulting. Barbara Ehrenreich describes the peculiarly American requirement that we be unflaggingly optimistic as “driven by a terrible insecurity” (12), and explores the ways our imperative toward positive thinking works to defuse and deflect critical attention to issues of inequity and social injustice. In this way optimism, like civility, can too readily shift from an aspirational value to a disciplinary standard used to cudgel the dissatisfied back into line.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Hope, perhaps? In the face of current events and forecasts, I find myself clinging to hope, and not entirely without reason. Authors including Rebecca Solnit have compellingly explored the necessary tie between hope and action: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act…. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand” (19). Hope is, in Solnit’s sense, not the optimistic sense that all will be fine regardless of what we do; hope cannot stand on its own as a form of wishful thinking. Similarly, for Krista Tippett, hope is “a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be” (251). Hope is in this sense not blind, not passive, but instead linked to action, and in fact that which compels the action.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 But other activist authors, and in particular several authors writing about the black experience in America, have explicitly disavowed such hope. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, has described hope as “specious,” and has written powerfully about his inability to comfort his distraught son by telling him that everything “would be okay.” Rather than attempting to give him hope, he tells him instead “that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it” (13-14). Hope, for Coates, denies the all of it, seeking instead some better world that for too many does not, and will not, exist. Tressie McMillan Cottom has likewise argued that hope is an alibi too often used to disclaim the reality not just of continuing marginalization and oppression but of the ways they are reinforced, rather than dismantled, by some forms of activism. McMillan Cottom points to a “nomenclature problem” at the heart of the disagreement: “When white allies want us to be hopeful what they really mean is that they require absolution in exchange for their sympathies. And, when black people say that they are plenty hopeful we tend to mean that our hope is tempered by a deep awareness of how thin is the veneer of white civility” (“Finding Love”). Hopelessness, for both Coates and McMillan Cottom, is not an act of giving up, but instead a deeper resistance, a recognition of the world as it is, a knowledge that the world has long persisted in not changing and indeed may never change, but that you have to make your way in it anyhow.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 These two positions on hope are not reconcilable, and yet they not only can but must coexist. On the one hand, for Solnit and Tippett, hope is necessary to begin the process of engagement, to inspire action; hope is the grounds, for those taking up the political, for belief that such action might have an effect. On the other hand, for Coates and McMillan Cottom, those who have been born into opposition rather than coming to it as a choice have little reason to expect change, and so must rely upon their hopelessness as the site of an ongoing requirement not just to resist but to persist. Where for Solnit hope is “the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding” (40), for McMillan Cottom there is no not-knowing what comes next. What comes next is what has always come next, if in slightly different forms. Hope in this landscape—and particularly hope’s fragility—becomes a potential distraction from the work required. In that sense hope, the belief that something new could happen, is born of privilege.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I present this disagreement not to suggest that those of us inclined to it should abandon hope; in fact, I tend to believe that those of us who have the privilege of hope must use it in whatever way we can on behalf of those who cannot. There are things, after all, that we should require of ourselves that we should never, ever, demand of others. Rather, that people who in many ways inhabit the same universe—the progressive public intellectual landscape of the early twenty-first century United States—nonetheless experience that universe with radical differences, points to the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of arriving at a set of shared values. But that is not to embrace despair or to endorse giving up in the face of it. Junot Díaz points to Jonathan Lear’s concept of “radical hope,” the will to continue working toward a future that seems unimaginable, arguing that it may provide “our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible.” Ezekiel Kweku, from a slightly different perspective, focuses on the possibilities that lie just beyond despair:
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 There is no shame in arriving at despair. It’s human nature. But you must keep going and find the place beyond it. And when you reach that place, you fight not because you are guaranteed to win, or even have a chance of winning. In fact, losing might be inevitable. You continue to fight, even in the face of the inevitability of defeat, because it is right and it is good. The place beyond despair is not hope, exactly, but it is a place from which you may draw nearly unlimited will, because you are no longer afraid of losing.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 7 Whether we individually embrace hope as a compelling force toward positive political action or despair as the ground on which endurance and resistance can be built is less a matter of education or priorities or a correctness of perspective—the kinds of things one can be argued into—than it is a matter of something much more basic: who we are, where we have been, what we have experienced. Recognizing that all of these most fundamental differences create deep challenges in establishing a set of shared values is the necessary beginning, however paradoxically, of the process of establishing that set of values. That process will likely never be successfully completed. But only by attending carefully to the ways that others define and describe the world and asking how we might be called upon to shift our own perspectives can we begin to establish the ground for continuing our conversation. That is, as I have been in this chapter, and as scholars always are in their own projects, we are called upon in developing a practice of generous thinking to begin by working toward the possibility of a shared vocabulary.