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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Case Against Hopewashing

We are being pitched futures all the time. Every advertisement, every political campaign, every quarterly budget is a promise or a threat about what tomorrow could look like. And it can feel, sometimes, like those futures are happening, whether we like it or not—that we’re simply along for the ride. But the future hasn’t happened yet. We do, in fact, get a say, and we should seize that voice as much as we possibly can. But how? I’ve spent the past eight years making over 180 episodes of a podcast about the future called Flash Forward. Here, in a three-part series, are the big things I’ve learned about how to think about what’s possible for tomorrow. (This is part 1. Read part 2 and part 3.)

In June 2012, the writer Jack Shepherd published a post on BuzzFeed called “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.” It wasn’t the first time someone had made a list with this conceit, but it was the first time a list like this went truly viral. Within a week the post had over 7 million views. “It was just stratospherically successful,” Shepherd tells me. “At the time it was one of the most-, or maybe the second-most, trafficked post in BuzzFeed history.”

The list is full of classically 2012 internet meme fodder: A “picture of Chicago Christians who showed up at a gay pride parade to apologize for homophobia in the Church.” “Two Norwegian guys rescuing a sheep from the ocean.” And a poll about what Snooki, the Jersey Shore reality television star, should name her child, in which the winning option, with 92 percent of the votes, was “I really don’t care.” About a third of the items are animals either being cute, being saved, or both. 

But popular content is popular content, so Shepherd rode the high of his wildly viral post. “It was insane,” he says. “If you've been in media—when you have something go that viral, it's absolutely wild. It's a really wild experience.” And then, as you do as an internet writer, Shepherd moved on. He wrote blogs about dogs in mustaches and vegan Thanksgiving recipes, and a story that asks the pressing question: “Is the Baby Elephant Shrew the Next Big Animal?” He had mostly stopped thinking about his viral post, in search of the next one.

But about six months after “breaking the internet” with images that would supposedly restore our collective faith in fellow humans, something happened that did exactly the opposite of restoring faith in humanity: A gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 people, 20 of them children.  

That morning, the leadership at Buzzfeed decided to shut down all entertainment on the site. There would be no dogs in mustaches, no vegan recipes, no baby elephant shrews. “And so BuzzFeed, which is kind of this fun place, had become somber. Like a lot of the internet,” says Shepherd. 

But amid the devastating news that day, Shepherd noticed something surprising in the site metrics. All of a sudden, despite BuzzFeed not sharing or promoting any content even related to the post, his list of 21 things that restore your faith in humanity was trending again. And not just trending, going viral. People were seeking it out, organically, by the hundreds of thousands. By the time Shepherd left BuzzFeed in 2019, his post had 16.2 million views.

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Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that a post of 21 pictures could legitimately change someone’s  entire emotional point of view on all of humanity. But this framing—the idea of “restoring your faith in humanity”—is worth thinking about, not because these posts do or don’t work, but rather because of what their popularity reveals about our collective perception of humanity: that we’ve lost faith in it, that that faith can be restored somehow, and that people really, desperately want that restoration to happen. 

In the years since that 2012 post, this headline construction has become something of a cliché. BuzzFeed has a whole tag for “restore your faith in humanity” that includes gems like 13 Sticky Note Messages That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity. The NextWeb claims that This Blank Google Doc Restored Our Faith in Humanity. The list of 10 Things That Restored Our Faith in Humanity offered up by Listverse is full of some truly bizarre entries, including the fact that the pyramids in Egypt weren’t built entirely by slaves.

When I asked Shepherd what he’d include in a “restore your faith in humanity” list now, he said he wouldn’t write a post like this today at all. That moment of internet content is over. Ten years is an eon in internet time, culture time, and particularly internet culture time. (If you try to read the post today, all you’ll see is a wall of blank of white boxes that say “this image is no longer available.” At some point BuzzFeed stopped maintaining the images on old articles, rendering this list essentially useless, which feels, perhaps, metaphorical.) Many of today’s internet trendsetters have staked their identity in the opposite of this kind of bubbly, fun-loving content. Today’s web is full of a kind of hipster nihilism.

It can feel naive to be hopeful as we slog into the third year of a global pandemic, watch war raging across the world, and brace for the further rise of fascism and violence in our own backyards. When polled by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, 84 percent of Americans said they are either “extremely worried” or “very worried” about the nation’s future. And one of the most common questions I get asked by listeners, and the public, is about hope for the future—namely, how the hell we’re supposed to have it. 

But one does not have to have an endless supply of hope to imagine better futures. In fact, a recent set of experiments in psychology suggests that all of us are doing exactly that—thinking about how the future could be better—all the time, no matter how hopeless we might feel. 

Wherever you are, look around and pick something. It can be an object or a class of objects—your dog, cars, computers, your phone, humans as a concept, anything. Now imagine how that thing could be different. What are one, or two, or even three ways that your selected thing could be different?

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Did you imagine the thing being better? 

You probably did. This was the main experiment in the studies conducted by Adam Mastroianni, a postdoc at Columbia Business School and author of the newsletter Experimental History. The results showed that to an almost absurd degree, we all respond to that prompt by imagining things being better. 

In the study, the researchers asked people to do what you just did: imagine three ways that everyday things (phones, the economy, people’s lives, pets) could be different. Then they asked people to rank whether those changes would be better, the same, or worse than how that thing actually is. And for every single item, people imagined better things. They imagined that cars could fly and wouldn’t need gas. They imagined that their pets wouldn’t shed and wouldn’t poop on the carpet and would never die. Even abstract concepts like love, they imagined being better. “We asked, ‘How could happiness be different?’ and people were like, ‘Oh, there could be more of it,’” Mastroianni says. “They didn’t say, ‘Oh, there could be less of it.’ Or ‘Oh, it could be harder to get.’ They weren’t like, ‘Oh, like, love could be more fleeting.’ They were like, ‘No, love could be more plentiful. That's how it could be different.’” 

This effect was so strong that Mastroianni thought they had run the statistics incorrectly the first time around. They ran studies with new wording, studies with Polish people, studies in Mandarin, and every single time they got the same result. 

Their results aren’t entirely explained by optimism bias either, the effect in psychology that shows that people tend to want to believe that things will work out. The people polled did not think that it was always certain, or even likely, that their imagined improvements to their cars and pets and bank accounts would come true. And yet, they imagined them anyway.    

What does this have to do with the future? Well, we can’t create better tomorrows without first imagining what those are like. And it turns out, we’re doing that all the time, naturally. Humans seemed wired to think about how things could be better. Simply imagining better things isn’t enough. But it’s a start. And that’s a key aspect of hope—the ability to know that things are bad and still, innately, instinctually, always first be thinking about how things could be better. 

At the same time, we cannot let this instinct get the better of us. There is a real danger in sitting back and allowing the desire for hope to get in the way of progress. Today, even though posts like Shepherd’s aren’t going viral, the spirit that generated them hasn’t gone away. And today, it’s become weaponized into something more sinister. 

Instead of headlines and lists, we get our dose of positivity from something like this video

This is a Wells Fargo commercial. It’s beautifully produced, showing small businesses from around the United States—a bike shop, a pottery studio, a bowling alley, a food truck. Swelling voices echo their optimism for the future, telling the listener that now, today, they have hope. The video ends with white text that says WELCOME TO HOPE USA. The message is clear: This bank is helping us all move into a future full of possibility and opportunity. The commercial coincided with an initiative to invest in “small businesses as they emerge from the economic impact of the pandemic.” Come with us, they say, to Hope USA. 

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The ad is alluring. We’ve had a rough few years. Who doesn’t want to hope for the future? Who doesn’t want to move to Wells Fargo’s Hope USA? 

But this brand isn’t actually creating hopeful futures. Wells Fargo was a huge backer of the Dakota Access pipeline. A couple of years ago, the federal government sued the company for discriminating against Black and Latinx borrowers for home loans. They’ve been accused of not hiring people of color or women and of doing fake “diversity” interviews with candidates. For years they were one of the main financiers of prisons and immigrant detention facilities and helped fund Trump’s family separation policies. 

Since the pandemic started, I’ve seen a lot more media that trades specifically on the idea of hope. Andrew Yang’s first TV ad for his 2021 mayoral campaign in New York promised that “hope is on the way.” Instagram is full of beautifully designed graphics about how to be hopeful for you to like and share. Journalists are making YouTube series dedicated to positive takes on tech, because they “want to bring a more optimistic point of view into the conversation.” Science fiction is full of stories branded as “hopepunk” or “solarpunk,” many of which tell delightful, positive stories, often without engaging in the realities of why we need that hope in the first place. 

I’ve started calling these kinds of calls for positive thinking “hopewashing.” Like greenwashing and pinkwashing, hopewashing offers a way for corporations and people with power to make it seem like they’re making the world a better, more hopeful place, while in reality they’re doing the opposite. “We're using hope like this palliative coping mechanism to allow us to avoid confronting difficult truths and to avoid perhaps moving our own ourselves to action,” says Liz Neeley, a science communicator and founder of the firm Liminal.

When entities like Wells Fargo ask you for hope, they are asking for obedience. For trust, and complacency. To sit still and wait for the future to arrive on the backs of their lovely, highly produced advertisements and beautiful websites.

What does Hope USA look like? For Wells Fargo it looks like quiet, orderly banking. Customers who never ask questions about what’s being done with their money. There are no protests in Hope USA. Nobody is demanding better. Nobody is speaking truth to power. “It's hope is a soporific instead of hope as this bright, galvanizing, hard thing,” says Neeley. Ruha Benjamin, a professor of African American studies at Princeton and the author of the new book Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, agrees: “It’s hope as an opiate.”

Chasing this kind of druglike hope is not how we build a better future. You cannot wait to feel hopeful before you begin trying to build something better. “Our work can't be contingent simply on the feeling,” Benjamin tells me. “Are we just trying to get a high and then we come back down to business as usual? Or are we in this commitment to whatever work we're doing and then hope may or may not come into the mix at different times?” The prison abolitionist Mariam Kaba says, “Hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism … Hope is a discipline; we have to practice it every single day.”

There is a tension at the center of hope—our brains are designed to never settle, to always imagine something better. But while we can envision the better futures in our minds, we can easily look around and recognize that we’re not there yet. This tension is what corporations try to smooth by convincing us that we can simply sit back and imagine, and they’ll do the work. But much like we cannot let the work of building better futures be contingent on feeling hopeful, we can’t let corporations or those in power control the flow and definition of hope either. No company or politician can hand you hope. We have to build it in and among ourselves as a beginning, not as an end. Hope should be a place to start, not a feeling to marinate in. Not a warm bed, but the alarm that gets you out of it. We don’t need a corporation to hand us a happy future or the feeling of hope—we have everything you need to build one in us already. We just have to get to work.

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