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The despair is stronger than hoped

Nicholas Agar
Nicholas Agar is a New Zealand-based philosopher. The philosopher Agar is from New Zealand and writes a lot about the consequences of new technology for humans. His latest book is How to be Human in the Digital Economy.
OPTIMISM / By taking positive ideas more seriously, we can give them the same attention that toxic ideologies receive today.


No matter where, whether in the media, in the rhetoric of politicians or in discussions on Internet – one finds a bias against bad ideals and ideas. I don't mean to imply that most of us support racism, misogyny or homophobia, but we give them effect. We believe that extremist ideals must be fought because we implicitly consider them strong enough to attract new followers and infectious enough to spread.

At the same time, we tend to take positive ideas less seriously, we instinctively believe that it is neither possible to make good progress towards a zero carbon economy or to close the wealth gap between rich and poor. Policies proposed to achieve such ethical goals are considered unrealistic. Politicians who support such a policy are viewed with distrust or rejection. Our partiality means that we attach to the villains the motivating power of idealism instead of utilizing it for our common good.

magic Dust

During the election in NewIn 2017, many commentators criticized the optimistic vision of Labor leader Jacinda Ardern and called it "magic dust".

When U.S. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was contacted by schoolchildren who wanted her to support the "Green New Deal" legislation, she dismissed the claim as unrealistic: "The resolution will never be approved by Senateand you can tell it to those who sent you here, "was the answer.

We believe that extremist ideals must be fought because we implicitly consider them strong enough to attract new followers and infectious enough to spread.

Think of the white nationalist who killed 51 people at the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand in March last year: His stated goal was to reverse "The Great Replacement" (replacing white Europeans by Africans and people from Middle East), in addition, he argued that the action would "save the environment." It is clearly absurd.

Still, when a 19-year-old killed one person and wounded three others in the attack on a synagogue in California in April last year, we turned our attention to the fact that the 19-year-old may have referred to the Christchurch shooter manifest Online. In both cases, we openly acknowledge that these men are the ideological offspring of the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

Extremist ideals

Obviously, we still have to worry about extremist ideals spreading online. But if we are to take the persuasive power of such "influencers" seriously, we should do the same with positive ideals, even if they initially seem absurd.

In Ardern's "magic dust" there was a hope to erase the students' debts and reduce them child poverty. Taking the goals seriously can give them the same power of influence that we already attach to toxic ideologies. If we stop rejecting the goals immediately, we can start thinking about how they can actually be achieved.

Not all moral ideals are achievable. Imagine a young medical student dreaming of curing cancer. Towards the end of her career, she is at the forefront of a revolutionary treatment of acute leukemia. Technically, her dream wasn't realized – but would she have been able to contribute just as much if she hadn't embraced the dream of curing cancer?

Early in his prime ministerial term, Ardern promised to halve child poverty in ten years. Her electoral opponent, Bill English of the ruling National Party, long rejected any goal child poverty on the grounds that it was difficult to measure. Eventually, he committed himself to a relatively modest goal.

If Ardern retains the prime minister post for ten years to come, child poverty is unlikely to be halved by the end of the period. Her promise will be broken. However, like the failed cancer researcher, Ardern will be able to look back on efforts that have made a measurable difference.


That to reduce child poverty or coping with climate change requires extensive cooperation and, to a certain extent, individual sacrifices. The problem is that it is easier for us to imagine a technological solution to complex problems than it is to have confidence that politicians and citizens will come together on a common cause. And since we regard technological barriers as superior, we have greater determination and tendency to be more tolerant if something fails.

For example: Although the astronauts on Apollo 1 – Edward H. White II, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee – killed in fire, complied with NASA John F. Kennedy's deadline to land on the moon. Similarly, we silently cheer on SpaceX boss Elon Musk as he fantasizes about colonizing the planet Mars.

We should treat ourselves to optimistic ideas and fantasies – at least they usually bear some fruit.

Yet we cannot expect a generous billionaire to develop a new one technology that will save us from climate change. Only genuine cooperation can solve such problems.

Common ideals. Gathering on common ideals can be an effective motivator, regardless of the moral content of the ideal. Many in the first generation of Soviet revolutionaries sincerely believed in the vision of a communist #utopia, free from human exploitation. They made the necessary personal sacrifices to make it happen.

Not so long ago we perceived Neo-Nazis as hopelessly lost. Their occasional marches were considered comical, presented in the media with the same priority as the pensioner's report, which willed the entire fortune of his cat. Now we must take the neo-Nazis seriously; In fact, we have to worry about what sacrifices they can bring to their evil cause.

Unfortunately, we have no choice but to accept that their ideals have a perverse effect, though nor should we ignore the possible power of positive ideals – as a driver of cooperation and moral progress. We should treat ourselves to some of our most optimistic ideas and fantasies – at least they usually bear some fruit. And a little fruit is better than no fruit.

Translated by Iril Kolle

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